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General Synod digest: Farewell to four bishops and the finance chair

14 July 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Archbishop of York says farewell to four bishops

The Archbishop of York says farewell to four bishops

THE Archbishop of York said farewell to four of the Bishops on behalf of the General Synod shortly before the sessions were prorogued on Tuesday.

Archbishop Cottrell attributed many of the qualities of the retiring Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, to his testing of a vocation as a Benedictine monk, noting that the Bishop was still an oblate of Beck Abbey. The Benedictine vows were stability, fidelity, and obedience, and so much of what he had done flowed from that Benedictine spirit, the Archbishop said. “Robert, quite simply, we love you and esteem you for your obedience and call from God.”

Archbishop Cottrell went on to speak of the Bishop’s championing of rural issues, for the way he had chaired the Liturgical Commission, and for his commitment to older and younger people alike.

Most of all, he praised Bishop Atwell for “the fidelity God has given you, for your beautiful writing celebrating the saints and seasons, and your scholarship, wisdom, and beautiful prose to enable those things to happen. Thank you for the way you have demonstrated stability as a core principle in the Christian life.”

The Archbishop referenced the huge challenges the Bishop had found when he went to Exeter diocese, and spoke warmly of the affirmation he had brought both clergy and parishes. For his rootedness in Christ and living out of the Christian tradition, “Devon will miss you, and so will we.”

The Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Peter Eagle, is also retiring. Archbishop Cottrell declared that the diocese might be the smallest in the Church of England but it had “one of the biggest hearts”. He described Bishop Eagle as a “modest, godly, prayerful and big-hearted bishop. . . a Bishop who loves his people and serves them and is deeply committed to his diocese.” He never had a stand-in on the island, and had “never complained. . . He embodies a spirit of loving service and duty.”

The Archbishop commended the Bishop’s long and distinguished career in army chaplaincy, culminating in his role as Deputy Chaplain General, and the challenging tours he had undertaken in places of conflict such as Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Kosovo. He had “harrowing stories that can only be told to God in lament”.

Archbishop Cottrell noted, in tribute, that a motion in the island’s Parliament, the Tynwald, for removal of the Bishop of Sodor and Man, had been “roundly defeated”. He went on to praise the Bishop as “a gifted linguist”, who had taken Manx lessons and who “as a sideline, translated Russian medieval poetry into English.”

The Bishop was “a man of prayer . . . rooted in the Catholic faith, but working across the traditions. “You go with great affection from the Church you have served so well as pastor, padre, priest, and Bishop.”

The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, is leaving Coventry to become Dean of Windsor (News, 23 June), after what the Archbishop described as a distinguished career that started in theological education. The years at Coventry since 2008 had made a huge difference to the whole of the diocese and the Bishop had shown extraordinary service to the wider Church as well, not least in Coventry’s work on reconciliation.

The Archbishop described Bishop Cocksworth as an “intensely thoughtful and profoundly reflective priest and bishop . . . offering new angles and insights”; one who had had many briefs in the House of Bishops. The House of Lords, Synod, and Coventry would miss his “irenic, gentle and insightful ministry, manifest of what it is to be a pastoral theologian”.

While “extra-good at helping navigate theological complexities”, he was not known for his technological complexities, the Archbishop said with affection. But, “You press all the right buttons,” he said, highlighting the Bishop’s great investment in others, especially in pioneering opportunities for young people.

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, is also retiring. The Archbishop described him as “loving, godly, self-effacing. . . He has had huge impact in many places and people’s lives.”

Bishop Newcome had left his mark on Cumbria as “the ecumenical county”, a place where he was “deeply committed to collaborative ministry, to working together. Wherever you go in Cumbria, people know James.” He was also deeply committed to other aspects of episcopal ministry, especially in the House of Lords, where he had he had been the “gentle, compelling voice of Christian faith”, the Archbishop said.

He recalled a memorable occasion in 2018 when the Bishop had initiated a debate on Down’s Syndrome and had brought these voices to Synod via video: that had been “very beautiful and showed his spirit.” He put people at ease, taking the gospel of Jesus Christ very seriously indeed but not taking himself very seriously. “James is just James,” he concluded. “You show us what it looks like to follow Jesus.”

Sam Atkins/Church TimesJohn Spence receives a standing ovation from the Synod on Monday

On Monday morning, the Synod said farewell to the outgoing chair of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee, John Spence. Archbishop Cottrell was close to tears during his tribute: he had known Mr Spence both at national level and as Bishop of Chelmsford when Mr Spence had been chair of the diocesan board of finance. He noted Mr Spence’s “very successful career in banking” and all of the time, energy, and expertise he had given to the Church, local government, and charities. “He is a charmer, a raconteur, he has the most phenomenal memory and he has a zest for life. . . John is always looking to multiply things, to grow things, to find the potential in things.” He was a “huge encourager”.

Mr Spence had been diagnosed with sight problems in the late 1980s, and by 1990 was virtually blind. “This blindness of itself does not make John a more remarkable person, because I am sure that the astonishing gifts of generosity and wisdom that we see in him were always there. But the way John has dealt with them and the way that he works with his blindness is truly astonishing and probably the greatest witness to the one thing I haven’t yet spoke about, which is John’s Christian faith. Although he had to make what, for most of us, is an unimaginably difficult journey into darkness, John, what we see in you is dazzling light. It is the light of Christ that we see in you that can illuminate every darkness and shines most brightly in those who know their need of God.”

Mr Spence and his wife Yvonne had known heartbreaking personal tragedy in their personal life, yet he was one of those Christians “radiating gospel hopefulness even when there is loss and difficulty . . . because first and foremost John is a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Archbishop Cottrell praised his hospitality and servant-heartedness; Mr Spence was often to be found in kitchens doing the washing-up. He had heard Mr Spence say: “You don’t need sight, in order to have vision.”

The Archbishop concluded: “You are one of the most remarkable human beings many of us have ever met” before a sustained standing ovation was received.

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