The Bishop and Bede

Saint Cuthbert, who strongly resisted becoming a bishop, is one of John Prichard’s heroes — and as it turns out, the current Bishop of Oxford has followed in the footsteps of his favourite saint.

John’s father was a clergyman, but he was determined not to be ordained as “there was no money in it”. But while reading law at St Peter’s College, Oxford, John changed his mind and went on to take a diploma in theology and entered the priesthood.

His vocation took him to the north-east for 12 years and to Canterbury for five — in addition to time spent in Birmingham and Taunton before returning to Oxford as Bishop. So, when marooned on our desert island, he will have memories of most regions of England. Which antique, work of art or antiquarian book would he pick for inspiration?

Pointing to a simple but beautiful oak rocking cradle that has been in his family for about 250 years, the Bishop of Oxford said: “On the desert island that would be a poignant reminder of all the people I love who I have left behind.

“Being the Pritchard family cradle, it would make me reflect on who I am and where I come from. In a sense I am what I am because of what they were. I see myself as a product of their lives, the good and the no-so-good, the mixture that is in all of us.

“As well as helping me reflect on my identity, the cradle would be a constant reminder of the people I would want to remember and pray for on the island; the two most recent being my grandchildren of ten months and five months who lay in it before their Christenings.

“I spent twelve years in the north-east and its people made a strong impression on me. In the history of the Church in England, the area has given us some remarkable people. I immersed myself in the stories of St Cuthbert, Aidan, the Venerable Bede and Hilda of Whitby. In fact, we named our cat ‘Whitby’ short for Hilda of Whitby — on a bad day she becomes ‘Synod of Whitby’.

“Bede’s time (673- 735) is often regarded as the Dark Ages. If so Bede was a bright light. He was a mathematician, a scientist and an historian as well as a biblical scholar. He was the first to make the English think of ourselves as a nation. He also gave us our means of ordering time before and after Christ, BC and AD. His master work was his History of the English Church and People. The illuminated version is in the Bodleian Library “In it he wrote about Cuthbert who resisted becoming a bishop and who when finally he accepted the post, soon left for Lindesfarne where he received visitors in the peaceful rugged surroundings of the island. I wear his cross, the original of which is in the Treasury at Durham. After he died, just two years later, his body was carted around the country before it finally came to rest in Durham Cathedral where Cuthbert is buried at one end of the cathedral and Bede at the other.

“They are both important figures to me. If I had Bede’s History of the English Church and People with me on the desert island, it would remind me of all the Celtic saints of the north east and I would of course have the pleasure of reading it.

“Were I to leave behind the antique and the book, the work of art I would take would be a Carravagio. I remember going to the Exhibition at The National Gallery in 2006. There were two versions of The Supper at Emmaus on display. The first was painted in 1601 when he was the toast of the town in Rome. That version hangs permanently in the National Gallery. The second, on loan from Milan, was painted in 1606 after he had killed a man in a duel and went on the run.

“In the first, Jesus looks young, boyish even androgynous. Although the second picture was inspired by the same story it is much darker, the face of Jesus is drawn and marked by his suffering. In the Bible story, Jesus joins the two disciples as they were leaving Jerusalem and talks with them on the road to Emmaus but they do not recognise him. They invite their companion to supper and the moment when he breaks bread is like a revelation, they recognise him as the risen Jesus. I would like one or both of those paintings with me.

“If I have a theme for my life as a Christian, it is the desire to share the love of Christ. Being alone on a desert island would, I think be one of the bad times when I would need reminding of what being a Christian was really about.

“That is the journey of my thinking on what to take to my island, but as I can only take one of these three I think maybe the Venerable Bede may prove to be better company than the brilliant but troubled Carravagio, so I shall opt for the Bede. I hope that a photo of my family may be in my pocket when I am swept up on the beach so, that way, I won’t need the cradle.”

John Pritchard’s journey to the Desert Island John was born in Salford (in the shadow of the Old Trafford floodlights). He went to Arnold School in Blackpool, and then read law at St Peter’s College, Oxford. His summer job was as a Blackpool tram conductor, so he has seen Blackpool Illuminations more times than anyone could reasonably need to.

While at Oxford John recognised his calling to the priesthood, and after his degree went on to do a Diploma in Theology at Oxford, and then a Certificate in Pastoral Theology at Ridley Hall in Cambridge. He was ordained in 1972. John was a curate at St Martin’s in the Bullring in Birmingham until 1976, when he became youth chaplain to the diocese of Bath and Wells. From there he moved in 1980 to become priest in charge of a large and lively parish in Taunton, contributing regularly to local radio and newspapers.

In 1988 he became Director of Pastoral Studies at Cranmer Hall, the Church of England’s theological college in St John’s College Durham. He became Warden in 1993, and had responsibility for training men and women for ordained and other ministries. After eight years in Durham, John moved in 1996 to become Archdeacon of Canterbury and Canon Residentiary of Canterbury Cathedral, but returned to Durham to be consecrated as Bishop of Jarrow in January 2002.

John completed an M.Litt. in Pastoral Theology during his first time in Durham, and co-wrote Practical Theology in Action for SPCK in 1996. He has continued writing for SPCK — The Intercessions Handbook in 1997, Beginning Again in 2000, Living the Gospel Stories Today in 2001 and How to Pray in 2002. The Second Intercessions Handbook came out in November 2004; Living Easter through the Year in 2005 and How to Explain Your Faith in 2006. His latest book, The Life and Work of a Priest, was published in July 2007.

John is deeply committed to the encouragement and care of the clergy. He enjoys a wide teaching ministry in this country and abroad, and relishes making the Christian faith accessible and attractive. In the Diocese of Durham he recently led a successful bid for the twin site monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow to be the UK’s 2010 nomination as a World Heritage Site. He set up a Spirituality Network in the north east and had responsibility for ordinands and curates, Readers, the Board of Education and the Council for Ministry, Hospital Chaplains, the Lesotho Link, College of Counsellors, Spiritual Direction, the Regional Training Partnership and other bodies. In June 2007 he was installed as Bishop of Oxford where he is relishing getting to know one of the largest dioceses in the Church of England and the complex sociological fabric of the Thames Valley. His national commitments include work with the Ministry Division of the Church of England, the Church Army, Church House Publishing and the Guild of Health.

By |October 9th, 2008|Categories: Oxford Castaways|Comments Off on The Bishop and Bede