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Sermon for the Memorial Service of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell

Posted on Monday 30 October 2017
Preached by Bishop Stephen at the memorial service for Bishop Geoffrey Rowell at Keble College, Oxford on Saturday 21st October.

Geoffrey Rowell was the only bishop of my acquaintance for whom a mitre was the least exotic form of headgear. Geoffrey had so many hats from his extensive travels. Like some of you, I travelled with him. In our case, it was a rather Rose Macauley Towers of Trebizond experience visiting some of the Seven Churches of Asia as archdeacon and bishop equipped with cassocks and walking boots. It was a delight to enjoy Geoffrey’s enthusiasm and curiosity. The attention to the landscape and to people came from Geoffrey living a life of thanksgiving to God for the wonder of creation and salvation in Christ, in the gift of other people and the joy of language. In the 1990’s he conveyed to me how profoundly he had become affected by the rediscovery of the work of Thomas Traherne, the under-published metaphysical poet. “Your enjoyment of the world is never right,” writes Traherne, “till every morning you waken in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as celestial joys; having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the angels.” When he was a bishop in Hampshire he was as at home with Gilbert White at Selbourne and Jane Austen at Chawton as he was with John Keble at Hursley Vicarage. 

Like Traherne, Geoffrey had a childlike quality of wonder. As he says in his hymn, “Filled with glory all we see.” One does not survive twenty-two years of college politics without being shrewd and alert; but Geoffrey did have an other-worldly depth. During my time at Keble, Geoffrey took a sabbatical not to study in another university but to stay in a desert monastery in Egypt among his beloved Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. It is sometimes said of the Orthodox that their holy conversation has a different patina and timbre because they are aware that the Early Fathers and Mothers of the Church are only in the next room. This was true of Geoffrey, too, so long as one included the leaders of the Oxford Movement. 

When I told my headmaster that I was applying to Keble his only response was to say that John Ruskin was forced to alter the route of his daily walk to avoid seeing it. Geoffrey took entirely the opposite view. He loved the Butterfield architecture. Most of all, he was wholly imbued in the foundation and purpose of the College. He was so excited to be invited to order the Beauchamp archive and to discover new details about the vision of our founding benefactors. More than anything, Geoffrey was a contemporary Tractarian Anglican to the core, who lived the cadences of Keble’s Christian Year and found strength and inspiration in John Keble’s holiness of life, and in what he modelled as pastor, priest and poet. 

We can see in Geoffrey’s hymn the soul of a poet. He never preached a gimmicky sermon. The holy insight, rich language and power of allusion made one cherish a work of art crafted for God’s praise and our edification and transformation. The preaching was all the more eloquent because it came from an authentic life of a passionately gentle man and a priest in whom humanity and holiness met each other, revealing what it is to be in Christ. When he was chaplain here he was always hospitable to those who were part of the worshipping and musical life of the Chapel; but he also offered wise pastoral care to any member of college who sought him out in any kind of need, regardless of the hour of day or night. We can all probably hear Geoffrey’s special chuckle and his readiness to join in the spirit of any party, playing Are You There, Moriarty? after a Mitre Club dinner, laughing joyously while being hit on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Geoffrey was serious but never stuffy. Over the years, he modelled what it might mean for many of us to offer ourselves for ordination. Once we became a friend of Geoffrey, it was to be in his life and intercession for good. 

I am sure that Dr Pusey would have recognized and approved of Geoffrey as a scholarly priest, deeply versed both in the theology and the spiritual life of the Fathers, while specializing in the history and the theology of the Oxford Movement. He was at the heart of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the movement and later wrote his excellent book, The Vision Glorious which has given us a scholarly but accessible insight into the character and impact of Keble and those whom he inspired. Geoffrey rejoiced to be the Chair of the Council of Pusey House in later years, and lived long enough to know that the Pusey Library had re-opened. Others have written of Geoffrey’s generous range of incorporation into Love’s Redeeming Work, which he co-wrote with Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams. I find it entirely in character that he took time to write about the sacraments of unction and of reconciliation in a blend of doctrine and pastoral wisdom inspired by his reading of Dr Pusey. Geoffrey thought it was both congruent and amusing that writing Hell and the Victorians led to his being the lead bishop on funerals and crematoria. It was said of Geoffrey when he was here that only Professor Jack McManners of All Souls knew more about death than he. They are both thriving now in God’s nearer presence in the risen life they both proclaimed. 

More than one person has pointed out to me that the chair in which Geoffrey sat for his portrait looks very like the chair he sat in during tutorials in his rooms in college, and from which he prepared several of us for confirmation. Colin Podmore says it may be so. In an increasingly skeptical environment, Geoffrey followed Newman in his Grammar of Assent to celebrate the truth we cannot see but infer. For the good of us all, Geoffrey approached our education and development as whole people through the lens of Newman’s Idea of the University. Newman wrote of the power of a university education to develop the individual in ways that far exceed the narrow limits of academic ability or performance. arguing that the primary role of the university was to give students a "perfection of the intellect … the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things" that allows the individual to make good judgements. Geoffrey with other colleagues here sought to imbue in us a sense of the soul of the college as an indelible mark in our minds of a commonwealth of wisdom, faith and even contemplation. You only had to look at Geoffrey to see that he did not do narrowness. 

In The Vision Glorious, Geoffrey writes with admiration about Bishop Edward King of Lincoln. Like King, Geoffrey as a bishop found himself embroiled in controversy and conflict through no choice of his own as someone convinced that the Church of England did not have the authority to ordain women without wider catholic consent. Many Anglicans are in his debt for his steadfastness in sustaining this stand as a loyal Anglican. Even more of us rejoice that his deep sadness did not interrupt dialogue and friendship and a desire for the greatest degree of unity. Geoffrey quotes a Lincoln source who described the Diocese of Lincoln under King as “the Bishopric of Love”. Caroline Boddington and I have had ongoing exchanges with Geoffrey about episcopal leadership and management. It is an understatement that Geoffrey was not a managerial bishop. Having said not a word as Bishop of Basingstoke at a committee meeting chaired by Bishop Michael Scott-Joynt, he was pressed by the exasperated Bishop of Winchester to make a contribution. He told that he expressed his serious concern was that there was no cross on display in a room where godly counsel was being taken. Geoffrey promptly equipped the room with a crucifix. Geoffrey was given a vocation to be a bishop like his beloved Michael Ramsey, leading us to glory. Europe was the perfect diocese for Geoffrey because of its range and the ability to engage so fully with ecumenical partners. Of course, he did not get everything right; but even when he did not understand, he sought to love and trust people who had been called into the adventure with him. He was committed to be the loving pastor of all, seeking that “we may to Christ conform”, all bound “…in one communion/ In the body of the Lord.” 

We have sung ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ from Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius. The soul of Gerontius discovers that there is healing and sustenance in Purgatory where he is being made ready for the glory and mercy of heaven. The angel says to Gerontius at the end of the poem: “…Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.” We pray with thanksgiving for Geoffrey whom we love but see no longer. With us he has been our friend and fellow disciple; for us he has been priest, bishop and teacher. Now he has conquered through the Lamb and has inherited all the benefits of the water of life. I pray that we may with him see all things made new in Christ.