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The Rt Revd John Bickersteth

16 March 2018

Brian Walker

John Bickersteth, Bishop of Bath & Wells, speaks about peace to the crowds at the Glastonbury Festival (a CND event) in 1982. A punk fanzine, Vague, reported that the Bishop was “quite good”

John Bickersteth, Bishop of Bath & Wells, speaks about peace to the crowds at the Glastonbury Festival (a CND event) in 1982. A punk fanzine, Vagu...

The Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch writes:

THE Rt Revd John Monier Bickersteth, who died on 29 January, aged 96, was Bishop of Bath & Wells from 1975 to 1987.

Born at Canterbury into a family of successive generations of clergy, among them several bishops, he was brought up in London. His ordained father was General Secretary of the Jerusalem and the East Mission. Educated at Rugby School, and always a countryman at heart, John’s ambition was to be a farmer. His mother’s death, when he was 15, led to the transformation of his conventional understanding of what it meant to be a Christian into a personal and lasting commitment to Christ.

His years in the Army, including the Normandy landings, followed by Christ Church, Oxford, led to his decision, much pondered, to offer for ordination. Trained at Wells Theological College, he was steered by a tutor, John Robinson (later Bishop of Woolwich), to serve his curacy under Mervyn Stockwood (later Bishop of Southwark) in the bombed Bristol parish St Matthew’s, Moorfields.

There, the combination of regular pastoral visiting and the dynamic and compelling Sunday worship convinced him that following Christ was about more than personal faith. It also required commitment to spreading the gospel beyond the Church.

His incumbencies were in the new housing area of St John’s, Hurst Green, and later at St Stephen’s, Chatham. At both, he was appreciated for his approachability and pastoral skills. His energetic readiness to embrace new ideas often delivered surprises. A verger asked him one Sunday just before the service began “Will there be anything normal today?”

His bishop (David Say, of Rochester) spotted his potential, appointed him Hon. Canon, and sent him to the 1968 World Council of Churches meeting in Uppsala. From there, he returned enthusiastically committed to the ecumenical movement and the urgent need to care for God’s earth.

When Stuart Blanch, Warden of Rochester Theological College, became Bishop of Liverpool, Bickersteth soon joined him as suffragan. He was well-liked as Bishop of Warrington (1970-75), and his episcopate coincided with the pioneering work of Blanch and Archbishop Beck in encouraging unity between Liverpool’s long-divided denominations.

Once, having led an ecumenical procession, he was so enthused by what had happened that spontaneously he called on them to give “three cheers for God”. It was to become a hallmark of his episcopal years.

He and Bath & Wells were well-matched. In a diocese that is sometimes mistakenly perceived to be wholly rural, his range of earlier ministries fitted effectively with the different needs of a see that included urban and suburban parishes.

As a bishop, he always gave top priority to the pastoral care of his clergy. He and his wife, Rosemary, who was a tremendous support to him, and died in 2009, leave a legacy of memories of their warm hospitality and care and kindness to many clergy and laity. Bickersteth disliked being out of the diocese unnecessarily, but recognised the need for a diocesan bishop’s wider responsibilities.

A valued chairman of the council of the Royal School of Church Music, he affirmed both new musical worship and traditional choirs. He was devoted to the Bible Reading Fellowship, which he also chaired.

In the House of Lords, at a time when bishops spoke less but listened much, his interventions were few. At Church House, he was vice-chairman of the Central Board of Finance; and in the General Synod he swung the vote in favour of keeping the more traditional Lord’s Prayer as an alternative in the new liturgy.

He loved trees and gardening, and, in his retirement, he not only enjoyed these, but also energised the successful 1990 Creation Festival in Salisbury, and was a Church of England spokesman on green issues.

Often fun to work with, he was fierce when his Christian commitment was being compromised. He supported protesters against a Newbury bypass, but refused to conduct their religious service because of its pagan elements.

In his final decades, he wrote his autobiography, self-deprecatingly titled Run o’ the Mill Bishop: A countryman’s peregrinations with the Church. He co-wrote Clerks of the Closet in the Royal Household: Five hundred years of service to the Crown, a history of that royal office, to which the Queen appointed him in 1979; he served until 1989. He also published The Bickersteth Diaries, a much-praised collection of family letters from the Great War. In 1989, he was invested with the insignia of a KCVO.

With no pretensions to high intellect, he was a gifted and intelligent cleric who was often ahead of his time. A bishop who loved God, God’s people, and God’s earth, he died thankful for God’s many blessings.

A large congregation, with his sons and daughter, and their families, attended his funeral in St Thomas’s, Salisbury.

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