by Chris Savage
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017
Veterans of Modern Church Conferences will remember that John Saxbee when President of Modern Church invited Bishop Geoffrey Rowell as one of the speakers.
John made a great play about his theology being different from Geoffrey’s, and so at the outset we were left wondering what kind of confrontation might develop.
In the event Geoffrey focussed on Newman and the Oxford Movement. There was a feeling of frustration that he could have challenged more effectively the many who wanted to engage with him. His reticence to engage more deeply with Conference may have been due to the fact that he did not like conflict. This, according to one of the obituaries, was because his parents never quarrelled.
Geoffrey died in St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Sussex on June 11th 2017, Trinity Sunday. I first met him when he became Bishop of Basingstoke in 1994. At that time, I was Industrial Chaplain for Basingstoke and North Hampshire. In this review of my ministry and friendship with Geoffrey, I want to share with you the experience of working with a Christian leader whose ministry and charisma deeply influenced the many diverse parts of Christianity, East and West.
I was at first appalled by Geoffrey’s appointment. This was two years after the historic vote in General Synod that cleared the path for the ordination of women as priests. I felt this was an unwanted political move from Colin James, then Bishop of Winchester. Bishop Colin asked Geoffrey to sit on my management committee and everything from that moment seemed to be doom and gloom. To his credit, Geoffrey told Colin that he knew nothing about Industrial Mission.
What changed for me was when Geoffrey came to see me at home. I was doing an MA part time at Hull University and writing a thesis on Postmodernism, theology and rootlessness. Unlike contemporary politicians and corporate managers, he did not come over as sweet-talking me with promises of success. He simply said ‘Chris, I will support you wherever I can’. He was always true to his word. I remember vividly an example when he joined a party of local clergy to see my ministry and the work of a local truck building company. The Personnel Officer addressed the group and was clearly exploiting the presence of the Bishop by trying to undermine me. I made my point and I will never forget seeing Geoffrey silently nodding in agreement.
One of the pictures that traditionalist priests and Bishops paint is that of a domineering intolerance towards those who oppose their views. Geoffrey was nothing of that sort and I always felt he had a loose connection with Forward in Faith. He exercised a ministry of dialogue and crossing the boundaries. With Industrial Mission, he attended and helped find eminent speakers like Andrew Adonis for a series of lectures we organised on Will Hutton’s book, The state we’re in. In fact, when we launched the publication of the lectures we managed to have Bishops David Jenkins and Geoffrey Rowell in the same room on the same panel!
Geoffrey was keen for our group to go to Strasbourg, so he led a dozen of us to meet the chaplain there who organised visits to the European Parliament and Council. He insisted we travel just before Christmas in 1998 so he could buy his Christmas drink from the Strasbourg market!
Rowan Williams, in his superb sermon at Geoffrey’s Solemn Requiem Mass in Chichester Cathedral on July 5th, spoke about the continuing tension Geoffrey faced about the ordination of women. Geoffrey believed the Church of England had got into a mess on this. He was a keen ecumenist and had strong links with the Orthodox Churches. He was convinced that the National Church was part of the larger Christian Church. Geoffrey did not believe it had the authority in 1992 to ordain women as priests. When Bishop of Europe he told women priests in his diocese:
‘I will give you all the support I can, but what I can’t give you is Catholic consent’.
Not an easy thing for women priests to hear or accept. Geoffrey was also one of three bishops who voted against the consecration of women as Bishops in the second vote in General Synod. Yet he was also engaged in theological dialogue with women priests and others on this issue.
His book The Vision Glorious, published in 1982 when Geoffrey was Chaplain, Fellow and Tutor in Theology at Keble College Oxford, explores the themes and personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism. He makes the point that the Revival embodied in the Oxford Movement brought out a close relationship between theology and sacramental spirituality. To recognise this central characteristic of the revival can contribute much, so he states, to the continual renewal of the Catholic tradition in Anglicanism today.
Chichester Cathedral was full for Geoffrey’s Requiem Mass. I was one of 300 priests - not all male! – who robed and processed. Many from various wings in our national and global churches ttended. What particularly impressed me was the outpouring of love for Geoffrey. You could not avoid feeling it!