The concentric circles of a bishop’s life

Rt Revd John Dennis, 24 November 2019

Colossians 1: 11–20; Luke 23: 33–43

Forty years as a bishop, and I don’t know where it’s all gone to. Half of it, actually, has been here in retirement, and a short word about that at the end. But the other twenty years – people really don’t know what a bishop does, I think. They certainly don’t know who a bishop is. Somebody once said, ‘They’re a strange lot, the bishops, aren’t they?’ To which the reply was, ‘Yes, but you have to remember you’ve only got the priesthood to choose from’.  At which moment the point was made, ‘Well, the priests are a pretty strange lot too’.  ‘Ah yes, but you’ve only got the laity to choose them from.’ So we’re all in it together.

I was pulled out of enjoying being Peter Seal’s equivalent in a parish in London – a lively parish much like this one – which is one reason why this is so familiar and homely and happy to me. I did seven years as the suffragan bishop in what was then Ripon Diocese, which has now been subsumed into a great Diocese of Leeds, up in Yorkshire. I wasn’t the bishop, I was just a bishop. In other words, I was the assistant, not the real man. And that was lovely, because it was a bit like being the curate – you don’t carry the buck. I enjoyed that and I learned a lot from it. I learned the things I wanted to do that followed the example of my boss … and the things I decided not to do, because I was looking at the example of my boss!

After seven years I had a letter from, of all things, Margaret Thatcher, no less, asking me if I would be prepared to take a diocese in Suffolk. The Diocese of Suffolk. It wasn’t really her who was making the decision, but it looked like it. (A great committee meets, a lot of consultation goes on. You don’t know that you’re being discussed because you’re not allowed to apply for that job, you can only suggest other people’s names.) Anyway, the only thing that was doubtful about that letter from Margaret Thatcher was the date; it was 1 April. So when I decided it was real, and not just somebody pulling my leg, everything else followed.

For the next ten years, until I retired, I was the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, bishop of a diocese that covered virtually the whole of Suffolk, apart from Lowestoft. There’s a historical quirk there; nothing’s straight in the Church of England – you can’t just take a county boundary and say that’s it, that belongs to them. On the other hand, that bit there, which is in Cambridgeshire, belongs to us – and that was good for us, because it was Newmarket!

Over these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what it was about those years that I learned and that I enjoyed and that perhaps you might enjoy sharing a bit with me, because it’s the end of a chapter. This is probably the last time I shall be sitting here talking to you, and virtually the last time I’ll be preaching; I’m not the young man that I used to be, as you might have noticed. I thought it might help to see what this bishop did (and we’re all the same although we’re all different – some of us delegate to somebody else to do some things, and some of us don’t).

The House of Lords
Oddly enough, you’ll be surprised, and I’m sure ashamed of me, that the first thing that comes to mind when I think about this is a place in Westminster called the House of Lords. Now it’s alright, I’m not suffering from grandiosity – well, I am probably, but I hope I’m not. I had to wait some years before I arrived there, because only a handful of bishops are in it. The thing about the House of Lords was not what a posh place it was, but actually what an ordinary place it was. And not people who were too big for their boots moving around trying to interfere with the processes of the Commons, but people who were, if anything, too small for their boots, but who were trying to do a good job. The Lords do an awful lot of work on sharpening up bills that come from the Commons and making sense of them, doing the work that the Commons don’t have the time to do. I formed a strong admiration for those men and women going into the House of Lords, of which I was a full member for about five years until I retired.

But it’s one of those things that take you out of the diocese. The taking of time out of the job that you really feel you’ve been put to is really quite trying, quite troubling, and a lot of it has to happen. Actually, there has to be a bishop there. They have to say a prayer before the session begins in the House of Lords, and they can’t say it unless there’s a bishop there. Woe betide you if you’re duty bishop and you don’t turn up!

I stood up and made my spiel when I had something to say; more so bishops who’d got real responsibilities which link in with those of the Houses of Parliament, like education and medicine and so forth. I had to do a farewell to Harold Wilson, he having died. The pecking order has to be the Leader of the House, who’s the person who is representative of the government, then of the opposition, then of the bishops – it’s there in Hansard, if you want to find it.

Anglican Communion representative to Oriental Orthodox Churches
If you think of my life as concentric circles, I’m starting on the outer one, the tier of the House of Lords, then you go down towards the diocese. As the Church of England, you find that there are other things. There are forty-three diocesan bishops, and between us we had to carry all sorts of responsibilities that the Church might be interested and concerned in. The Church of England being what it was, I suddenly found that I was the representative for a wonderful family of Christians in the Middle East. The Oriental Orthodox Churches – you see them sometimes in their black cassocks and their hats that look rather like black onions – they are the particular family of Churches which started with Christ, unbroken; the Ethiopians, who look back, they say, to the Queen of Sheba; the Copts, from Egypt; the Armenians, who got into that group by accident; and the Syrians – yes, there is a real Syrian Christian Church, not a western Church taking over Syria, but the real Syrian Christian Church, suffering awfully over these past years. I had the job of being the Anglican representative for the Anglican Communion towards these people.

I have to say, it was time-consuming, but it was wonderful. All the bishops wear beards, which is why Dorothy will tell you that I grew a beard as well. We had to do what we could to help them. In my time (before this war had really started), we were able to help them by offering places at our theological colleges for some of their seminarians – which in the long term works wonderfully well.

I had a curate – he’s now the Bishop of Exeter – and when he was in training here in England, he worked on an exchange which still happens with the Roman Catholics in Rome; I find this sort of thing very exciting. Robert Ashwell spent six months with Roman Catholic seminarians in Rome, and now he’s a bishop in the Church of England and he knows at least six Roman Catholic bishops really well – not just formally, but really well, as friends. And that’s the way I think that groups come together, it’s the way that things change.

So, with the Oriental Orthodox – not the same as the Russian or the Greek, but the Oriental Orthodox – again, it took time. It does, doesn’t it, when you’re flying in to Cairo, or you’re flying to Ethiopia to attend the funeral of the Ethiopian Patriarch, and then a week later you’re going again to attend the enthronement of the new Patriarch. So those were all things that didn’t really connect with my diocese, though I tried to keep them informed and got them to back me up, which they were marvellous at. And there were other things too; I’m not going to bore you with everything that General Synod required of me.

Diocesan leadership – a matter of listening and encouragement
But I was after all a diocesan bishop, of a diocese of getting on for a million people, of getting on for 500 parishes, of getting on for 300 clergy, give or take, who looked to me as their leader. Well, I don’t know if you’ve been watching the politics lately, but I noticed that Jeremy Corbyn said something about leadership the other day. Leadership really isn’t being the boss – you have very little power anyway – it is much more a matter of encouragement, of bringing your ideas, yes, but being prepared to listen to other people’s ideas and to develop a culture of shared leadership which most people can embrace. And that I saw as my prime task, really, leadership in that sense.

That meant getting to know as many people as I could: churchwardens (I have to say, the churchwardens of Suffolk were very perceptive men and women; they were tough, they are tough). My neighbour, who was the Bishop of Norwich, and therefore of the people of Norfolk, was heard to say at one meeting we went to, ‘The only way you can lead the people of Norfolk is by discovering which way they’re going and getting in front of them’! That was the way it was, the way we worked. I got to know as many as I could, I was myself as much as I possibly could be, I listened, and we evolved.

I was very lucky to have a senior staff round me. I had a suffragan bishop myself by then, and two archdeacons. You know the story about the archdeacons that runs in the Church of England? The archdeacons are the ones who are largely responsible for buildings. The story is that in any diocese the bishop is the ‘soft man’, the bishop is the labrador who wags his tail and licks everybody, and they all feel the better for his encouragement. The archdeacons are two rottweilers who are kept in the cellar and brought out to make sure that things happen. It’s only half true. My two were lovely men and they were both pastors. And then I had a full-time chaplain, I had a cathedral dean who took me in hand firmly. I was lucky to have people to work at that level, working the same way as I was. So we were a team leading the wider team, effectively the whole diocese, we hoped.

The great task after getting to know everybody as much as one could (some people don’t want to get to be known), was to seize two problems that were hitting Suffolk firmly. One was about money. We had a good fund-raiser and the team that he built round himself. I can remember him sitting there at the diocesan synod: ‘Between the work we have to do and the money we get a great chasm is fixed’. The other was what was hitting us and hitting the whole of the Church – the real problem – what do you do when you’re getting fewer clergy for all sorts of reasons and you’ve still got as many parishes as you had? You looked sometimes in the Church newspapers and saw advertisements for jobs for somebody to look after eight or nine or even ten or eleven parishes. I mean, would you apply for a job to look after eleven parishes in rural Suffolk? We had to work on that, and we did find some sort of answer which is still being worked on, based largely on encouraging local leadership to take more responsibility.

Supporting the clergy
I’m getting close to the centre now: getting to know the clergy. You know the churchwardens, you know the laity to some extent. These chaps with the dog collars on – and in my day they were all men, of course (I was the bishop who ordained the first group of women in my diocese) – it can be very lonely. The priesthood is sometimes a very solitary experience and – I know Peter would confirm this – you know a great deal about your parish if you’re a good priest. You’ve learned it over the years. You know about their private lives, but you can’t say anything because that’s private. You’re carrying a whole lot of stuff. I remember people coming to me and saying, ‘Did you know that so-and-so, she’s living with so-and-so?’ ‘Oh really, how is she?’ And I knew that three years ago. I didn’t comment, of course. It’s difficult if you don’t have a good team round you in the parish or benefice – as Peter has, and Peter’s done a lot of work for that to happen, and my grateful thanks to him, I’m sure, for his hospitality to me, putting up with my foibles.

Dorothy was wonderful. We went almost every Sunday to a different parish, often for a Confirmation, and she kept a little notebook. And the little notebook had in it the vicar’s name, the vicar’s wife’s name, the children’s names. She didn’t put against it how old they were, as it might be two or three years before we went there again; she put their date of birth. I tell you, that was wonderful. You pulled into the drive, she reminded me, I got out of the car, said to a teenager who opened the door, ‘Hello, you must be Trevor’. Usually it was lucky – he was Trevor! But even if he wasn’t, at least he knew that I knew the name of some of his family. I really enjoyed all that. So, getting to know the clergy, getting them to trust you, getting to be on their side, getting to be their friend. Doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s wonderful, and that I think is almost right at the centre of my concentric circles.

Right at the centre, of course, is something else. And you, I am sure, will know what I’m going to say now. It’s prayer, isn’t it? A priest is no good – a parish priest or bishop, archbishop or pope are no good – unless we are people of prayer, unless we root ourselves in the deep silence which is at the heart of prayer, unless we hold up the people that we serve and love in our prayers.

Enough of that. The last twenty years I’ve been here, and I’ve thanked Peter from the bottom of my heart for the way in which he’s loved Dorothy and me, received us and enabled me to carry on what sort of retirement is possible (which isn’t the same as a working day, but entirely appropriate for where I’m at now).

I just want to finish with a little anecdote. A while ago now, I remember at the back of St Paul’s, when I was dressed up like a dog’s dinner (it might have been a Confirmation), a member of the congregation who is here this morning (and I did tell her I might mention this, but I won’t mention her name) came in at the point just as we were all at the back of the church waiting to start. There I was in my fancy dress, and she said, ‘Oh goodness, we’ve got a bishop this morning’. Then she looked closer and I turned and looked at her, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s alright, it’s only Bishop John!’ Thank you, Peter, for letting me be ‘only Bishop John’.