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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Rowan and Cuthbert: off-beat bishops

So Rowan is laying down the office of Archbishop.  It isn't a huge surprise.  And I'm only one among many who want to pay tribute to him. 'It was the best of times' (because he has given such wise, spiritually intelligent leadership); 'it was the worst of times' (because the worldwide Communion has been hopelessly divided on gay relationships and women bishops). I won't complete the Dickens quote about the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, of belief and incredulity.  But I do want to say thank you for being a steady leader in such a turbulent decade.  And to reflect a little on what he has taught me about being a bishop and a Christian leader today.

Next Tuesday we shall celebrate St Cuthbert's Day, and in anticipation, we have a special service in his honour later today (apologies to Patrick).  As I walked across Framwellgate Bridge earlier, and looked up at the Cathedral, I thought, not for the first time, how much we owe to Cuthbert here in Durham.  Without him (or, I suppose I should say, his body, brought here by his loyal community) there would be no cathedral, no university, no city.  Then I thought about Rowan and how different it is being a bishop in the 21st century from the 7th century when Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne.

And yet....  Perhaps there are important things in common.  Here are three off-beat similarities that occurred to me by the river.

First, Cuthbert did not want to be a bishop, and I suspect Rowan did not hanker after high office either.  In Cuthbert's Life, it says that although he was elected bishop by the synod, and messages sent to him on the Inner Farne, he refused to move.  Even the king had to go down on his knees and plead with him.  At last, 'he came forth, very tearful... very reluctantly he was overcome by their unanimous decision and compelled to submit to the yoke of episcopacy.'  Nolo episcopari was pretty much a necessary condition of becoming a bishop in the early church: to say 'I do not want this' and to mean it.  It's refreshing to think that an archbishop or bishop does not seek the office too much; it's dispiriting to watch others who seem to want it more than is good for them.  Now like Cuthbert, Rowan is about to lay aside the role.  And to be able to do that is also a mark of grace.

Secondly, Cuthbert was an elusive bishop, never quite saying or doing what people expected of him.  This says something about his spiritual freedom, his sense that God came before everything else.  (On state occasions, Archbishop Michael Ramsey used always to acknowledge the altar before bowing to royalty, muttering to himself 'God first'.)  Rowan has seemed to me to stand in this tradition of authenticity and integrity.  He has not said or done the obvious. He has kept us guessing at times, always a shrewd leadership tactic.  I once heard that instead of attending the State Opening of Parliament, he had been examining a PhD thesis on Dostoevsky.  In an era of cliche and soundbite,  it is good to know that an archbishop can remain his own person and not be shaped by the possible or impossible expectations of the crowd.  We shouldn't underestimate what that may have cost him personally. 

Thirdly, Cuthbert was a man of profound humility.  For him, being a man of God meant knowing his place: a creature close to other creatures (in that respect, England's St Francis), a servant who saw his vocation as speaking about God's love and washing feet, and above all Christ's slave. I am sure Rowan would not thank me for putting it this way, but I see a family likeness here.  But hang on, you say, surely all this is central to Christian ministry. Reluctant bishop, yes, elusive bishop, yes - these are perhaps a little unusual, even off-beat.  But to say that he is a humble man of God?  Well, I am simply asking whether it isn't unusual to see genuine goodness quite so visible in those entrusted with high office of any kind.  I know from my own experience, 17 years as a dean, that a senior role carries spiritual hazards.  Humility is usually the first virtue to fall victim.  We should be grateful for leaders who do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. These are the people who are truly transformational.

When I wrote my book Wisdom and Ministry I was not especially thinking either of Cuthbert or of Rowan Williams, though I might have been.  Wisdom changes things: we are called to change lives for the sake of Christ. Who knows how many lives are touched not by self-important rhetoric or grandstanding to the media, but by thoughtful, intelligent, articulate leaders who know themselves and are not afraid of speaking the truth by which they live and die.  This is why I am thankful for Rowan Williams as he prepares to step down.


  1. Thank you. Let us hope that, in years to come, +Rowan will be revered as Cuthbert was. We have been alive in the time of saints.
    Our infinite capacity for destruction means that the best of men are shredded by the media (with our acceptance) and we open the way for the ambitious to reach for a higher office than they are fitted for.

  2. A very gentle, scholarly man who exudes the peace and child-like joy that comes from a close relationship with the Father and has had to battle to keep communication channels open - probably at much personal cost. I hope and trust he will continue the battle.