Luke Miller looks at the Rt Revd Peter Wheatley’s achievements during his fifteen years as Bishop of Edmonton
Whether it be a noisy congregation or a fractious PCC meeting, Bishop Peter has an extraordinary ability to dominate a room with gentleness. After announcing his retirement he noted, ‘Where I was once criticized for inaction now I am praised for serenity.’ Those who think he has been passive should be aware of a most significant fact. Peter Wheatley will leave the Edmonton Area better than he found it. True, there are fewer clergy; but there are more people worshipping, more congregations, more parishes and more churches than fifteen years ago.
There is something amazing here. I am told that Archbishop Justin has said that it is fifty years since any Bishop of the Church of England has left his area of episcopal care bigger than he found it. A few of the evangelical parishes are very large indeed, growing under the oversight and care of this catholic bishop. But the growth has been across the board in all church traditions. The Diocese of London has just set a seven-year objective to create 100 new worshipping communities. Over the seven years up to the publication of that vision, the Edmonton Area had seen more than 30 worshipping communities planted, newly created, reopened or revived from near extinction to active life.
Pastoral knowledge has been the basis of vision. Bishop Peter can be infuriatingly intuitive, and he can take time to come to a final decision, iterating and reiterating until he has arrived at the right solution. His focus is on the personal and the pastoral. To those whom this exasperates, he will reply, ‘It is art, not science,’ and so often he has been proved right.
Fund of knowledge
If you go with him to the ‘do afterwards’ you will find that Bishop Peter knows people. He knows the ordinary people, the people who were churchwardens 15 years ago, the people who have just arrived and taken on the Sunday school, the youth worker and the faithful member of the Mothers’ Union. He works with the local MPs, and the Lieutenancy, with councillors and local business people, because he knows them too. His farewell will take place 20 years to the day since he was licensed here as Archdeacon. His fund of knowledge about his parishes is second to none. He knows the social and personal history that has made us what we are and this has helped him lead us on.
Gentleness has not meant weakness. One young incumbent whose latest bright idea was clearly not the right thing was gently but very firmly told, ‘I think maybe you have other priorities.’ And that was that. There was no appeal. Of one rather difficult piece of legislation he once remarked calmly: ‘That is sufficiently ensnared in a code of practice to allow us to do just what we want.’
Bishop Peter has deliberately and courageously appointed young, entrepreneurial clergy of all traditions and given them space to flourish. He has modelled and encouraged innovative ways of working, linking parishes together and splitting them apart again, encouraging building projects, fostering mission action planning, community ministry, evangelistic outreach, building what might seem surprising partnerships. He has embraced the opportunity and challenge of the massive housing developments of the last few years and pioneered the ‘strategic development’ work which is founding new churches in new places in London for the first time in four decades.
By calling laity and clergy to learn together how to foster church growth, and by a lengthy process of example and encouragement, the Bishop has established an ethos which runs deeper than any passing initiative and which underpins all the strategy. The churches in the Edmonton Area have been led to be spiritually grounded, outward looking, mutually supportive. If we fail sometimes in these ideals, this is the atmosphere, ‘what the Bishop expects’ and, importantly, what we expect of each other. Bishop Peter was able to bring some of this to his care of the Fulham parishes in 2010–11 in a period of his ministry which was personally tough, and not just because of the workload, but immensely fruitful for many.
Focus for unity
It is often said that the Bishop’s role is to be a focus for unity. Peter has been precisely that. He has created a space in which all our tribes are confident to speak for the Gospel in the world rather than argue church politics with one another. The ability of petitioning parishes to be in the ‘C of Peter’ has indubitably helped, but he has also been present in those parishes for which any rejection of women’s orders is anathema. He has enabled ‘normality’ to obtain for us all. This is not because we have hidden or denied our differences, which have sometimes been sharp; but in the end we have come back to the work in hand.
There is much not said here of ‘other work’: London Church Leaders; BAME vocations; St Luke’s Hospital for the Clergy; the New England Company; but I was told not to write an obituary. To prove this is not panegyric either, let me say that preaching is not a strong point; but the use of words is: in parishes Bishop Peter speaks of ‘our church’; ‘our school’; ‘our MP’. Not ‘yours’, as though he were an outsider, nor ‘mine’, as though it were all him. ‘Our’ implies a shared work and care, the outcome of that which is ‘both thine and mine.’ We shall miss ‘our’ Bishop. ND