A Tribute from the Durham Chapter of Our Lady and St. Cuthbert On the Retirement of the Bishop of Beverley
There was a ripple of sadness throughout the Northern Province when Bishop John Gaisford announced that he was retiring. It seemed as if a light was going out. Six years ago, even though he was Archdeacon of Macclesfield in the diocese of Chester, he was virtually unknown to the majority of clergy and people committed to his care in the Province of York. In that short space of time he has won the hearts of many clergy and people of different sympathies far and wide. Even a woman priest was heard to say that she wished she could take the resolutions and have him as her bishop.
A P.E.V. In March 1993 Bishop John was consecrated Bishop of Beverley, to be Northern Provincial Episcopal Visitor and became popularly known as one of three ‘Flying Bishops’ because of the nature of their task as pastors across several dioceses. They were to be directly responsible to the Archbishops. The Bishop of Beverley’s area covered 15,414 square miles, a colossal area when Lincoln the largest diocese covers only 2.673 square miles. More specifically, they were to minister to an ever-growing constituency of clergy and laity who had been marginalised by the Church because they had grave reservations about the action the General Synod took in unilaterally deciding to ordain women to the priesthood. It was an anti-unity action and a fundamental divergence from doctrine the Church of England had received from the wider catholic and apostolic Church of which she claimed to be part. Therefore, Synod had no authority to make such a decision. In the autumn a Sacred Synod of priests heard the Archbishop of Canterbury say that it may have been the wrong decision for it is not a political issue but a doctrinal one. To prevent schism, an Act of Synod has established three PEV’s to minister to those who wanted to remain faithful to what Anglican Formularies and doctrine had inherited.
Vision When Bishop John began his ministry many of us were at very low ebb without any expectations of the influx of grace that has come through his ministry. He has given us the vision that instilled into us that all was not lost as ground was gained and the spirit of defeat became the spirit of victory. This gave strength and a clear sense of purpose that has brought growth and renewal to many priests and parishes in the Northern Province. As a man of immovable integrity and pastoral gifts he was also a man of prayer who expected his priests and people to be prayerful too, with a love of the Church’s worship and a dignity in the ordering of it. It was said of Bishop John that his manifesto was taken from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. There Paul reminds the pastor that all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that a man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. In a Church of England where there is a diminishing regard for scripture and tradition it has been inspiring to see the ministry of a bishop whose life is soaked in it and from which has emanated his clear, authoritative and enthusiastic proclamation and teaching of the faith. Behind this, Bishop John had what one priest described as “gumption”, a courage and strength to firmly negotiate the rights of our integrity to remain faithful to apostolic faith and order.
A Pastoral Bishop On the personal level, despite the size of the Episcopal area, there has been a promptness of response to enquiries and requests with a willingness to be present at a variety of event whether liturgy or society. With his wife Gillian’s complete support and the presence of his son Giles at many events, the family have become our friends. In this way he has fostered those bonds of mutual loyalty with priests and people that should characterise the ministry of every bishop in a self-denying, hospitable and generous way. In sickness and bereavement he has brought to clergy and people wise counsel, compassion, encouragement and support when their own resources were severely strained. This was the parish priest with twenty-four years experience. If only the Crown Appointments Committee in appointing our bishops, looked more frequently to the ‘factory floor’ of the Church rather than to the executive levels of Church life, we could have more bishops with pastoral experience. Not all archdeacons make such good bishops.
Living Communication Our hope is that the whole Church will recognise the debt of gratitude it owes Bishop John and the lessons that can be learned from this style of episcopacy. To be fair to Diocesan bishops, the Bishop of Beverley has not had to endure the millstone of diocesan machinery that is put around their necks but he has had to survive with an inadequate backup. Every diocese has far too many meetings, and bishops race back and forth to London for yet more talking sessions. With the advent of technology the Church of England has become submerged in a sea of paper that quickly dehumanises because it is faceless and impersonal. The ecclesiastical bureaucracy needs drastic pruning if bishops are to be freed from so much unnecessary administration and have a more pastoral ministry. Bishop John has used his relative freedom from all this to show the whole Church what a bishop theologically speaking, is all about. It is about living communication with people in their joys and sorrows who have been able to forge a deep bond with the bishop who cares for them through their parish priest. A truly collaborative episcopacy will need to be more concerned for a generosity of co-operation with the P.E.V.’s in the proclamation of the faith, and a letting-go of that defensiveness about territorial rights and jurisdiction. The Church is about faith and new life not about politics and power.
The Future There must be no attempt to move the goalposts. Sadly, many influential voices in our Church are seeking this in their attempts to undermine the Act of Synod and have it overthrown. This would prevent the appointment of another Bishop of Beverley. They are unlikely to succeed because this would lead to schism not unity. Bishop John has left us a legacy of primitive and traditional Episcopal oversight of which the Church of England must take due note and build on as it prepares to appoint his successor. Our hope is that the next Bishop of Beverley will have similar gifts and strength of integrity.
We thank God for putting Bishop John and Gillian among us. We wish them a long and happy retirement and the leisure to enjoy time with their son Giles and Sophie, their married daughter.