//ROBBIE LOW: THE INTERVIEW

ROBBIE LOW: THE INTERVIEW

CANON EDWIN BARNES

The long wait and feverish speculation are over. On Thursday 20th July, in Westminster Abbey, the third Provincial Episcopal Visitor will be consecrated. He is Fr Edwin Barnes, Principal of St Stephens House, Oxford. During the months leading up to the announcement some extraordinary names had been suggested but the safe money had long been on Fr Barnes and the announcement was greeted with relief rather than surprise when it finally came.

On a warm late June afternoon I caught up with him in the Common Room of St Stephen’s House just as the daily house meeting was concluding. The discussion would have brought a wave of nostalgia to anyone familiar with institutional life – it was about the standard of the food!

The essentials dealt with we retired to the study.

Fr Barnes is a short, chunky and energetic man with a warm smile and eyes that seldom move off target. He speaks quickly and to the point with a minimum of elaboration but with no sense of being abrupt. I asked him, first of all

Where did your life begin?

“I was born in Weymouth in 1935. My dad was in the Navy so my first ten years were itinerant – anywhere from Scotland to Malta.”

Was it a christian family?

“Church respecting would be a better description. I went to Sunday School but they didn’t attend until later. In the end it was a case of the child bringing the parents and although my mother had a protestant cough over the incense they soon got into it.”

Who influenced you?

“Fr. Dan Wood, St Thomas, Keyham. A great man. Got all the children involved in Holy Communion, candles, processions – wonderful. He taught me that the Church of England was catholic and the centrality and importance of the parish church. It was there that I had my first inkling of the call to the priesthood.”

What did you enjoy doing as a schoolboy?

“Scouting – hiking over Dartmoor. I liked tennis and swimming.”

Not a team player then?

“Not necessarily. Still I don’t want to give too much away! In the ministry the buck stops with the priest. You need to learn that pretty quickly. You are responsible and its no good running to the Bishop every five minutes to check.”

And at school? What were you good at?

“I was good at having rows. I got chucked out of physics and then infuriated the science department by getting a history scholarship.”

Would you say you’re a combative person?

“I’m just a jack of all trades – you need to be in the priesthood and priesthood takes a lot of learning.”

We are both aware that he has not answered the question and there is a momentary hiatus broken by a beatific smile. Barnes reputation is as a straight talking, no nonsense battler whose temperament can be ballistic but who does not bear a grudge and is a good man to have in your corner.

What next?

“National Service. I was a pilot officer in the R.A.F. There was a good padre who sensed my vocation and told me not to muck around but get on with it. So I went to CACTM and was one of the few who arrived at Oxford knowing what I wanted to do.”

Where did you train?

“Cuddesdon. Having done a theology degree there was little academic work – just God’s own exams (GOEs) and I spent a good deal of time on Church History, the Tradition, the Fathers, silence, the common life of prayer. Of course theological colleges have autonomy now so these subjects can suffer.”

At this point there is an exchange of disapproving views on a college which allows students to avoid church history between A.D. 90 and 1870 except for a token dip into the Reformation.

Did you keep friends from Cuddesdon?

“Yes, several. John Hughes was a great friend and a huge influence.”

In answer to my next question, Fr Barnes produced a photograph off the shelf. The staff team of his title parish, St Marks, Portsmouth, consisted of seven curates and a nun. He was there for four years and “…came up with every bright idea that someone had before, made the usual mistakes and remember it as a time of laughter and friendship.”

During that time he met and married Jane, a teacher from a congregationalist family. Clergy were not allowed to marry for three years and when you did, you resigned. Fortunately Jane had a flat in the vicarage and they married and stayed on for a year.

When Jane became an Anglican her family threatened to throw her out but Fr. Douglas Feaver and his wife had offered to take her in. Feaver is remembered with great affection in the Barnes household.

His second curacy was at All Saints, Woodham – “the catholic parish for Protestant Woking”

What was it like?

“A shed. 30 at Parish mass, 20 if they knew the Bishop was coming. The vicar was a remarkable man – got fed up with the institutional life and retired to run a pub. Wore his collar behind the bar and would absolve penitents in the snug.”

What about family?

“Nicola is 27 – a Welsh water analyst, inspecting reservoirs by helicopter and delving into sewers. Matthew is 25 and has the best job in Oxford. He is assistant manager at the Kings Arms.”

And then?

“Bishop Reindorp asked me to follow a saint, Canon Charles Allingham, at Farncombe or Godalming Without (the money) as we called it. Allingham had spent nearly all his ministry there and in plain clothes and a pipe made it a wonderful catholic church. It was a marvellous grown up village and we were there for eleven years with a string of curates.”

What prompted you to move?

“Life in the diocese became very difficult. The new bishop was more favourably disposed towards the Koran than towards Catholics and the row about the Covenant and the threatened blacklisting of opponents seriously strained relations.”

And then on to nine years at Hessle, a Crown living?

“Yes. And I am a stout defender of Crown and Patronage. They are amongst the few remaining restraints on the awful “in-grown diocese” policy so prevalent today – bishops creating clones of their own view. The freehold is vital in countering this tendency and the failed policy of centralising more and more power. I will do everything I can to defend parish clergy.”

Rumour has it you were taken to Consistory Court there.

“Yes. It was about a central altar. I survived. Won my spurs. The east Riding are great folk but give in and you’ve had it. Their response was “He’s a bit of a *!*! but at least he stuck to his guns!” Now they think it’s very beautiful and are proud of it.

There was a great team there, lay and clerical. Lay folk took Communion to the sick and prepared baptism candidates and did bereavement visiting.”

How did you come to St Stephen’s House?

“Stephen Trott (a former curate) suggested that I apply. I just went down to tell them they ought to have someone with parish experience and they gave me the job.”

This has been a time of great change and presumably there has been a decline in orthodox candidates.

“Fr Couratin, the Principal from 1936 – 62, wrote to me and told me the House changes every five years anyway. But, yes it has. The traditionalists in the house now, for example, are not young fogeys but solid married men and excellent fathers. The fall off in vocations was inevitable post `92 but, I hope, temporary. The London scheme has taken many potential candidates and, of course, orthodox candidates may have a higher mortality rate at ABM.”

Have you been compromised by training women for priesthood?

“I train everyone to the diaconate. What Bishops decide to do with them is their responsibility. Most ministry is diaconal. If you’re not a good deacon you’ll make a lousy priest.”

The establishment seem to regard the diaconate as economically unviable.

“The permanent diaconate is vital. It is the great strength of the Orthodox church for example. The economic argument is unscriptural and invalid.”

Would you like to see an orthodox theological college?

“I would love to think that there will be enough candidates to fill it and reclaim it. If this is to happen PEVs must have e key role in selection, training and ordaining them”

How do you regard this curious task of “Flying Bishop”.

“It’s rather like a personal prelature. The Archbishop is determined that we shall act across the diocese, with the goodwill of other bishops, to care for the spiritual and pastoral needs of all traditional believers. He has said that he wants to keep us in the C of E and will defend us and our people.”

What will happen to all this when the first woman bishop is consecrated in England?

“This is far from inevitable. Some bishops privately regret the decision already taken and time and experience will, I believe, see more bishops oppose further divisive development.”

Will there be a Third Province?

“It’s hypothetical. So much will have evolved by the time that becomes a real question. There may well be a substantial realignment in many areas of church life.”

Have you ever been tempted to become Roman Catholic?

“Sounds wicked! Of course – every sensible Anglican ought to face that question. When they happily ordain married men….. At present Rome is out of step with Christendom on her attitude to married priests. Remember Alcuin was the son and grandson of priests.”

Will you work with Forward in Faith Regional Deans?

“The great delight of a PEV is no organisation. The great difficulty of a PEV is no organisation. If Forward in Faith get them up and running – yes gladly.”

Some of our people are so angry with the Archbishop for dividing the church that they will question your consecration.

“I know there are many who are heavy hearted. I will be presented by Chichester and Blackburn and traditionalists bishops, including some from overseas will participate. I hope that people will listen to Athanasius’ teaching on this which acknowledges that consecrations, in these circumstances, remain valid.”

What are your views on homosexuality?

“Nearly all the priests I’ve known who have come unstuck have been married men. A guy with homosexual leanings is not necessarily a problem. But I have always made it clear that the only sexual relationship the Church recognises is between husband and wife. Evidence of anything else and they will leave the House. People here are trying to lead a chaste life. Any scandal and they are out.”

What did you make of the “Living in Sin ” report?

“At the least very foolish and probably worse. It is the last thing the C of E needed.”

What will your geographical area be?

“Eastern England, south of the Humber. The central line has yet to be drawn. And I have to be able to go into the whole area if I am to do my job and report to the Archbishop and House of Bishops. The temporary arrangements with various “options” and retired bishops and nominated suffragans smacks of terminal care rather than a serious attempt to build and encourage.”

What do you want to achieve?

“First I am asking you all to pray for me. I want to be a good pastor and teacher and encourager to all our people; to get back into the mainstream the great talent and gifts of those who have been ruthlessly marginalised over the years; to get the Catholic constituency and societies to work together for revival. There’s been too much fissiparousness! We need to sink the differences and get on with Gospel tasks and not be too prissy about it.”

And the evangelicals? There is no evangelical flying bishop.

“They must get on and pass the votes. But yes, I have had a lot to do with evangelicals in Post Ordination training, for spiritual direction and at Wycliffe and we have great common ground. Roger Beckwith is a good friend and Dick France (the outgoing Wycliffe principal) is preaching at the consecration as a sign of my seriousness about that unity in Christ.

I hope the evangelicals, Reform, etc. will invite me so I can listen to their needs and minister to them. I am at the disposal of the people. I want to listen and serve.”

On my way out I got into conversation with some ordinand dads playing with their children on the lawn. They were clearly fond of him and genuinely sorry to be losing “Barnesy” but felt that he was the man for the job. It is traditional for ordinands to moan bitterly about staff. Testimonials like this are gold dust.

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s.

2017-06-01T10:39:57+00:00 July 1995 Articles|