THE farewell evensong in Winchester Cathedral last Saturday for Dr Tim Dakin — who has retired early as Bishop of Winchester as a result of discontent in his diocese (News, 23 July 2021) — illustrated how the Church of England’s liturgy can hold together extremes of theology and emotion.
It is well known that Dr Dakin took a hard line on sexuality, refusing to give a former Residentiary Canon of Salisbury Cathedral, Canon Jeremy Davies, permission to officiate after he retired to Winchester, having converted his civil partnership to marriage (News, 18 December 2015).
Yet the preacher at his farewell was none other than the Revd Professor Elizabeth Stuart, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester and a queer theologian. I last met Professor Stuart as she wept outside the headquarters of SPCK when the Christian publisher rejected her book Daring to Speak Love’s Name. Time has moved on, and Professor Stuart produced a measured sermon acknowledging the presence of light and darkness in all human experience. She also paid tribute graciously to Dr Dakin’s ministry, acknowledging those for whom it had been helpful. Dignity was preserved all round.
I have met Dr Dakin only once, in the deanery at Christ Church, at the inauguration of Dr Steven Croft as Bishop of Oxford. I attempted to introduce myself, and was met by a hard stare. I took from this that he was somewhat lacking in ordinary graciousness. Certainly, the way in which he has run his diocese, and the circumstances of his having to leave, have indicated a certain lack of diplomacy and self-awareness.
But evensong contained the awkward bishop and the queer theologian in the ample folds of tradition. The Dean was welcoming. The girls’ choir and lay clerks sang beautifully. Then came the end.
The Bishop was to lay down his pastoral staff on the altar. Having done so, he knelt down and began to pray aloud, as a final act of commitment, the Methodist Covenant Prayer. “I am not longer my own, but yours. . .” He faltered, paused, tried to carry on, was overcome, audibly wept, collected himself, insisted that he would finish, and eventually did so, with a final harrowed gasp. When he ended, the congregation gave him a hearty round of applause, perhaps in relief as much as in thanks and farewell. It was a poignant end to a controversial ministry.
I am not sure that Dr Dakin should ever have been a bishop. It is not clear that he went through any normal form of ministerial selection or the training that might have helped him to deal better with public life. He became a bishop because of some powerful advocacy. I found myself hoping that, in retirement, he would find his true self and finally realise his departing prayer.