THE BISHOP of Ebbsfleet is retiring. The official confirmation came from Lambeth Palace at the end of January. Bishop John Richards will stand down from his post as Provincial Episcopal Visitor in October and retire to his beloved West Country. To our great joy he has let it be known that he will be willing to serve and assist his successor in that part of the world.
This is neither the time nor the place for an extended appreciation of his remarkable ministry but no-one, whatever their theological view, can be in any doubt about the extraordinary achievements of his tireless work in the Southern Province. The PEVs (or the "Flying Bishops" as they have become affectionately known) have given hope and confidence to untold thousands of Anglicans who felt battered, bullied and betrayed by the Establishment. Their pastoring has revived both individuals and parishes and quickly staunched the flow of those leaving the Church of England. The "Flying Bishops" have been the single most effective bulwark against schism and their ministry is a welcome return to a New Testament pattern.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is very aware of this and has given an immediate assurance that Bishop Richards will have a successor. Such a decision may sound obvious and unarguable to the orthodox constituency. It should be remembered, however, that the Archbishop has been under considerable pressure, both from predictable lobby groups and from some senior members of the House of Bishops, to renege on these commitments. To his lasting credit the Archbishop has always made it clear that, whatever our disagreements, he wants the new system to work, and that he will honour his promises. He has also made it clear that, in choosing the new "Flying Bishop", the constituency will be extensively consulted.
This is important for two reasons. Firstly the constituency is now, five years on, well aware of the talent available and those who have proved their ability to pastor, encourage and evangelise in adversity. Secondly the usual channels of diocesan bishops' lists etc. will not do since, for the most part, they continue to exclude orthodox candidates from consideration at any level.
Bishop John Richards' will be a very hard act to follow. He has inspired great loyalty and affection amongst those he has served and restored confidence and hope to many. He has, almost single-handedly created the relationships and structure that make the job work. It would be good if his successor could be appointed early enough to "shadow" him for a few months so that nothing is lost and complete continuity is maintained.
Please pray for all those involved in the process of discernment.
THE DEAN and Chapter of St. Paul's are to be congratulated on their initiative (see opposite) in sponsoring a competition for a Millennium Hymn. We hope that our columnist Christopher Idle (see January's New Directions) will put his fecundity of ideas to good use.
The St. Paul's Competition is the more welcome because it is a positive, albeit modest, response to the challenge of the inauguration of the Third Millennium of Christianity. A reader of the national press could be forgiven for supposing that the Church of England's principal contribution had thus far been merely to whinge about the place of religion in Mr Mandelson's schemes for the Dome.
Members of Forward in Faith will already know of the 'Christ Our Future' celebration for all members of the orthodox integrity, in the London Arena on the Saturday before Pentecost (June 10) 2000 (principal concelebrant, the Archbishop of York). They will want to bring their hopes and fears for the future, at that celebration and in that company, to the Altar of God. Let us make Christ Our Future a powerful witness to our faith in His sovereignty.
JUST SUPPOSE - since the obsessive confidentiality of the present appointments system allows one no certain knowledge - just suppose that the candidate for a diocesan bishopric overwhelmingly preferred by the Vacancy in See Committee over all other candidates named was a man of pastoral skill, holiness of life and a not inconsiderable international reputation as a scholar.
And suppose that, despite all this, he turned out to be the first name on the list submitted to the Crown.
Suppose furthermore that the letter from Downing Street was duly sent, and the man in question was asked to take up the post. Only one hurdle remained before the diocese in question got the bishop of its choice. He would have to sign up to 'Issues in Human Sexuality'. (The whole matter would no doubt be handled with the utmost informality - perhaps in the course of a fireside chat at Lambeth. But it would be a question - 'Can you assure me that you will toe the line on this one, Jack?' - expecting the answer 'yes'.)
And suppose our candidate, in a principled and conscientious way, found himself unable to give such an assurance. And as a result, felt unable to take the job.
Suppose, what is more, that by one means or another it became apparent to the diocesan representatives on the Crown Appoinments Commission - an Archdeacon, say, and the Dean of the cathedral - why the candidate which they and their diocese so decidedly preferred had turned it down. Perhaps the Dean and the archdeacon were themselves, like the bishop in question, unconvinced of the centrality of 'Issues in Human Sexuality' to the mystery of salvation.
Suppose that these senior clergy, in a fit of becoming zeal, wrote to the Prime Minister complaining that the informal ritual by the Lambeth fireside had both robbed the diocese of its choice and placed quite improper restrictions on the prerogatives of the Crown.
What, in these circumstances should a Prime Minister do, particularly since the passage of the Human Rights Bill virtually ensures that before long the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement will be taking the Church of England to court in one case of illegal discrimination or another?
Answers, on a postcard please, to : Stuart Bell, MP, Second Church Estates
Commissioner, House of Commons SW1.
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