A Retiring Bishop?
I still remember the first time I met Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, who announced his retirement this week after 20 years at the helm of the Church of England in what he is fond of calling “this great world city”. It was at a workshop on the spirituality of icons. He was imposing and incredibly tall with the manner of a medieval prelate. Deeply influenced by Eastern Christianity, Richard stirred my imagination as he described an icon as ‘a membrane quivering between heaven and earth.’ It’s a phrase I have used many times since.
Bishop Richard’s oratory and literary skill have continued to inspire me whether at the Maundy Thursday Eucharist where the clergy gather at St Paul’s Cathedral to renew our ordination vows or when we come together to celebrate the ordination of new deacons. I have always looked forward to seeing Richard in action and hearing what he has to say. With what one colleague described as his ‘emphatic annunciation’, as soon as he welcomes the congregation with a booming “beloved” you know you’re in for an exciting ride. There really was no one better to preach at the wedding of William and Kate, as he addressed more people at one time than any other preacher in history. I felt proud that this was my bishop with a global reach.
Richard is clearly a man who values tradition, perhaps some would even say he was old before his time, but he wears it lightly and his spirit has always remained fresh and eager to learn. I remember one famous occasion where Richard turned up in traditional clerical attire only to do an ecclesiastical strip tease, in a few moments he had the entire congregation eating out of his hand. More recently, he went so far as to instruct the Area Bishops to dance at a prayer event at the Cathedral. He has actively embraced Alpha and contemporary forms of worship, as well as church planting and new forms of training and ministry, reviving the see of Islington and overseeing the growth of St Mellitus, now the largest theological college in the country, all leaving the diocese in a strong position to face the challenges of the 21st century. He has won the confidence of the diocese as a whole in all its biodiversity, to use his own phrase, something that will be a huge challenge for any successor to maintain.
Richard isn’t just a master of the set piece. He is a skilled political operator. He has an acute strategic mind. I remember working with him on the Bishop of London’s Mission Fund and being amazed at the speed of his decision making as he saw an opportunity and quickly redirected the entire fund to take maximum advantage as the rest of us scrambled to catch up. He is the undisputed master of the labyrinthine decision making processes and committees of the diocese, a truly medieval maze that he has made his own, streamlining and simplifying them to ensure the diocese is fit for purpose. This all happens behind the scenes and is hardly exciting work, but it makes all the difference and Richard has had the wisdom to recognize this. It makes one wonder whether someone from outside the diocese would be able to pull the levers of power so effectively.
Above all, Richard is a man of prayer. I remember asking him how he found the time to pray with all the demands of family and ministry and he simply replied that he got up early, and I believed him! He is a pastor too. To return to my original experience of him, Richard recognized my early fascination with icons so wrote to me later with details of his favourite iconographer, just in case! He might be writing articles for the Evening Standard, visiting local parishes and fulfilling his metropolitan roles in the city, but he continues to make time for individuals, and that’s as it should be.
So I am praying for someone to build on Richard’s extraordinary legacy. Someone able to adapt to a changing church, culture and context, providing visible and visionary leadership, exercising the levers of power with integrity and acuity whilst maintaining a winsome and wondering spirituality. Yes, we have much to be grateful for as our bishop retires, and much to pray for too.