Nigel Aston examines Bishop Geoffrey Rowell’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


There can be no doubting the importance of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell as a scholar and a pastor not merely considered as an Anglo-Catholic but within wider Anglican and ecumenical contexts. And now, just three years after his death, the first assessments are starting to appear. Whether they can be measured assessments or not is another matter. Rowell’s stance on key issues within contemporary Anglicanism and the wider Church remain partisan matters making studied neutrality by any commentator a very elusive possibility: tell us your author and we can have a fair shy at ghost-writing what he’s likely to say. Even though Rowell’s extensive archive has only just arrived at Pusey House and has yet to be catalogued, considered as a historian, assessment of him already appears a distinct possibility because his publications are readily available and can be read and interpreted by fellow scholars within the wider framework of the subject areas he worked in. And the recent essay to that effect in the Anglican Theological Review by Jeremy Morris offers an overview of Rowell the Theologian and Historian that is at once measured and judicious, one in which generosity is not incompatible with critical judgment.

That judgment would be inappropriate for the short life of Geoffrey Rowell that was published in January this year in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in its online addition of eminenti who had died in 2017. And this is concerning because by the nature of things the ODNB marmorealises an individual. It is the go-to location that anyone interested in finding out more about any dead Briton will first visit. Yes, changes can be made to the online edition of any biographical piece but, in essentials, the original remains, and the idea that there will be any replacement to the ODNB this century is absurd. The ODNB editors commissioned Mark Chapman, Professor of the History of Modern Theology at Oxford University and Vice-Principal of Cuddesdon to write the Rowell essay. Chapman is a respected scholar but he is also a contemporary establishment historian. If Church of England managers are looking for a church historian to be ‘on-message’ then Professor Chapman is a sound choice. Whether this makes him the right choice to reflect on Rowell may be doubted and his ODNB essay seems to confirm as much. And so, putting to one side Rowell the academic, let us look at some key points of concern in Chapman’s essay

Rowell’s appointment as Bishop of Basingstoke in 1994 by Bishop Colin James, bishop of Winchester, is considered here ‘a somewhat surprising choice’ that owed much to Rowell’s opposition to the ordination of women. Three points may be made in response and the obvious one is that the appointment of men with minimal parochial experience has been a characteristic of episcopal selection before and after Rowell went to Basingstoke. Here was a scholar-bishop but there were others like him on the 1990s bench – David Jenkins of Durham is the obvious case in point. And Rowell’s long experience as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford had more than confirmed his pastoral gifts. 1994 contexts should not be forgotten. There was then a readiness in the Church of England to cater for the substantial minority of those opposed to the ordination of women and Colin James was one of those arguing strongly for it. The Rowell appointment reflected his personal concern for his diocese and the then priorities of most of the senior hierarchy keen to prevent the Church from splitting..  

The ODNB essay is correct in arguing that his opposition to the ordination of women was founded in its ‘its effects on ecumenical relations’. But there was more to it than that, as one might expect from the pre-eminent scholar-bishop of the 1990s: Geoffrey Rowell considered that if the Church of England was genuinely a sundered branch of the Church universal then it could not legitimately make a decision that would be sacramentally and ecumenically compromising in relation to the great historic communions of West and East.  It is in that light that one should place his (in)action at the 2008 Lambeth Conference highlighted by Prof. Chapman: his refusal to participate in a eucharist presided over by Katharine Jefferts-Shori, presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church, a deeply controversial not to say divisive figure. Rowell was just one of the many bishops from across the Anglican communion who, in conscience, absented themselves from that celebration. Their action was both symbolic and expected. In General Synod he was a calm presence within the Catholic Group and unsurprisingly voted against the introduction of women bishops in the Church of England in 2012, part of a substantial minority that considered the proposals deficient as they then stood.

That said, he was willing to accept the ordination of women to the diaconate as compatible with the practice of the early Church and was consistently supportive of women who took that step and became the targets of criticism from women who did consider priesthood a possibility and ultras who denied the admissability of a diaconate with females in it. In many of the services that he took before and after retirement + Geoffrey invariably had a woman deacon as his chaplain and assistant. So much for the charge of his not being able to relax in the company of women which the article makes. On the contrary, his quiet humour, courtesy, dry wit, and kindly concern to put people at their ease were as readily appreciated by the majority of women as much as by men. Yes, he had only one or two close female friendships but what would one excpect from a committed celibate?

The ODNB essay has little to say about Rowell’s time as bishop of Basingstoke beyond noting that he chose not to live in Basingstoke preferring his home town of Alton, as though such rearrangements are not uncommon when a new suffragan moves in. A more substantial point is that ‘his frequent trips overseas provoked criticism’. Mark Chapman offers no clue as to who made it or how much there was, but it was understood by all the appointing parties that Bishop Geoffrey’s contacts with the Orthodox Churches were worth nurturing at a time when their historic links to the Church of England had been imperilled by the decision to ordain women to the priesthood and that no one was in a better position to do so than himself. These continental ecclesiastical connections – not just with Orthodoxy – made Rowell an obvious choice to be translated in 2001 to become Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. 

Rowell, as the article admits, was indefatigable in his travels among the scattered chaplaincies across his far flung diocese but the author’s decision to emphasise two perceived negative aspects of Bishop Geoffrey’s episcopate is distortionary. He contends that there ‘were frequent tensions across the diocese, which had many strongly evangelical chaplaincies’ because he neglected relations with ‘the protestant churches of Northern Europe’. The charge is unconvincing. Firstly, any diocesan bishop is bound to have preferences by way of churchmanship and what diocese doesn’t have its ‘tensions’? Secondly, and more substantially, Rowell did not stint himself in ministering to his more Protestant chaplaincies (not least through using confirmation to get know them and their members better), and this won him a lot of respect from chaplains not of his persuasion who saw how much he regarded them as entirely equal members of his flock. And there were no more ‘occasional pastoral breakdowns’ during Rowell’s years as Bishop of Europe between 2001 and 2013 than in any comparable English diocese during the same period. And throughout his time, he was well supported by and made good use of his assistant bishops. Rather than point out the important work Rowell did in smoothing relations between Canterbury and the Orthodox Churches – not to mention Rome -the ODNB essay makes much of his controversial decision in 2007 to ordain a Muslim convert in Turkey despite Turkish laws on proselytization and without consulting the chaplain in Istanbul. Ever ready to stand up for the faith, it was an initiative that Rowell felt was an appropriate pastoral response in the circumstances, and hardly constituted the cause célèbre Professor Chapman seems to want to make it. It might fairly be set against the pastoral work he undertook in support of the Christians in Northern Iraq during the ISIS insurgency when he went there at considerable risk to himself to express solidarity. 

The breath and depth to Rowell’s ecumenism should not be underestimated. It was still in evidence after he had retired as Bishop in Europe when he chaired with enthusiasm and vision the Chichester Diocesan European Ecumenical Committee which had particularly strong links with both Lutherans and Roman Catholics in Germany (built on the wartime relationship between Bishop Bell and Bonhoeffer). He was also the moving spirit behind the historic – but little noticed – agreed statement on Christology produced in 2015 by the Anglican-Oriental International Commission (AOOIC) that healed over the long-standing split between Anglicanism as a Chalcedonian communion and the none-Chalcedonian Churches over the incarnation of Christ. The dialogue had faltered in 2003 over TEC innovations but resumed in 2013. Among Anglicans, only Rowell could have ensured this creative momentum could resume.

Geoffrey Rowell was a key figure in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Anglicanism and this article will be the starting point for future researchers. Of course, any article in the ODNB, whether on Bishop Rowell or anyone else, should have a critical edge. That is in the nature of the exercise. But this one has a distinct partiality that highlights the problem for anyone writing the quasi-authoritative obituary of a lately deceased public figure: a note of neutrality can indeed be hard to sustain and Mark Chapman’s essay falls quite a fair way short of achieving it in some key areas.


Nigel Aston taught History at the University of Leicester for many years, where he is now an Honorary Senior Fellow. He is a Trustee of Pusey House.