On This Rock

‘Exeter’s loss is Europe’s gain.’ That was the compromise judgement suggested by a fellow cleric, as we sipped our wine on a warm evening under the palm trees in the courtyard of the eighteenth century Garrison Library in Gibraltar. It was the Feast of All Saints and the reception after the Enthronement of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell at his Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity. A two hour mass, with all the added bits, legal and prayerful, with trumpeters and choir and servers and canons in copes; well ordered, well sung and just a bit over-choreographed: that CofE formality that flows like unoiled clockwork; a little pompous, but with great presence.

Much fuss was made of His Excellency the Governor of course, Peter Caruana the Chief Minister sat bored out of his mind the other side, wondering no doubt how to cope with the next insensitive misjudgement from Her Majesty’s junior minister Peter Hain, while the great and the good of Gibraltar society shared out the best seats with the large contingent from England. The chancel was well filled with nine Anglican bishops, including the American version of a Bishop in Europe, easily distinguished by his moustache, and the Portuguese and Spanish bishops, who also have parallel Episcopal jurisdictions to Geoffrey’s. Most significant were the Orthodox archbishop and the two Armenian archbishops, who had flown here specially for the service, visible evidence of the respect in which our man is held in the east.

I was more inclined, as our glasses were topped up, to look back, for Geoffrey’s earlier non-appointment was one of those defining moments of disappointment and despair that showed there would be no abiding dwelling place for us in the CofE if the managerial liberals held sway. But to be more positive: at a time when some dioceses at home are being offered the second-rate reserves, we can take heart that even the pre-Perry apparatchiks realized the need to find a proper bishop for so public a position. Whatever we get up to at home, abroad when dealing with ecumenical partners and the wider Church the CofE needs a prelate to be proud of.

Geoffrey Rowell is a bishop to be proud of. It was fascinating to meet so many of those who had come out from all over England and Europe, academics, clergy, former students, a wonderfully mixed group from Winchester, to this little rock for this service; a curious collection of Christians wishing to give support to a good bishop. A good bishop is a valuable asset, even to those with no connection to his diocese. So let us look forward: to a good preacher and teacher on the bench of diocesans, a sound theologian to speak with the Western and Eastern Churches, and (note well, those who objected to his appointment elsewhere) a solid administrator.

It was, we agreed, a good Geoffrey sermon, wide-ranging, magisterial, with the usual fine quotations from the Fathers, and offering an assurance that for all its absurdity or (since this was Gibraltar) its imperial anachronism, the Diocese in Europe has some purpose beyond itself. We can hope that in the person of its new Bishop it may be able to present something of the Anglican tradition not only to other Christians but even to the Church of England itself, that it has a ministry not only outwards to others but back to ourselves at home. Why?

He is only Bishop of Gibraltar, a tiny rock with only 30,000 inhabitants, most of whom are Roman Catholics, stuck out on the very edge of Europe in sight of Africa, and about to be ‘given away’ to Spain by our enlightened government. It is not a great deal to stand on (though for the symbolism it is as well that it is a fine piece of rock and not mere sand). You could call it the largest diocese in the Anglican Communion, stretching from Casablanca to Trondheim, Madeira to Tashkent, but you could as easily call it the smallest, at not much over two square miles.

In other words, Geoffrey will have to prove himself. Certainly he has had a good predecessor, but he will need to build his own authority – his diocese will not give it to him. Naturally, we absolutely agreed he could and would do it. He will prove what a bishop is and ought to be. Because in the end his great gift is not his learning or his preaching or his imagination or his immense hard work, but his holiness. That is a gift of grace; and wonderfully appropriate in a bishop. We wish him well; Geoffrey has an important ministry for us all.

NT

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