Obituary: The Right Rev Kenneth Riches

In the new atmosphere of the Sixties, it was refreshing to work with a bishop who did not wring his hands and murmur `Better not'

Alan Webster
Tuesday 18 May 1999 23:02

THE CLOSE encounters at Lincoln Cathedral, which were dramatised by the media in the Nineties, have obscured the achievements of the long episcopate of Kenneth Riches (1956-74).

His colleagues included some of the ablest Anglican priests of the time: Dick Milford, the theologian who founded Oxfam, Colin Dunlop, the dean who invited Duncan Grant to create his unusual chapel, and Oliver Tomkins, the leading ecumenist, to mention but three.

Lay people trusted Riches and found that they could be much more outspoken to him than to many bishops. When he consulted a Lincolnshire farmer about the appointment of a priest and family from Zimbabwe, he was rewarded with honesty - " 'e couldn't be wuss than some of the white 'uns we've 'ad." Kenneth Riches had time to laugh and to believe the best of people.

Riches was an East Anglian, educated at Colchester Royal Grammar School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he took a First in Theology. Perhaps he might have become a rather black-suited priest, but from his days as a curate at Portsea, as a Cambridge chaplain, and as a Suffolk country clergyman, he continued to grow in tolerance, sympathy and wit.

His marriage to Katharine Dixon was a total success. Her common sense, helpfulness and hard work never let the episcopal side of his life go to his head. After a time as Principal of Cuddesdon (1945-52), where the regime was relaxed and the students, many of them straight from war service, could be themselves, Riches was briefly a suffragan bishop before he was appointed to Lincoln.

Like most post-war Lincolnshire people, whether farmers, industrialists, teachers or local government leaders, Riches worked for moderate change. He was a friend of other churches, and a strong supporter of Archbishop Ramsey's efforts to bring Anglicans and Methodists together again. He did not hesitate to speak in the Church Assembly in favour of removing the bar to women's ordination. He empathised with the problems of tiny parishes who felt their individuality as strongly as if their Danish founders had only left yesterday, and created the famous South Ormsby Group - linking 14 small parishes - which was copied in other dioceses.

He did not neglect the considerable problems of Scunthorpe, and welcomed clergy from the diocese of Sheffield, then suffering from reactionary leadership, and began industrial mission in the steel works. He was diligent in supporting more traditional parishes in Lincoln, Grimsby, Sleaford and Grantham and was prepared to bring in pioneering priests, such as Stanley Booth-Clibborn, to create a city centre parish. His cathedral, college and diocese became happy and confident.

Working at Lincoln Theological College from 1959 to 1970, I found him a supportive and imaginative chairman. Together with the lay leaders on the college's council, he approved a series of staff appointments unusual in Anglican theological colleges: Methodist and Roman Catholic scholars and Peggy Hartley, a lecturer in social work. He supported the policy of buying houses for married students so that their families could be integrated into the life of the college and the city. My successor in 1970 was able to admit women for training into the college itself.

In the new atmosphere of the Sixties, after Honest to God (that radical explanation of faith by Bishop John Robinson) and the departure of so many priests and religious from the Roman Catholic church, it was refreshing to work with a bishop who did not wring his hands and murmur "Better not". He was unfussy, prepared to think and then say what he thought. Even if his overcrowded diary led to some double bookings, people smiled rather than swore and said, "the unsearchable riches".

It is fair to ask whether the later turmoil at Lincoln Cathedral, and the closure of the college, could have been avoided. Certainly Riches would have prevented Patronage Secretaries in London making foolish appointments. But he allowed the antiquated Cathedral Statutes to remain unreformed. Perhaps the glamour of antiquity was too influential. It would be fairer to say that the pastoral care of his enormous diocese, as well as his duties in London which included the chairmanship of the ministry committee of the church, and his tasks as Visitor of colleges and schools outside his diocese, were too overwhelming to enable him to devote energy to reforms - reforms which might have prevented the crises which arose 10 years after his time.

In retirement at Dunwich he and Katharine, who had given so much service to so many good causes, were happy and hospitable. Their house and garden, hidden in woods but within sound of the sea, welcomed old friends and old students from many eras of his ministry. His knowledge of furniture, his faithfully undertaken retreats and his mature, smiling, spiritual life led many to visit him in eastern England where he was at home.

Kenneth Riches, priest: born 20 September 1908; ordained deacon 1932, priest 1933; Curate, St Mary's, Portsea 1932-35; Curate, St John's, East Dulwich 1935-36; Chaplain and Librarian, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1936-42; Rector, Bredfield with Boulge, Suffolk 1942-45; Principal, Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, and Vicar of Cuddesdon 1945-52; consecrated Bishop Suffragan of Dorchester, Archdeacon of Oxford and Canon of Christ Church 1952-56; Bishop of Lincoln 1956-74; Assistant Bishop of Louisiana 1976-77; married 1942 Katharine Dixon (two sons, one daughter); died Dunwich, Suffolk 15 May 1999.

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