IT WAS something of a joke in the Kensington Episcopal Area that if ever John Hughes were asked to say anything publicly he would manage somehow to drag in the name of Richard Hooker. This was not just because Hooker was the subject of his doctoral thesis, but rather betrayed a similarity of conviction with the great 16th-century apologist for Anglicanism. The label 'Anglo-Catholic' often pinned on Hughes was a misunderstanding of his true position. He was a Church of England man through and through, but the Church of England to which he remained faithful - ordered, pastoral, embracing all - was the one in which he had been nurtured in the Black Country and his natural conservatism made him less and less comfortable with much of the contemporary face of Anglicanism.
John Hughes was born in 1935 and educated at Wednesbury Boys' High School and Queen's College, Cambridge, where he took seconds in both parts of the History Tripos and stayed on to take a further second in Theology. In later years he showed a finely tuned sense of the past and for those prepared to listen would often produce gems of insight from his breadth of reading. Military history remained a passion and many an Anglican dignitary would be fascinated if he were to know with what general he bore comparison.
Ordained to a title at Brighouse, near Halifax, in 1960, Hughes's first incumbency, St John's, Clifton, came at the age of 28, in 1963. During his time in the West Riding he took an interest in education and in 1970 acted as Director of Education for the Wakefield Diocese. That same year Hughes's vocation moved in the direction that was to occupy him until 1987. He went to work in the central selection and training of priests in what was then called the Advisory Council for the Church's Ministry, becoming its Senior Selection Secretary in 1973.
When the Wardenship of St Michael's College, Llandaff, fell vacant in 1976 Hughes was appointed to the post and for the next decade was directly involved in the teaching and formation of clergy. In 1979 Leeds University awarded him a PhD for his work on Hooker. During his time in Cardiff, he was a lecturer in church history at the University of Wales and, from 1984 to 1987, Dean of the University School of Theology. He also served for 10 years on the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, and was a member of the Provincial Doctrine Commission.
In 1987, Hughes was consecrated as Area Bishop of Kensington in the Diocese of London. It was inevitable, but none the less regrettable, that the new Bishop's appointment should be interpreted as a political gesture on the part of the then Diocesan Bishop of London, and his subsequent ministry in Kensington was to be dogged by his stance in the debate about the ordination of women to the priesthood, which he opposed, and its consequences. An outward bluffness - laced with the occasional outburst of irritation - hid a deep sensitivity. Criticism and misunderstanding hurt him, and the handling of conflict did not come easily. Under different circumstances his pastoral gifts and generous lifestyle could have made him the loved and slightly eccentric figure which used to be the popular image of a Church of England bishop.
The name Kensington is popularly synonymous with privilege. The reality is very different. The Kensington Episcopal Area, which begins at Harrods and ends at Heathrow, embraces some of the wealthiest parts of Britain but is scarred by urban blight and pockets of extreme deprivation. In his seven years as Bishop of Kensington, Hughes tried constantly to give support and reassurance to the least resourced of his parishes. It is in these places that his death will be the most keenly mourned. If he was sometimes short on the longer-term strategy for the Area, he could not be faulted in his concern for those less obviously successful communities which needed encouragement. His years spent in the recruitment and training of the clergy gave him a rare empathy with the lot of those in parochial ministry.
Hughes's sense of the Church of England's responsibility to the whole of society led him to forge strong links with the London Boroughs in the Kensington Area. Many of those with civic duties turned to him for support and advice. He showed sympathy for those administering the local teaching hospitals and a great concern for the difficulties of those who police London. It says much about the style of the man that those who appreciated him most were often outside the parameters of the established church.
Hughes was a true penitent, knowing his weaknesses and freely admitting them. There was no pretension or cant in him. He hated committees, and administrative decisions were rarely made until events rendered them obsolete. But he would make time for individuals, and his clergy and laity with problems knew that there was always a warm understanding for them. As a bishop, he was generous to a fault in offering another chance to those who had fallen by the wayside. He was to be seen at his best among the sick and handicapped on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or as the last one to leave a church hall, after yet another Confirmation, determined to chat with everyone.
The tragedy of Bishop Hughes's death lies not just in its suddenness but in the realisation that many gifts have not come to fruition. It had been hoped that retirement would provide the opportunity for writing.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content