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

Saturday, 10 November 2012

An Open Letter to the next Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Justin

So it’s official.  After weeks of speculation, and helped by Ladbrokes, we now know that you’re to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. As your dean and colleague in Durham, I want to offer heartfelt congratulations and to promise my prayers as you begin this great journey.

I have fond memories of Coventry days when I was precentor at the Cathedral and oversaw your ordination.  You and I got to know each other a little then.  I thought at the time that you were someone with a remarkable story and rather special gifts.  You talked about your experience in the oil industry – but not much: you were too focused on being a deacon and then a priest, and too excited by the ministry that was opening up before you.

When you came to Durham last year, this was still true of you. It was moving to install you in the great bishop’s throne in our cathedral.  I almost wanted to say that I hoped its height and grandeur wouldn’t go to your head.  But I knew I had no need to tell you that. Your genuine modesty, your lack of self-importance, your wry take on the world and most of all your deep spirituality would take care of you. You were more interested in washing feet than living like a grandee as a successor of Durham’s prince-bishops. You were completely committed to being a bishop who would put God and people first.

Who would have thought that a year later you would be leaving us? I won’t deny that I feel a personal sense of loss. You have begun to be a real champion of this part of England that feels remote from the centre of things, already a very needy place before it was hit hard hit by the financial crisis. In the statement of needs that I helped write for the diocese before your appointment, we said we wanted a bishop whose heart would be in the North East (we also said we hoped the next bishop – you – would stay for several years!). Well, your heart has been with us, even when you have been in London doing the business of church and state, or overseas pursuing reconciliation in divided societies like Nigeria. It is not your fault that you have been taken from us now.

The whole world will be giving you advice as you contemplate what kind of archbishop God wants you to be.  I’m not going to add much to that: it’s not words you need right now but the knowledge that you will have wise and caring people around you to help you discern the shape of this great and awful vocation, this siege perilous.

But I can’t resist saying just this. I hope you will take with you the memory of our northern saints as you learn what it means to inhabit this office. In Durham, you are the direct successor of Aidan, founder of our diocese, and of Cuthbert in whose shrine in the Cathedral you have often prayed. In a blog earlier this year I compared Rowan Williams with Cuthbert as ‘off-beat’ bishops.  I wanted to say that a Christian leader needs to be a bit elusive, not always saying or doing the expected thing, not afraid of being surprising and keeping people guessing.
Already the public wants to pigeon-hole you: evangelical rather than catholic, pro this and against that.  You are bigger than that, as anyone who knows you will confirm.  You know that it needs great self-awareness to resist these easy either-ors. It also takes resilience and courage to be your own man in leadership.  It depends on keeping the spiritual garden watered by long and regular spells of solitariness, meditation and prayer. I know how important this is to you, to go to the heart of faith and keep it alive and fresh. I hope the pressures of high office drive you more and more in the contemplative direction which is the source of wisdom. I believe they will because your personal authenticity is so important to you. And I believe that you will surprise, inspire and delight us too.

When Donald Coggan was installed as archbishop, his secretary mis-typed ‘enthronement as ‘enthornment’.  That gave him food for thought.  The role was daunting enough then. How much more complex and demanding it is today. Who knows what the next few years will bring for our world, for our church and for you personally.  To be a bishop or an archbishop feels to me like a kind of crucifixion.  Yet Jesus wore his crown of thorns not only with dignity but also with hope for the joy that was set before him. I pray that joy and hope will be yours at the spring equinox when you come to be seated on the throne of Augustine.

So take the cup that is given you in Canterbury, and as you wonder how on earth you find yourself there, smile a little at God’s strange work, be thankful, and discover in the doing of his work that all shall be well.  

And thank you.

With affection and prayers,




  1. A wonderful eulogy to a thoughtful and prayerful Bishop, given the Cup, which he might have rejected, but has reached for, because, he seems to sense the moment.

    This is a time of huge need in the whole country, which is crying out for a new, or renewed Spiritual leadership, of a kind that they can understand, accept and be part off. This is a real opportunity for a new, face, fresh to the role, but steeped in prayer and grace to enable and empower the Church and Anglican Communion and the Universal Church to unit and bring together God's people as one.

    To big a job? If we support him, if we work with him, if we pray with him, surely the Kingdom is one step closer, now and in the future.

  2. A very moving open letter. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Michael, this is wonderful. Even though I left the Cathedral and Diocese before +Justin arrived, this has helped me to know him more than anything else I have read. Thank you. And I will certainly be sharing it widely here in the Episcopal Church. Love the Coggan line - made me think of the old archdeacons' 'vulnerable' joke!

  4. A year in Durham Cathedral must be worth at least ten elsewhere! Archbishop Justin will surely be numbered among the northern saints, as he fufils his mission in Canterbury and leads the Pilgrim Church the world over from England's greatest pilgrim shrine. May God and St.Thomas richly bless him!

  5. Michael,

    I'm now where near as eloquent as you or the commentators above, so I'll just say (in capitals for added emphasis):



  6. thank you.. there was a moment when +Justin's thin shoulders appeared ready to receive the cross: there is a strong sense of what he is offering himself up for.
    I am so glad to read of his humour and good sense, and at the same time so aware of the aw[e]ful task he is taking on.
    It is a conjunction of time, place, person, prayer which will define the church in quite unimaginable ways. And it feels very right.

  7. Thank you, Michael, for this moving and delightful commendation of your former protege at Coventry, and more recent colleague in Durham.

    I am presuming you won't mind my posting your remarks on my New Zealand website kiwianglo.

    Your personal insights will be invaluable to our understanding of +Justin - especially in the wake of our recent local experience of ++Rowan's ministry as the current Archbishop of Canterbury at ACC15.

    May God give you such another Servant of God to be +Justin's successor at Dunelm.

  8. Thank you to all for warm encouraging comments. To Kiwianglo and any others, I am happy for this blog to be shared elsewhere.

  9. I am sure everyone in the Diocese will agree with your words!