Robbie Low interviews
IN JANUARY 1993 John Martin, then Editor of the Church of England Newspaper, rang our house to speak to Sara, my wife. Although not at all on the traditionalist side on the issue of women priests, he was troubled by the apparent absence of opportunity for our case to be put. (This was at a time when a very senior Church Times correspondent told me that the reason we got no space there was because the Editor preferred to believe that people like us did not exist!)
It was, John believed, important for the avoidance of downright schism for the Church to have some way of listening to a substantial minority (synodically) of its members and what may yet turn out to be a grass-roots majority on other items on the unfolding liberal agenda – if the “Trads” were right in their predictions.
Either way, people who were clearly being disenfranchised at every level and opportunity, should in the interests of simple justice, have a place to speak. So Directions was born.
They agreed immediately on several key conditions: that it should get together an equal team of evangelicals and catholics as a sign of unity in orthodoxy; that it should not be a one-issue tract dedicated to one issue only but that it should tackle regularly and critically the crises and opportunities facing the Church from an orthodox Christian standpoint; and that it should confront its readers with news of the rest of the Anglican Communion and other churches that enabled them to see the massive changes and realignments that were now inevitable.
These and other agreements in place with a common commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the task of finding writers began.
Pretty early on someone, I think it was Martin, mentioned the name of Paul Richardson as a good bet for our man “down under”. By the marvels of modern communication plus the odd smoke signal and a bit of bushcraft, the invitation got to the mountain fastness and his bamboo shack and Letter from Australia came on stream.
With utter regularity and reliability Richardson’s perceptive and accessible pieces trundle out of the fax, on time and the required length – an editor’s dream, and quite incomprehensible to those souls whose creativity is directly inspired by deadlines and warm verbal encouragement.
Last month Richardson was in England visiting his mother and I caught up with him on his last evening before flying back to “Oz”.
Sitting in the warm candlelight glow of the Sonargaon Restaurant – 100 yards from my door and the best Indian cuisine in 25 years of serious curry eating I asked him:
Where did you begin?
"I was born in Cumberland in 1947. My father left school at fourteen, joined the Navy and then ran a shop. My great-grandfather was a Cornish miner and my grandad was a miner too. My mum’s folk were sheep farmers."
Who were your early influences?
"I went to a boarding grammar school in Keswick and there was a good history master there called Roy Scott.
As far as religion went my mother and father weren’t really religious. When I stayed with my grandparents in the Duddon Valley they took me to church.
There was morning prayer at school, which you could be beaten for missing, and some pretty dreadful sermons. My real interest in religion began in A-level English with Auden and Eliot. Eventually I sent off for some booklets from the Catholic Enquiry Centre which greatly interested me. Years later when I wrote an article mentioning how good they were, I got a thank-you letter from the man who had written them."
Where did you go to college?
"Queens', Oxford. I read history then theology. David Jenkins was the Chaplain and a good lecturer too. We had many interesting discussions and disagreements. When I left he told me, with a big smile, how much he dreaded my knock on his door.
I always thought it a great pity that his desire to be in the public eye often over-rode his better judgement."
"Well, there were a lot of Americans in Oxford then, avoiding Vietnam, including Clinton. Most of their angst was focused on Grosvenor Square, while our own revolutionaries were inciting us to storm the Clarendon Building.
I went over to Harvard which was also a hotbed of student revolt. Many of the divinity school members were there because the priesthood was a restricted occupation i.e. no Draft.
It wasn’t the most godly place. When someone asked the lady in the office what advice she would give to the Bishop she replied:–
'Castrate the lot of them. I wouldn’t trust them to counsel my own grandmother!' "
So where did ordination come into all this?
"I returned to Oxford. Came to confession. Like Geoffrey Kirk, a contemporary at Pusey House, I came under the influence of the great Austin Farrer. Then I went to Cuddesdon under Leslie Houlden. I wasn’t at home in that churchy atmosphere. I was more interested in politics (Labour) than church and most of my friends were not believers. I was concerned with the big questions but I just couldn’t get away from Jesus."
Where were you called to serve?
"St. John the Divine, Earlsfield. It was a key time for me. It was multi-racial, working class, very good priest (Fr Peter Johnstone, now at Eltham). I fell in love with the church as the Body of Christ and felt a strong call to mission.
I became very sceptical of liberalism with its watered-down theology and complete inability to get in touch with the real needs of people. Poor old Mervyn Stockwood (Bishop of Southwark) was on another planet!
I remember the excitement of being part of the same faith in a different culture when I took one Gospel Group 'The Heavenly Hopes' to a huge Pentecostal meeting and being the only white man there."
How did you move from liberalism to orthodoxy intellectually?
"I asked for a reading course with Fr Eric Mascall – the best modern theologian I’ve come across. His book He Who Is was a great influence. Mascall was clear, incisive and logical – he made the then fashionable John Robinson seem like grappling with jelly."
[Richardson remains an avid reader. Stuck in the middle of nowhere (culturally) for most of his ministry he manages to have read all those books and articles that most of us intend to get round to one day]
Mascall, in a rather touching personal note recorded one of the great joys of his retirement as teaching Southwark curates.
Robinson, lauded while a radical, was largely written off in his later years when he became more conservative in his doctrinal views.]
"I answered an advert for a teacher at a theological college in Papua New Guinea. In fact it wasn’t built so they never replied. Instead I went as chaplain to Oslo for two years and started up monthly congregations in places like Trondheim and Stavanger. They’re still going. And some youth groups."
Did you ever consider marriage?
Yes, I did at this time. But I was pretty clear that the kind of freedom needed for mission work wouldn’t let me settle down to home and family. It was the right decision but it doesn’t make it any easier as the years go by.
So how did you get to Papua New Guinea?
"The college, now built, had appointed a man who tragically drowned, and they wrote asking me to re-apply. When I got there it was a great shock. They said I could not teach until I had spent a year in a remote highland parish as preparation! Within a week I got off a single-engine plane at a remote mission station surrounded by people in tribal dress and a couple from Brisbane who ran the store. The house was a concrete floor, bamboo and breezeblock walls, iron roof and cardboard louvres. the church roof was falling down, rats had nibbled the vestments and the wafers, there were no service books and, when I rang the bell three people came to church.
The Headman explained that they were not keen on building houses for teachers as teachers made their daughters pregnant and the priest drank all their money!"
What did you do?
"I resigned. They refused my resignation and I began patrolling the villages celebrating communion on upturned kerosene cans in torrential rain and mud. I was so depressed.
But then it changed. It became so clear that people needed a priest and it just took off into the most wonderful year. I fell in love with the Highlands and cried when I left."
Then you were allowed to teach?
"Yes. Two years as lecturer, five years as Principal. Trying all the time to get the best staff and highest standards. I trained Walter Siba, from Vanuatu, to be Principal. He’s now bishop in the Solomon Islands.
My other three colleagues – one’s an Anglican still, one’s gone to Rome and one’s an Antiochian Orthodox."
Why did you stand down?
"To hand over to the people. It was time. But I couldn’t leave P.N.G. I turned down a post in Australia and had a wonderful year as Dean of Port Moresby. Good congregations. A chance to write for the papers and broadcast and lecture at the R.C seminary."
And then, suddenly, a bishop?
"Yes. I was elected to Aipo Rongo – the biggest job of my life. Eight years in the Highlands. I could happily have spent the rest of my life there. But at first I had no house and no transport.
The American Church helped with the first and All Saints, Brisbane (a Forward in Faith parish) provided the second. They key tasks were the development of an indigenous ministry and getting a high school. There were only primary schools."
Didn’t you have a visit from George Carey?
"Yes, and I have to say he was excellent. We have our differences but he was greeted by 7,000 traditionalists in tribal costume and he was moved by the faith of the people. He celebrated beautifully, did some good evangelism and, ignoring protocol, accepted our invitation to come and stay with the people."
Why do you think he seems more successful abroad than at home?
"You’re right. I admire what he did in the Sudan for instance. Several reasons I suppose.
(1) Canterbury is an impossible job.
(2) He has alienated and excluded many of his natural catholic and evangelical allies. Liberals don’t evangelise.
(3) When he’s abroad he encounters vibrant churches. Much of the C. of E. is flat and moribund – out of touch with the people. It’s not inculturing the Gospel like much of Australian church life. It’s in danger, as we say, of 'going down the gurgler'. "
Australia. You became Bishop of Wangaratta. Where’s that?
"Victoria. Next to David Silk in Ballarat.
Wangaratta is a wine-growing, mountainous rural area where I can indulge my passion of bushwalking as part of the pastoral ministry. It’s Prayerbook Catholic, Tractarian, but pretty marginal on the women priest issue."
How is David Silk getting on?
"Very well. He’s having a major impact – not least on the Prayer Book work."
What are the major challenges facing the Australian church?
"We need to get out of the cultural ghetto or we’ll end up preaching to a remnant of English liberal culture. Like you we’ve entered a whole new religious ball game. Christ is one option amongst many – the idea of revealed truth is alien to the pick-and-mix autonomous consumer generation.
Liberalism is increasingly unstable and we have to make Christianity credible without retreating to naive fundamentalism. It makes the renewal of Catholicism all the more urgent."
And the moral issues?
"The whole church has held the line in opposing euthanasia.
The homosexual debate is very live especially in Melbourne. I don’t want to put sexual sins top of the list but I hold by traditional teaching and compassionate pastoring. Aside from clear biblical grounds, there is a strong argument from natural law."
We hear a lot about Sydney here.
"It’s conservative, evangelical, the biggest and the richest diocese. They’re opposed to homosexuality, moving towards lay-presidency, very hesitant about the Prayer Book and divided about women priests – can they be assistants (not ruling elders!) – so there’s a lot going on there just now."
How do you see the role of a bishop?
"Bishops should be teachers and team players, fraternal with their co-workers, men of vision and encouragement. They need to stay with their people, build up the community, draw out the gifts.
The Flying Bishops may be closer to much of the Anglican Communion because they don’t live in palaces and stay with their people. That’s the way to know your priests and your parishes."
England. Will you return?
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's
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