Robin Ellis writes an open letter to the Bishop of Ebbsfleet on his retirement
MY DEAR JOHN,
I write this before the Bristol event and other farewells. You deserve a mighty good send-off, and I am sure you will have it. You will treasure the affection of so many who will be grateful to you for what you have given them over the past five years. Very sensibly you are coming to live in the Plymouth archdeaconry (we don’t usually, it has to be said, do as well as those other parts of Devon for retirement priests) in a parish where that other doughty christian soldier named Baring-Gould exercised quite a ministry in the nineteenth century.
I hope that the change will enable you to enjoy less pressure. Being the first Bishop of Ebbsfleet has been quite a challenge, but then being the Archdeacon of Exeter for over a decade was hardly a doddle either, was it? The diocese remembers you as a priest who was entirely committed and dedicated to the gospel task, who was prepared to brook no nonsense in sorting out the difficulties of a problem, and who had both a conviction that the clergy should give of their best and a deep compassion for those who fell short of that. All these qualities you brought with you to the Ebbsfleet ministry, and the whole church has benefited from them.
You never were a push-over. I remember a meeting in London in the early 80s when we were both summoned to the inner sanctum of English Heritage, or whatever it was called at that time. Whether they were expecting two docile dignitaries from the rural sticks I know not, but they were quickly disabused of that idea, and the following half an hour when you took them all on with characteristic sharpness in debate was an experience to relish. Typically your plain speaking produced results, for thereafter you always appeared to have a better relationship with English Heritage than any other archdeacon in the C of E!
This I suspect has been your outstanding gift at Ebbsfleet. You have had to face opponents, not only with sharpness and skill, but also with Christian charity and love. All of us in the present Church of England, of whatever integrity, find ourselves within this vocation, but it is particularly focused in the episcopate, and with almost impossible emphasis in the PEV role, as the church handed it to you from the political ashes of the ’92 vote. Your contribution has been to act as spokesman for the constituency, to firm it up, to encourage its well-being which can all only be done with adroitness and persistence, and yet at the same time, to leave those at best hesitant about our position with confidence in your approach. Maybe our constituency should also pass on sincere thanks to the present Bishop of Lichfield. Certainly your working with him has been a model of mutual understanding.
I, as your future archdeacon(!) expect you to keep up your reading in Lewdown. You once described yourself as “the last of the Tractarians”, and to the extent that they assumed a scholarly, well-read, professional body of men, you were in line. Some of your book reviews, especially on the chosen ground of church history, that you gave the diocese were encouragements to the clergy to leave the administration for a moment and turn to something that would give them a sense of their Anglican roots. Your speeches in General Synod were not simply on archdeaconry matters of finances, though you were pretty good on them, but usually on defining and shaping the Anglican position in the light of an historical perspective. You would not agree with Mr. Ford that all in history is bunk. Your sermons have benefited from your reading too, for again you have challenged us with material not only well prepared but reflective and purposeful. You will be needed for future retreat$ and days of prayer, for underpinning all your ministry has been a faithfulness to the disciplines of the priestly life. It all looks like a fairly busy “retirement” combined with your gracious commitment to work for the integrity in the region for some time to come.
The parishes in Devon will look forward to your return, and especially the 30 ‘C’ parishes that have been part of your pastoral heart during the last five years. About half of these lie in the city of Plymouth (the largest city in England south of the Bristol-London nexus with a quarter of a million people – end of commercial) and half in rural areas of Devon and the Torbay coast. The joy the announcement of the new Ebbsfleet has given them is to a very large extent part of your own achievement, and the prospect of one good man following another a real heartener.
I believe we shall see you down here early in November. Everyone hopes that you and Ruth will have a long and happy time ahead of you, with all those evening meetings with PCCs a thing of the past. If ever you want for a bit of company at Somerset Cricket Club, give me a ring next summer. But meanwhile, before the mists descend on Dartmoor by the end of the year, we could manage a pub lunch.
Robin Ellis is Archdeacon of Plymouth