Book of the month

Ian McCormack welcomes a new study of an important bishop

JR: THE LIFE & MINISTRY OF JOHN RICHARDS, FIRST BISHOP OF EBBSFLEET John Fairweather

Additional Curates Society, 112pp, pbk

978 0993393006, £10

At a time when Catholics in the Church of England are having to learn how to live under the legislation that paved the way for the consecration of women bishops, this appreciation of the life and ministry of the first Bishop of Ebbsfleet is a significant reminder of how the decision of the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood two decades ago necessitated an even bigger change in the life and structures of the Church.

Utterly convinced that General Synod had no authority to make such a dramatic and unilateral change to the nature of ordained ministry, John Richards did much to mould the understanding and practical detail of what a Provincial Episcopal Visitor should be. Despite the opportunities for diocesan provision which have always existed (and continue to be exercised today, albeit now on a very limited scale) the PEVs have been crucial to the continuing Catholic life in the Church of England, and we owe much to the men – John Richards among them – who made their existence a reality and their continuing existence possible.

John Richards was in some ways not an obvious choice to be the first Bishop of Ebbsfleet. As Robin Ellis recalled in his funeral address (printed in an appendix), some thought him too old, too establishment, too Anglican, and too blunt in manner. Yet these concerns quickly evaporated as Richards began his episcopal ministry. He revelled in the opportunities available to the PEVs to be genuine pastors, free of much (though not all) of the bureaucracy that nowadays seems to be an integral part of church life, and of which he had had extensive experience as Archdeacon of Exeter for many years before his consecration. This pastoral aspect of the ministry of the PEVs is one which continues to be greatly valued by priests and people today.

Richards travelled extensively. The Ebbsfleet episcopal area initially covered the whole of the Southern province, until the See of Richborough was created to cover the eastern part of it. In his carrying out of this massive role, Richards relied greatly on the support of his family and the gracious hospitality of the parishes, priests, and people that he visited. In return, he did much to boost and maintain the morale of those who often found themselves isolated and under attack.

Fr John Fairweather has written a worthy appreciation of ‘JR’, as he is referred to throughout. The book itself has been admirably produced by the Additional Curates Society, of whose work Richards was a great supporter. The text is leavened by a good number of interesting black and white photos; but it would have been easier for the reader had the captions for these been printed alongside the relevant photos, rather than being listed together at the back of the book.

Much that is of interest in biographies comes from the edges and from the almost incidental details, and there is a wealth of such detail here. They give a snapshot of how the Church of England has changed – and the ways in which it hasn't. For example, Richards's ordination cards are reproduced: he was ordained in Exeter Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 1960 and celebrated Mass for the first time at 8am the next day, for such was the custom at the time.

Touching, too are the details of the daily routine during JR's first incumbency: Morning Prayer, Communion and meditation in church before breakfast; reading, studying, and interviews in the morning; visiting and meetings in the afternoon but always home in time for the children's bath time; and more meetings and visits in the evening. Again, such a pattern was not unusual at the time.

Photographs of JR's time as Rector of Heavitree show him working with up to six other clergy and a number of Readers. A synopsis of his Visitation Charge as Archdeacon of Exeter in 1988 reveals a mind and a ministry that was rooted firmly in the Catholic Anglican tradition and insisted on the importance of authority, the Divine Office, the study of theology, and concern for the poor. He also emphasises the importance of paying the parish share and of ensuring that parishes have adequate insurance. Some things don't change.

Richards enjoyed an active but relatively brief semiretirement, and died suddenly on 9 November 2003. His funeral requiem was held in Exeter Cathedral, and his ashes were interred in Heavitree churchyard. Fr Fairweather concludes his book with the scriptural words that JR himself used at confirmations: ‘Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life’. This is an important book, about an important and faithful man. ND

 

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