Bishop John Richards reflects on the job he is about to relinquish
IT WAS A FEW DAYS before Pentecost. I woke up to a glorious sunny morning and went 100 yards to the local parish church to say the Divine Office and have a period of meditation. A country church on a summers morning is an ideal setting for prayer. I greatly value this particular facility. There is a certain irony in my presence in the church at Church Leigh.
In the early 19th century the incumbent was Richard Baggot who held this church in plurality with being Bishop of Oxford. Baggot is a well known Staffordshire name and presumably he came from these parts. He no doubt held it in plurality with the See of Oxford in order to augment the income of a post Reformation See. There is a photograph of him in the vestry, but one wonders how much time he actually ever spent in Church Leigh.
Richard Baggot was the Bishop who so roundly condemned Newman after the publication of Tract 90 and I have therefore felt my ministry here to be a certain act of reparation for the treatment Newman received.
After breakfast I looked at the post, put on tape a number of letters to be typed by the admirable typist who is standing for the time being. I left in good time in order to go for a confirmation at 11.00am at a church in Walsall.
One of the hazards of this post is to know exactly how much time to leave in order to reach a particular church. The M6 is recognised to be one of the most congested roads in Europe and one therefore has to leave good margins. On this particular morning the traffic was not dense and I arrived at Walsall in good time. This church has been presided over by its present incumbent for more than 25 years. He is a wonderful parish priest who has engendered great affection amongst all those to whom he has served.
The church is a very attractive modem building completed just before the last war. Attached to it is a residential home for old people presided over by two sisters from the Community of the Holy Name. The church is a model of how a church can best serve its community. There is a day centre for the elderly and many other community activities take place there. At the same time the church is a centre of devotion, and all the activities of the church centre upon the Eucharist.
On this particular morning I confirmed twelve elderly people who are either resident in the home or attend the day centre. They have been largely prepared for confirmation by a woman lay reader who has a teaching ministry. There are five lay readers attached to this particular church and it is a model of lay ministry. They are all well trained and approach their task in the most professional manner and engender confidence amongst those whom they seek to serve.
The twelve elderly people were brought to the front row of the church to be confirmed as many of them are far too old to kneel before a bishop. There was a remarkably large congregation for a week-day morning, largely drawn from other elderly people who attend the church and also including a sprinkling of younger people who are free to be present. The Eucharist and the confirmation constituted a very joyful event and everyone was so delighted that these people have, at the end of their lives, come to be confirmed.
When I looked at the confirmation Register after the service, I observed that nine of the twelve people had been baptised before the end of the First World War. In every sense it was a remarkable confirmation, and very unusual in having so many elderly people gathered together at once. It was clear from conversation after the service that for many of these elderly people there had long been an aspiration to be confirmed and now at long last it had been achieved. The church wardens and the leading lay folk in this church exude a deep sense of joy and care, and I left the church feeling that it is truly a centre of excellence.
I returned to Church Leigh after doing a little bit of personal business in Stafford. It is not easy to combine personal business with the ministry of the church. After a late lunch I then conducted a Ministerial Review with a priest in sector ministry. He has an extremely demanding task in what many would consider to be daunting circumstances. Nevertheless this particular priest was full of enthusiasm for his task and in particular rejoices in the excellent relations he enjoys with clergy from other denominations.
Unlike the many so called ecumenical experiments this one is truly ecumenical in that it comprises not only the nonconformist ministers but also the local Roman priest. It was a great joy that, on the last occasion that I conducted a confirmation for this particular priest, the Roman priest read the Gospel.
I then travelled to a church in North Derbyshire which has very recently passed all three Resolutions. I enjoyed a delightful meal at the vicarage where the churchwardens from both parishes that this particular priest serves were present. Part of the joy of being a bishop is to be able to relax on these occasions with clergy and laity and to enjoy the fun that the catholic faith engenders.
After this meal we proceeded to church in good time in order that the Office could be said and there could be a suitable period of quiet preparation before the Eucharist. One of the most significant features of the Eucharist was a short sketch performed by three young people based upon Peter proclaiming the Gospel to a hostile audience immediately after Pentecost. The three young people had learnt their parts perfectly and their contribution greatly added to the ministry of the Word. I reflected how healthy it was that these young people had their particular part to play in this Eucharist, but at the same time they were fully part of it. How much more satisfactory this is than special youth services divorced from the normal worship of the church!
A number of the local clergy were present to concelebrate with their bishop and the whole service radiated a sense of joy and fellowship, and above all unity of purpose. This would be my last service at this particular church, and the priest and I exchanged greetings after the service. This priest has been in this particular cure for approximately three years, and I felt he had achieved a great deal in that time.
As I motored home through countryside which reflects all the beauty of spring I felt how fortunate I am to have been a bishop ministering to such marvellous people over the past four years.
There has been a certain amount of discussion recently about the Act of Synod. I would want to say that the Act of Synod more than justifies itself in enabling such excellent parishes as these served by most devoted priests and laity to be able to continue to play a lively part in the Church of England.
John Richards is Bishop of Ebbsfleet.