THE Rochester diocese serves 1.5 million people, and takes in the London boroughs of Bromley and Bexley, as well as reaching almost to the Kent coast.
Its next Bishop (News, 1 April), Dr Jonathan Gibbs, currently lives in the Pennines, often characterised as Last of the Summer Wine country. But speaking to the Church Times on Thursday, as he was en route from Edenbridge to Chatham, on a whistle-stop tour of his new diocese, he reflected on the post-industrial areas around Huddersfield, Halifax, and Dewsbury: they had much in common with the post-industrial challenges of the Medway towns, he said; with similarities, too, in their diversity and vibrancy.
He announced his new appointment on Thursday on a visit to Trinity Church of England School, Belvedere — a “wonderful, culturally diverse school,” he said with pleasure — where the students quizzed him about his vision for the diocese, and wanted to know how he hoped the Church might be able to interact better with children and young people. “We heard from them about how they could help shape and lead the Church. I found it energising and insightful just to listen to them.”
Dr Gibbs has earned widespread respect for his work on safeguarding, on which he has reported back to the General Synod. “It’s been a privilege to be part of the journey of safeguarding over the last few years,” he said, soberly. “I’m profoundly conscious of the way in which the Church has too often failed people in the past. Of course, you are hearing very difficult things, but the fact that survivors are willing to travel with us and help us to learn is amazing.
“We’re conscious that there’s still a long way to go. We’d love to see progress being faster, but I think there is a sense that, by the grace of God, we are beginning to see a cultural change within the life of the Church: coming out of the shock of the past and recognising how deep that change needs to be.”
It was too soon to say whether the C of E had earned respect for the way it was tackling something so painful, he reflected. “I’m very conscious that there’s a lot more to do in order to do that, and you can never take away the scar of some people’s lives.
“It’s hugely important that we are as open and transparent as we can be in order to begin hopefully to bring healing into people’s lives, and that we are prepared to learn how to do things better and make the Church a safe and healthy and nurturing place for all.”
Even had preferment not come, his work as lead bishop for safeguarding would have been time-limited by its very nature: he will continue it until the end of March next year.
Dr Gibbs, a fluent French and German speaker who has worked as a chaplain in Basle, and who met his wife, Toni, in Paris, will also continue his work with the Meissen Commission: something that might be a good deal easier with closer proximity to Europe.
“It’s been a wonderful part of our lives to have enjoyed time in mainland Europe, and the diocese here has particular links with the Church in Estonia — very much in our thoughts at the moment,” he observed.
In Sidcup, he had just attended a meeting at St John’s with members of the local Ukrainian community, one of whom had just returned from driving supplies over to Lviv. “It was very moving to have the privilege of meeting and praying with them this morning,” he said. English for Ukrainian classes are run from the church, which has been offering practical as well as spiritual help.
“It’s been wonderful coming here today and meeting the team I’ll be working with. I’m very conscious of the work that goes in on our churches and cathedrals, and at national level. We recognise there’s a long way to go, but I do see the commitment and the desire.”