Requiem Eucharist - For Bishop Ronnie Bowlby

  • Preacher

    The Rt Revd Peter Selby

Do you remember a certain kind of look, you might call it a ‘knowing’ look? And do you remember a certain kind of remark, one that sounded modest, even self-deprecating but was it deliberately or accidentally also devastatingly accurate?

There was, for instance, this meeting, between the bishops of London north and south of the Thames and the senior officers of the Met. It was potentially important, an opportunity for probing and seeking mutual understanding. Sadly the potential was not realised even though the police showed every sign of openness, even deference. The problem was that we bishops were geared less to asking questions than to telling our anecdotes. That is, except one. The Bishop of Southwark said nothing from the beginning of the meeting to the end, something that made sitting next to him a bit embarrassing for me. My “You ought to say something at these meetings” was greeted with that kind of ‘knowing’ look, and then, “One of the things I’ve never been any good at [slight pause] is talking about things I know nothing about.”  When a few weeks before he died and we were discussing this service I mentioned the episode. I got the same look; he didn’t have many words by then and just said, as he looked, “Really”. Did he mean, “Was I really that rude about my colleagues?” or “I could be really accurate, couldn’t I”? I didn’t ask, and we shan’t ever know.

Knowing and being known: the psalmist, in a reading Ronnie arranged to be read at Liz’ funeral and asked for at his own – the security of being known by the One who holds you in life. St Paul reckons that the fruit of love is that you will know and be known. And St John has Christ assert that true witness comes from what we know from actual experience, from knowing what you’re talking about.

We’re commending to the One who most deeply knows us a person to whom it was important to know what you were talking about: if you want to make a difference in the complex world of the persistent problem we have of providing the right kind of housing for people, especially those who have none, something he cared passionately about, then campaigning would have its place, but there was an unavoidable obligation to get inside the issues, to know what you were talking about. And for that reason people talking about what they knew nothing about was people just talking.

And if you believed, as he passionately did, that there needed to be an end to the all-malenesss of the priesthood, then again while the campaign went on he saw it as his task to listen carefully, to and try to get inside the opposing arguments, however strange they might seem –– go to the meetings however repetitive, prepare the ground; the passion was in the detail rather than the speeches. It’s interesting to reflect that his last piece of sustained reading was a biography of Clement Atlee; people do choose whom they read about, and the radicalism of the 1945 government had been worked on and researched in for years.

If you pursue that kind of knowing what you were talking about, then you could take risks, choose risky people, take risky initiatives and ask even the church to take some risks too; as he looked back on his life he spoke with some delight about the risks he’d been able to take. (I had a silly fantasy as I thought about this, of having some T-shirts printed, “I’m one of Ronnie’s Risks”, and seeing if there were some in this congregation who would be happy to join me in wearing one – but don’t worry; it’s just a fantasy.) But doing all you could to know what you were talking about, that’s not a fantasy, but very much what Ronnie set himself to do.

We come together, of course, to share our shared sense of loss and our shared gratitude, whatever is the connection that has brought you here. We also come together, however, to do something in addition: to reflect on and express the fact that as a result of this life just ended something has happened to the deep fabric of our lives, even for some of us for our apprehension of God; and having reflected to honour his memory with a recommitment of ourselves.

For this was a Christianity that didn’t overwhelm with rhetorical flourish, and a discipleship that knew that it wouldn’t be measured in decibels, a wisdom the deeper for being understated. Faith was something you got on with, a lifelong exploration, with a Franciscan rhythm of prayer and work, and determination to bring about the maximum effect.

So he put together, I think somewhat reluctantly, a book for private circulation among his children and grandchildren; it’s not intended to be available, but the title is revealing: A Call Explored,  That there was a call was something of which he had no doubt; what it was, where it would lead, was a matter for inquiry and discovery; something true not just for him but potentially for everyone. It certainly included joyfulness. The look on the front cover of the service book makes that clear, and it reminds me of what Liz said in her thanks to the diocese of Southwark: “I married Ronnie because he was an optimist and could read a map.”

If not speaking too much or too loudly was sometimes because he recognized the vital importance of knowing what we’re talking about, sometimes it was because we know too deeply what we know to need to say it or too deeply to want to. It’s characteristic therefore that affection for and pride in children and grandchildren got expressed, to those who visited him, not in direct expression of affection but in the attention and detailed memory of each of you which continued right to the end of his life. The pride and the affection were in the amount of knowing, the detailed pride in the diverse achievements and different paths which the seven of you his grandchildren have followed. More than that: he was very sure, as too many of us later in life do not, that it is to you, those who are growing up to inherit the world you have been left – it is to you and your and the next generation that we are accountable.

And his huge appreciation of the extraordinarily meticulous and steadfast care shown him by Rachel, Rick, Chris, Anna and Tom was something he was deeply affected by – and the affection was again in the details he would describe. ‘I’m so lucky’ was the most rhetorical he ever got about that; the intensity of his affection was in the detail, and that was how you could know it.

That pervasive attention, the knowing look, the experience of being in a room with him and being the only person in his mind while you were there – that’s an experience many had; you would know you were being heard, that what you said would be remembered next time; and the look told you that more was seen and understood than it was necessary to say, and you could leave with the support of that compassionate wisdom. And the support of that understated wisdom was received by individuals, groups, and is what offered profound enrichment to the lives of two dioceses.

As I said we are here among other things to reflect on what has been the enrichment of our lives, our knowledge of what our lives are for, about the One who is the reality at the heart of all life. And my reflection on that leads me to say Ronnie’s way of being has something important to say about the Judgment. That may conjure up lurid and violent pictures for some of you, or it may just be about how you face your children and grandchildren, the poor of the earth or just your own conscience. But I offer the thought that maybe the Judgement is a bit more like being held in a knowing look, one that puts an end to the denial and avoidance strategies on which we often rely: puts an end by making them first of all useless in the face of that perceptive look; and secondly unnecessary because of the forgiveness and understanding which that loving gaze conveys.

If that picture of the Judgment has anything of truth in it, then when our turn comes and we are held in such a gaze, then maybe we shall face it knowing that we have experienced that gaze before, in the eyes that now look at us from the front of the service book, and as a result are bit better prepared for our accountability to the One whom  the introduction refers to as our merciful redeemer and judge. And if we are that bit better prepared to know and be known, what a blessing that is to come from knowing this person.

So to that knowing look and that understated wisdom we now must say farewell. We confidently commend you, Ronnie, to the Wisdom that made you and shared you with us, as great-grandfather, grandfather, father, mentor, friend, bishop, one of ‘Ronnie’s risks’ – whatever is the connection that has brought each of us here; the Wisdom on which you so deeply drew, by which you sought to live and which you so widely shared. To that knowing and being known we entrust you.

And if as we trust your encounter is with loving and perceptive gaze then may  you find there the love and the peace for which you were made. And in the encounter with that gaze may you remember the love and perception with which you looked upon us and all those for whom you had the care; and may you hear them in your mind saying simply, ‘thank  you’.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.  John 3.8

For the phone to ring after the Bishop had returned to Newcastle from various meetings and parliamentary duties in London with a request that I come across to Bishop’s House to discuss various things was not unusual. But when I got there on this occasion the agenda was stated in one sentence: “They want me to go to Southwark, and I’m going.”  The processes took a little time, and when the news got out there was an inevitable sense of loss, even a bit of “I don’t suppose they thought about us; they don’t till you’re vacant”, grief overlaid with a bit of the Geordie sense of neglect by the people in London. But on reflection nobody thought other than that this was an absolutely right and understandable choice. Ronnie’s years in Newcastle had been a story of loving and careful listening, deep respect for its culture, history and tradition, research commissioned, and then a steady process of implementation, the gathering of people for particular tasks, and a s a result a diocese whose traditions were respected and at the same time developed in directions scarcely imaginable when the process had started.

“They want me to go to Southwark, and I’m going.” It was that sort of experience and aptitude that was now to be placed at the service of a diocese that could hardly have been more different. It had had a distant past of neglect; but that had been transformed over two decades of dramatic initiative with household names like South Bank Religion, new (then) ventures like the Southwark Ordination Course – big names, a high media profile and a self-perception of social radicalism (self-perceptions don’t have to be 100% accurate to be powerful!). What the conversations were that led to this choice – who were the ‘they’? – we might only be able to guess, but to judge from the choice that was made there some very definite features:

First, a place of social engagement where the difficult and challenging questions were high in people’s consciousness could not be asked to lurch in a quite different direction, or even retreat from its radical tradition. Housing,  Ronnie’s special passion, and all the challenging aspects of the urban environment could not drop down the agenda. It needed a person whose instincts were all sympathetic to that, would understand it at a deep level and embed a culture of wisdom, care and attentiveness to a community whose radicalism meant it needed a caring and supportive environment more, not less than, other places. That was going to be particularly true where the cold winds of membership decline and financial challenge were already deeply felt and some understandable and strong opposition to the controversial Southwark culture was already making its presence felt. It would certainly be true when the movement to admit women to ordination, to which he was personally deeply committed produced inevitable divergences and where the setbacks caused hurt to individuals. Southwark might seem to be at a totally different historic juncture, but many of the same gifts would be needed.

We’re here of course to give thanks, to make Eucharist for Bishop Ronnie’s singular contribution, to offer our thanks in the church where he once sat as our bishop, and in doing that to learn what message, what challenges and encouragements we might draw from this life just ended. I want to offer two.

It is not at all surprising that almost without exception the word ‘pastoral’ appears time and time again in the messages that have been sent since he died; and those who say that say well, for it was so. He offered close attention, the experience of being in a room with him and being the only person in his mind while you were there, of knowing you were being heard, that what you said would be remembered next time; and his eyes told you that more was seen and understood than it was necessary to say, and you could leave with the support of that compassionate wisdom. You have to be pastoral like that, and he was, if you are to undertake the further pastoral task, the other necessity, of the establishment of pastoral care as part of the air we breathe and the systems we live under.

So it matters to point out that the establishment of the area system for the diocese, something it would be his task to implement, was controversial for that reason. When he went with his suffragan  colleagues to the Dioceses Commission asking for a scheme in which the diocesan did not have an Episcopal area ‘of his own’, it was carefully explained that that was contrary to policy. I think behind that was a strongly held belief among some about what a monarchical bishop should be – ‘one is one and all alone and ever more shall be so’ – but it was explained that if the Bishop of Southwark wasn’t pinned down in Streatham or the Borough or somewhere empty hours would stretch ahead tempting him to all sorts of unwanted interference in other people’s work. Fortunately for us, the Bishop of Southwark was a person who liked a world of careful explanation, and indeed was rather good at it. He explained that not only was embedding pastoral care in the life of a diocese at least a full-time job but historically and traditionally it was a very proper way to be a bishop.

So just as Wesley Carr famously said, that the ethos of a diocese is something the diocesan bishop cannot – not ‘should not’ or even ‘must not’ – delegate, Bishop Ronnie’s hope was that we would be a pastoral diocese. That meant structures, systems and above all the undertaking of that as a shared priority in every setting, large and small. If (I speak from experience) you were hapless enough to arrive at a staff meeting with the news that other pressures had prevented you from seeing a particular person in trouble or sickness it was not so much a sharp rebuke but a look and a quiet word that were a reminder that this firm has certain priorities and you just missed one. And if we are not to go on living in a world where people are abandoned or trodden underfoot then surely a pastoral diocese, a pastoral city, a pastoral country is what we need to be and are intended to become. We give thanks for that pastoral heart, along with the wisdom that saw being pastoral as what was asked of all of us; and we pray for a share in that heart and in that wisdom.

My second point of reflection, of learning and of thankfulness is in that matter-of-fact sentence: “They want me to go to Southwark, and I’m going”. All sorts of questions might arise: you could wonder about the cost to Liz, his wife, and his children, and whether he’d weighed them and discussed them; he had, but that only takes you so far. You could wonder about the arcane processes by which the CofE generates names for places, and spend many hours wondering who ‘they’ was. You could. But surely the real point is this: once you hear the message that there’s a community out there with particular needs at a particular point in its history, and it has your name on it, then it turns into a call, and “I’m going” becomes the only viable answer. When that’s what you see, and a call is what it has become there can be only one answer. He saw his life, to use the title of the private autobiography he wrote for his family, as the exploration of a call, your sense of having to respond before you could know where it would lead. Some might give their answer with more rhetoric or more pious language; his was always the way of understatement: the point is the answer, not the words in which it’s stated. Where the wind comes from or where it is going become irrelevant; so it is with the person born of the Spirit.

We’re here, to state the obvious, because of a deep gratitude for Ronnie’s “.... and I’m going”, and not just because of him and what he enabled while he was here. It’s also because from the far off biblical days of Abram in Ur of the Chaldees to Saul of Tarsus to John of Patmos and generations since, we know that it’s that kind of recognition of the claim of a community’s need and history that unlocks the future. It always has and without such responses the future is left to be a dreary and damaging repeat of the past.

It is the long held conviction of the Church that what does not stop with the ending of our life on earth is the continued outpouring of our deepest desires, longing, prayers for those whom we’ve loved and cared for. And so we trust you, Ronnie, that among the millions of the faithful departed there is in you one who will pray deeply for us, that we may be a pastoral community in a pastoral city in a pastoral land and a pastoral world; and also that when there are huge challenges to be faced we may nourish a supply of those who are ready to say, “I’m going”.

And with deep confidence, with thankfulness and with love we commit you to the future for which you worked, to the Wisdom that created you and gave you to us, the Wisdom from which you drew so much and which you shared so widely among us, and the Spirit whose promptings you were determined to follow.

As you typically said in your closing weeks, it was time for you to move on, as it is time for us to bid farewell. May your dwelling this day and forever be in the heavenly city, and your inheritance Christ’s peace.