The Right Rev John Richards

Bishop of Ebbsfleet and the first of the 'flying bishops'

John Richards, priest: born Reading 4 October 1933; ordained deacon 1959, priest 1960; Assistant Curate, St Thomas, Exeter 1959-64; Rector of Holsworthy with Hollacombe and Cookbury 1964-74; Rural Dean of Holsworthy 1970-74; Rector of Heavitree with St Paul's, Exeter 1974-81; Rural Dean of Exeter 1978-81; Archdeacon of Exeter and Canon Residentiary of Exeter Cathedral 1981-94; Assistant Bishop, diocese of Lichfield and of Oxford 1994-98; Assistant Bishop, diocese of Bath and Wells 1996-98; Bishop Suffragan of Ebbsfleet 1994-98; Episcopal Visitor for the Province of Canterbury 1994-98; Honorary Assistant Bishop, diocese of Exeter 1998-2003; married 1958 Ruth Haynes (two sons, three daughters); died Lewdown, Devon 9 November 2003.

John Richards will have a place in the history books. He was one of the first of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors (popularly known as "flying bishops") created in 1993 to minister to Church of England people unable in conscience, like him, to accept the ordination of women. He was consecrated Bishop of Ebbsfleet in 1994 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, the title indicating that he was a suffragan of the primate and the place-name the landing spot in 597 of Augustine, from whom the English episcopal succession is derived.

The basic idea appears to have been that of the Archbishop of York, John Habgood, whose own failure to sit in the chair of St Augustine will rank with the comparable failure of Samuel Wilberforce to do so over a century before. Nevertheless Wilberforce is said to have remodelled the episcopate by his activity and example. Habgood's idea and John Richards's precedent may come to remodel it in another way.

For "JR" (the inevitable but convenient abbreviation), episcopacy was a paradoxical achievement. He was nurtured in that confident mid-20th-century Anglo-Catholicism which was sacramental, disciplined and respectful of both tradition and learning - evident marks of the Mortimer episcopate at Exeter, then at its peak. So after National Service, Cambridge (Sidney Sussex College, where he studied Theology) and a now defunct theological college (Ely), Richards did a five-year curacy at Exeter St Thomas, where the forceful curate is still vividly remembered.

Then he did 10 years at Holsworthy, near the Cornish border, before returning to Exeter Heavitree to head a parochial team so extensive with churches, large hospital, clerics and professorial readers that potential successors were daunted by it. In 1981 Bishop Eric Mercer (who died the day before him, and at whose funeral he had been due to preach) made him Archdeacon of Exeter.

The archdeaconry was annexed to a residentiary canonry at the cathedral - an arrangement older than the office of dean. Richards had often concurred with the equally ancient damnation of archdeacons, and he had that suspicion of cathedrals characteristic of parish priests working under their shadow. There were lively exchanges between him and the bishop. Richards shouted; Mercer swore; and they got on famously. The new canon soon realised that priests and people in a cathedral were not much different from those in parishes, and he greatly valued the daily services, said or sung - always the foundation of his own spiritual life.

Once, when the General Synod met at York and they went to the Minster on Sunday morning for a Mozart mass, someone complained that "we couldn't join in", whereupon Richards delivered an impromptu explanation of the spirituality of the cathedral service where the choir do the vocal work and the other worshippers are released for their own silent prayer and meditation.

When the legal link between the archdeaconry and the canonry was severed, Richards declined to leave the cathedral until the call to Ebbsfleet took him from both. If he had bridged the gap between parish and cathedral, he did likewise for bishops and priests. In a church based on episcopal ordination, a certain lack of affection for bishops on the part of parish priests has been notable since Norman, if not Saxon times.

In the new situation, the flying bishops had an opportunity and challenge to which Richards rose splendidly. For priests and people feeling rejected and demoralised, he brought encouragement and hope. Beneath a fearsome bark he was the kindest of men. Now he had the scope to demonstrate a sympathy with the underdog and to negotiate on their behalf - notably with diocesan bishops who were, in varying degrees, resentful of his office. He had not, he used to say, been noted for diplomacy, but this was another skill he learnt.

The incessant travelling over half the province of Canterbury took a heavy toll, and his age at death - just 70 - was young by present clerical standards. But his prompt retirement in 1998 was in consideration of his wife Ruth, whose support in parish, cathedral and episcopate was without price.

His retirement gave him the chance to weave together the threads of his earlier work. He ministered in the local parishes and encouraged fellowship and study for the clergy. He was an assistant bishop in the diocese and active in Forward in Faith, the constituency to which the flying bishops minister. He was chairman of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage (which organises the other Glastonbury festival - a place-name even more resonant than Ebbsfleet).

For Richards's funeral requiem, a thousand people filled the nave of Exeter Cathedral. The service, sung by the cathedral choir, was strongly marked by the language and style of the Book of Common Prayer, with which some were evidently rather less familiar than he was. For, though coping with a wide range of worship, he was a prayerbook man. And, in a situation potentially revolutionary for Anglican polity, he strove to maintain charity and unity with a good conscience.

John Thurmer

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