A bishop is called to lead in serving and caring for the people of God and to work with them in the oversight of the Church . . . he is to promote its mission throughout the world. It is his duty to watch over and pray for all those committed to his charge . . . speaking in the name of God and interpreting the Gospel of Christ.
These words come from the charge to a new Bishop prior to consecration, the whole text of which I photocopied the day after my own episcopal ordination in York Minster on the Feast of St Chad 1993. It is a text that I have carried in my wallet ever since, taking it out every few weeks to prayerfully consider its priorities against the many different demands made on the diary. Continuing to do this through the eight years since my retirement from the See of Exeter has caused me to frequently reflect, rather wistfully, and with my tongue only half in my cheek, ‘I now have the time and the energy to be the bishop I always wanted to be’.
Serving the church, encouraging the faithful, interpreting the Gospel of Christ – these remain the great joys of episcopal life, and I am grateful for the opportunities that come my way week by week in the Dioceses of Chichester and Europe to do just this. So, the past month has taken me from West Sussex to East, from small country churches nestling in the Downs to Victorian grandeur by the sea, but in every place the faithful people of God, faithful in prayer, service and pastoral care, and slowly rebuilding after the trials of the past two years.
It was a particular joy to accompany the congregation of the beautiful and peaceful Priory Church at Boxgrove from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. Creative and carefully prepared liturgy and the evidence of a culture of good pastoral care contributed to making it a week of spiritual depth and profundity. But I think there was more than this. Maybe something to do with the impact of COVID with its attendant restrictions which have left many people outside the church as well as within, hungry for healing and hope? Certainly there seemed to be a greater attentiveness and deeper engagement, both personal and corporate, with the liturgy.
This was something I experienced too in Walsingham for the National Pilgrimage. Some commented that the numbers were down, given the move to an earlier date when children were in school, but in fact they weren’t. There was a wonderful atmosphere, combining an appropriate air of festivity and celebration with that same seriousness of prayerful intent, especially evident in the praying of the rosary in procession, of which – as we walked through the meadows – I could see neither the beginning nor the end. And what a wonderful sermon from Bishop Philip North ‘What on earth are you doing?’ he asked us, while showing how the lifting up of Mary speaks Gospel truth to the cultural confusion of our times. I drove back to Sussex reflecting on just how much thanks we owe to the ongoing ministry of Fr Kevin and the shrine team during these times.
Other significant events have included being present in the glorious chapel of Lancing College for the installation of the new Senior Provost of the Woodward Corporation and the dedication of the new West End, completing the building according to the Founder’s vision 154 years after the foundation stone was laid. Then a few days earlier in Winchester Cathedral for the funeral of Lou Scott-Joynt, widow of Bishop Michael, with whom she had shared such a significant ministry exhibiting further key attributes of episcopacy – hospitality, selfless service and courage in witnessing truth to power.
Once more I was taken back to my own episcopal ordination and a conversation with Archbishop John Habgood the previous evening in which he had reminded me that two key responsibilities of any Bishop are to be the primary minister of the rites of Christian initiation, in baptism and confirmation, and to make provision for the church’s ongoing ministry of Holy Order in the rites of ordination. He is to baptise and confirm . . . he is to ordain and to send new minsters. Dioceses seemingly differ significantly in their willingness to recognise the centrality of these sacramental actions for a bishop, akin to the presiding at the Eucharist for a priest. And as I experienced the slightly odd arrangements for Chrism masses and renewal of ordinations vows this year it caused me to reflect on the extent to which the Society, any more than the Church of England as a whole, has a coherent theology of Holy Order on which to base a strategy and practice that enables bishops, priests and deacons freed from the constraints of bureaucracy and the burdens of jurisdiction, to continue to play as full a part as they are able in the nurturing of the faith, the mission of the Kingdom, and the worship of Almighty God through him who died for our salvation and is now risen indeed!