Serenhedd James gathers memories of this holy bishop


Bishop Geoffrey Rowell died early on Sunday 11 June, aged 74, after a short illness. It has not gone unremarked that it was Trinity Sunday, and that while most of the great number of people whose lives he touched were fretting over how to meditate on the deep mystery of the indivisible Godhead without falling into error, he himself slipped gently into its full and perfect knowledge.

After Winchester and Cambridge he trained for Holy Orders at Cuddesdon, before its later mutation into Ripon College. He wrote his doctoral thesis under the supervision of the great nineteenth-century historian David Newsome, later remarking that it had been a golden age for the period: at Cambridge Newsome, Owen Chadwick, and Alec Vidler shared over thirty doctoral students between them, all working on aspects of the history of the nineteenth-century Church.

He was ordained to the assistant chaplaincy of New College, Oxford, in 1968, becoming Chaplain and Fellow in Theology at Keble in 1972. There he was not, perhaps, among the most popular members of the Senior Common Room; but he was known for his good rapport with undergraduates. As well as stimulating a lively chapel life, he used his position on the advowsons committee to safeguard the churchmanship (and sometimes the survival) of parishes entrusted to the College’s patronage.

In 1974 Oxford University Press published his weighty Hell and the Victorians, a study of eschatological controversies in the nineteenth century. In the next few decades it was followed by sacramental, devotional, and historical works, including The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism (Clarendon, 1991), The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism (Ikon, 1992), and, with Rowan Williams and the late Kenneth Stevenson, Love’s Redeeming Work: the Anglican Quest for Holiness (OUP, 2003). Oxford made him a Doctor of Divinity in 1997; and he was the last serving diocesan bishop to hold the distinction.

In 1983 he was instrumental in organising a huge celebration in the University Parks, just next to Keble, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement. It set the scene for the large Eucharistic events of that year, which were to play a major part in consolidating the catholic constituency at a time of trial and testing. From Keble, too, he began the visits to far-flung places and exotic Churches which were to be a feature of the rest of his life. These journeys were often made with groups of students, and – in the best tradition of the early Oxford Movement pioneers – he made contact with hierarchs scarcely known to the rest of the Church of England: contacts and friendships he maintained for the rest of his life.

  One of his students recalled him turning up breathless to a lecture one morning in 1994: “I’m so sorry I’m late, ladies and gentlemen – I’ve just been appointed Bishop of Basingstoke.” In those days there was little controversy over the appointment of traditional Catholics to the episcopate, or their translation to diocesan sees. Although he had, with Eric Kemp, vigorously opposed the Forward in Faith Statement on Communion, he continued a doughty champion to the end; and shortly before his retirement he was one of only three members of the House of Bishops to vote against the infamously inadequate women-bishops Measure of 2012. To some of the tributes there has been a certain end-of-term atmosphere: although it is said that the door is always open to similar appointments, recent events have shown that there is trip wire across the threshold.

Although he once called Basingstoke “a rather Gilbertian See”, the present Bishop of Winchester has described him as “a much-loved pastor” during his time there. Within a few years, however, his commitment to ecumenical engagement, together with his known love of travel, made him an obvious choice to serve as Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe after Dr John Hind’s translation to succeed Dr Kemp at Chichester in 2001. He took up his new brief with gusto, and worked tirelessly to make sense of the geographical idiosyncrasies of a diocese that extends from the Arctic Circle to Northern Africa. When he retired he described the work as having been “one of knitting the scattered chaplaincies together”.

His successor, Dr Robert Innes, led the tributes in the Diocese of Europe. “For 12 years as Diocesan Bishop”, he wrote, “Geoffrey embodied the Diocese in Europe in his own character and personality. He managed to remain a serious academic whilst also carrying out a demanding pastoral ministry. He was a great ambassador for a traditional, catholic, Anglicanism.”

Dr Innes, who had been one of his priests in the diocese, remembered him personally as “unfailingly kind, warm, and hospitable”. He was equally fond of being on the receiving end of generous hospitality: his Chairmanship of the Nikean Ecumenical Trust and his Honorary Fellowship of Keble, together with his long service as Chairman of Council at St Stephen’s House and President of the Dr Pusey Memorial Fund, provided opportunities for convivial engagement, often on the grand scale. Counsel would frequently be imparted as the wine flowed, alongside a stream of anecdotes which he often told against himself.   

For the scholar, teacher, and champion of truth his death on Trinity Sunday could hardly have been more apposite; but he had not had long to enjoy his retirement, into which he had transitioned more smoothly than many had expected. From his book-lined home in Fishbourne he had continued to plan new projects and adventures; while he served as an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Chichester, where he had also been a Wiccamical Prebendary until his translation to Gibraltar.

“Geoffrey’s long association with the diocese of Chichester has been characterised by the generosity with which he shared his gifts of holiness, learning, and personal friendship,” wrote the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner. “We shall miss his presence, his imaginative understanding of the past and of traditions that enrich our own, his humour, his hospitality, and his encouragement of younger scholars, lay and ordained, and the enthusiasm with which he helped them identify the value of their hopes and plans.”

Geoffrey Rowell leaves behind him a rich legacy of academic and spiritual fruit, including a quiverful of adored and adoring godchildren, and hundreds of spiritual disciples. It cannot be denied, however, that his death brings into sharp focus the final abandonment of the Church of England’s venerable tradition of choosing scholars to share the episcopal ministry with administrators. It also severs yet another strand linking the Church of England to its Catholic inheritance, at a time when it can ill afford to be cut. He was, perhaps, the last of the establishment Catholics: uncompromising in faith and doctrine, yet at the same time deeply embedded in the structures of a Church of England which once recognised its need for leaders of his intellect and integrity.