Obituary: The Rt Revd Dr Douglas Geoffrey Rowell

by
30 June 2017

Dr Rowell from life: a portrait in oils by Alexander Debenham, 2017, paid for by 40 friends, former pupils, and colleagues; the Bishop lived to see it

Dr Rowell from life: a portrait in oils by Alexander Debenham, 2017, paid for by 40 friends, former pupils, and colleagues; the Bishop lived to see it

The Revd Dr Charles Miller writes:

BISHOP Geoffrey Rowell’s peace­ful death in the morning of Trinity Sunday, 11 June, at the age of 74, marks the passing of an era. Prob­ably no recent cleric in the Church of Eng­land has so thoroughly em­­bodied the spirit of the Tractar­ian Movement.

Though Geoffrey’s life began and ended in Hampshire, he traversed the globe in the course of education, and throughout his ministry. As a child in primary school, he drew a figure of a man with a pointed hat and scribbled “I want to be a bishop”. His intellectual potential gained him a Hampshire County Council bursary place at Winchester College, in 1956. Geoffrey won prizes in divinity and history, and his housemaster in 1961 com­mented: “a first-rate finish”.

Undergraduate study of theology at Corpus Christi College, Cam­bridge, under Norman Sykes and Owen Chadwick, led Geoffrey to train for ordination. He arrived at Cuddesdon in the final year of Robert Runcie’s tenure as Principal. He received a Philip Usher scholar­ship to spend a year among Eastern Christians in their homelands. As a guest of Ecumenical Patriarch Athen­agoras then, Geoffrey began his life-long links with Orthodoxy; but his penchant for travel and adventure took him further afield, too, into Turkey’s Syrian Christian communities, and to Christian Armenia.

Geoffrey was ordained deacon and priest in 1968-69, serving his title at New College, Oxford, as Assistant Chaplain, where he became a loyal friend to the church historian Gary Bennett. With the publication of Geoffrey’s doctoral thesis as Hell and the Victor­ians, Geoffrey became the heir apparent of Owen Chadwick and David New­some as a 19th-century English church historian.

A three-month stay at the Coptic monastery of St Macarius the Great, in ancient “Scetis”, helped him decide not to be a monk. When Geoffrey left, he had resolved to pursue his vocation as a clerical don, though he thenceforth cher­ished contacts with Western and Eastern monastic traditions.

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In 1972, he became Chaplain, Fellow, and Tutor in Theology at Keble College. For 22 years, he devoted himself to that life. Former students still cherish memories of his kindness, generosity, and hos­pital­ity. Outings to Cotswold pubs on Sunday afternoons, and sherry after chapel, were followed by con­versations, often late into the evening, with guest preachers of prominence and, even, fame. He had a memorable sense of fun.

He set out each summer, with a group of students, on exotic excur­sions. One fellow traveller recalls sleep­­ing in a communal room next to a Parsee funeral tower in Pakis­tan, and waking up to the face of a blood-curdling vulture at the end of the bed, and of dodging both violent Muharram processions, and bolts of lightning, in jeeps fleeing down the Swat valley.

The tutorial relationship, though, was the heart of Geoffrey’s ministry at Keble. He resisted pressures to modify the one-to-one tutorial. By nature he made connections, so that “in his mind everything was linked, and you couldn’t mention one bit of the Christian faith without men­tion­ing all the other bits too.” He and the Roman Catholic Chaplain mounted a Newman seminar, and the Trinity-term History Faculty seminar with John Walsh incubated a stream of new-generation church historians.

Geoffrey’s door was always open, so that late-night visitors with pastoral issues were never turned away by the chaplain. If he could not provide answers, he always knew someone who would.

The vast Butterfield chapel was the venue for intimate daily prayers and the eucharist, as well as for cathedral-style worship with a choir of some 25, boosted by the admis­sion of women to the college. Geoffrey-cum-choir peregrinated through the parishes in the college’s gift. Geoffrey exercised a kind of personal prelature among the col­lege’s 64 livings, long before he actually became a bishop, sorting out appointments, preaching at institutions, and supporting incum­bents. At the farm and family of Ann and Hingston Wood at Little Petherick, Geoffrey found the wel­come, affirmation, love, and care that college could never provide for a single man.

Through his Oxford years, he actively supported Tractarian-born institutions near by, as chairman of the governors of the ecumenical House of St Gregory and St Macrina, and later of Pusey House and of St Stephen’s House.

Keble certainly provided profes­sion­ally satisfying opportuni­ties for Geoffrey, such as the books that preceded and fol­lowed the 150th-
anniversary celebration of the Ox­ford Movement in July 1983: The Vision Glorious; Themes and per­sonali­ties of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, and Tradition Renewed: The Oxford Movement Con­ference papers.

But in the later years there was discord. Geoffrey’s opposition to the ordination of women caused him real personal pain; his con­serva­tism in that regard enflamed lingering impatience with him. His long-standing friendship with Bennett — the ill-fated anony­mous author of the Crockford Pre­face for 1987-88 — pushed Geof­frey into the firing-line of the Church of England during one of its highly toxic phases. Other in-house colleg­iate issues further isolated him.

His participation on the Litur­gical Commission led its former chairman, Colin James, as Bishop of Winchester, to appoint Geoffrey as Suffragan Bishop of Basingstoke in 1994. Visits to primary schools drew from Geoffrey a delight in sharing the faith with children, and parish preaching required distillation and adjustment. While the creeping man­­­a­gerial mind-set at diocesan level left him cold, he enjoyed the access that episcopacy afforded. He regularly contributed to the weekly “Credo” column in The Times.

Despite the polarisation of the Church of England, and the Angli­can Communion, over women and the episcopate, and sexuality, through the 1990s, Geoffrey main­tained ties with church friends with different views, both formally on the Bishops’ Working Party on Women and the Episcopate, and unofficially. He collaborated in a large anthology of Anglican spirituality, Love’s Re­­deeming Work. His wide travels and relationships throughout the East­ern Christian world provided in­­val­uable support for successive Arch­­­bishops of Canterbury, from the time of Robert Runcie onward.

In 2001, Geoffrey succeeded John Hind as the Bishop in Europe. Geof­frey’s deep knowledge of the An­­glican tradition, his wide ecu­menical knowledge and relationships, and his firm commitment to Catholic Anglicanism made him an obvious choice. The vast diocese, which at his retirement in 2013 en­­compassed 270 chaplaincies across 44 countries, was experienc­ing un­­expected growth. In many places “An­­glicanism” was becoming in­­digenous. The number of women priests in the diocese grew, though Geoffrey never ordained one him­self, and he served his clergy and con­­gregations with boundless energy and care.

Geoffrey relied on his personal chaplain and PA to order his work­load and travels. But he could be decisive. When the post of Suf­fragan Bishop needed filling, he declared: “I know just who I want: David Hamid from the Anglican Communion office.” David worked effectively with Geoffrey through the next 12 years. Diocesan confer­ences were carefully prepared, and were genuine spiritual and theo­logical experiences. Geoffrey was especially proud of the diocesan magazine, The European Anglican, to which he regularly contributed. His spacious home in Worth, Bishop’s Lodge, was a place of warm welcome, hospitality, and, for some, retreat to rest and write.

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Most clergy in the diocese valued Geoffrey’s unstinting pastoral soli­citude and spiritual stature. Geof­frey’s commitment to Anglicanism’s exercise of authority through moral suasion was sometimes not suffi­cient to crack hard nuts; situations could fester. Through overwork and sheer tiredness, he sometimes dropped important balls — regret­tably, given his delight in the dio­cese’s largely self-supporting fund­ing culture.

Ecumenical work burgeoned. Geoffrey began The International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, on which he worked tire­lessly with the Revd Christine Hall. The vast network of former stu­dents, colleagues, and ecumenical contacts helped the journal’s reader­ship and impact grow. In 2001, Arch­­bishop Williams asked Geoffrey to re-start and chair the Anglican-Oriental [i.e. non-Chalcedonian] Orthodox Inter­­national Commis­sion, which pro­duced in 2014 an agreed statement on Christology.

Naturally, Anglican-Roman Ca­th­­olic relations were prominent. He got to know Cardinal Ratzinger in the context of doctrinal and mis­sional discussions. “Geoffrey em­­bodied just the direction we wanted to move in,” a Vatican ecu­menist has said. The mutual regard con­­tinued when Ratzinger became pope. They shared an interest in Newman. On one occasion, a quarter-hour private interview be­­came a 45-minute one. In discus­sions about Anglican Orders, Pope Benedict admitted to him: “We can­not do anything about Leo XIII’s words, but there are other ways of looking at things.” When Geoffrey asked him directly what he thought of our Orders, the Pope replied: “They are never nothing.”

Geoffrey loved poetry, could recite large swaths from memory, and was himself a talented hymn-writer. When a friend told him, just a week before he died, that his hymn for the feast of the Visitation had been sung at the diocese in Europe’s synod, he was delighted, though he emphasised that the friend’s favourite phrase there was Jeremy Taylor’s, not his own.

Retirement in 2013 was hard. He was still full of energy and momen­tum, and champed at the bit that church protocols required stepping down. He would have preferred to die in office. Eventually, he settled com­fort­ably in Fishbourne, near Chiches­ter, to continue, despite the effects of years of diabetes, writing, lecturing, ministering as an assistant bishop, and — unusually — sup­port­ing his successor. In his final months, Geoffrey was struggling with cancer. Perhaps his last public appearance, less than a month be­­fore his death, was at a service to welcome Coptic Pope Tawadros II to the UK.

Ending a pamphlet on John Keble in a series marking the Oxford Movement’s 150th an­­ni­versary, Geoffrey cited lines of a poem from Keble’s The Christian Year: “So glorious let thy Pastors shine That by their speaking lives the world may learn.” His con­cluding words about Keble are as worthy of Geoffrey himself: “His was such a speaking life, which inspired those of his generation, and may yet speak to Christians today and be one from which both the world and the Church may learn.”

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