My old boss, Jonathan Gledhill, yesterday announced that he will retire from his post as the 98th bishop of Lichfield later this year after 40 years in ordained ministry. So I thought it may be an appropriate time to shed some light on a certain police incident!
Before I returned to the purer (or darker, depending on your viewpoint) forms of journalism, I worked as director of communications for the bishop and diocese. For this reason, I don’t usually report on matters to do with the diocese. It wouldn’t be right. I know where the bodies are buried! And I am always very suspicious of former PR people who want to spill the beans as soon as they leave their office.
Having said that, I don’t think I’m breaking that self-imposed rule by bringing this incident to light.
It was the morning of Valentine’s Day in 2005 when my pager went off. The message was from a senior press officer with Staffordshire Police. It asked me to contact him urgently.
I did so. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Hello, It is Gavin here, returning your call.”
Press Officer: “Hello Gavin. We’re calling about the incident with the bishop of Lichfield yesterday. We’d like to issue a statement.”
Me: “The incident with the bishop of Lichfield?”
There was a very long pause before I repeated the press officer’s words as a question: “The incident with the bishop of Lichfield?”
Jonathan had been in post for just over a year – having been installed in the cathedral in November 2003. And so at this stage I knew him fairly, but not very, well. I was struggling to think what he could have done that had become a police incident.
Had he been caught speeding? That would hardly warrant a statement, even when the suspect is a bishop. An unauthorised leak? Most probably. But an officially sanctioned statement? No. That couldn’t be it.
In my mind, a whole range of possible offences were being considered and discounted as highly improbable. The mind can process information pretty fast when it wants to. So it probably didn’t take anywhere near long as it felt like before the press officer replied:
“Oh, don’t you know? He arrested a burglar yesterday afternoon.”
The relief in my voice must have been obvious to hear. We weren’t dealing with a major crisis but a low-level good news story. Having checked the details with Jonathan, a press statement was agreed and issued.
Jonathan and his wife Jane had been out walking and were returning to their home, overlooking Lichfield Cathedral, when they noticed that the gates to the garage were open. A group of youths emerged. Jonathan caught one, but he got away. The second was not so lucky and he detained him until the police arrived.
I’ve just looked back on a couple of news reports of the incident. Both say that Jonathan gave the youth the choice of calling his parents or calling the police. One says that he called the police because the youth couldn’t decide; another says that he called the police after a pair of secateurs fell out of the youth’s pockets.
Either way, the youth admitted theft and received a police caution. And Jonathan became a half-day media sensation with just about everybody trying to get hold of him – without much success as he was on a train and Tube on his way to the General Synod. His first duty on arrival at Church House was to be whisked into the C of E’s radio studio to be interviewed by Radio Four.
Many people (including a good number of bishops) would have played up such a story. Not Jonathan. He is a somewhat shy person. He understands that the role of a bishop is a public one and he will undertake media activities; but I don’t think I’ll be giving away any secrets if I say that I don’t think he enjoys doing so.
When he does appear in media, his focus – as in his ministry generally – is on trying to communicate the Gospel message.
Yesterday, for BBC Radio Stoke’s news bulletins about his retirement, he was asked what advice he would give his successor. His response will surprise nobody who knows him: “To stay faithful to the good news that Jesus Christ is alive and real; and to make our communities centres where that is acknowledged and where people experience it.”
There has been a growing tendency amongst some evangelicals to bemoan the lack of evangelical – and conservative evangelical – bishops in the C of E. So much so that the see of Maidstone has been set aside for a bishop with a cross-provincial role to represent those conservative evangelicals with a particular view on male headship.
It’s hard to know whether Jonathan was bemused, annoyed or frustrated by such claims. He certainly didn’t believe them: he himself is a conservative evangelical and he had commented that there has never been so many evangelicals in the House of Bishops.
He wasn’t much interested in church politics and structures: except where he could shape those internal political structures to be less focused on maintenance and more on renewal and evangelism.
Working with the diocesan financial bods, he managed to release significant amounts of money for a new “bishop’s growth fund” which helped to pay for numerous parish-based evangelism initiatives, including, at one time, more than 40 youth and children’s workers across the diocese.
One of his first messages as a bishop was to give churches permission to fail (not as a church, but in particular initiatives) because when trying new things, some were bound to fail. And he didn’t want to see this as a negative; but as a positive sign that churches were being bold and creative.
Jonathan and Jane will retire to Kent in the autumn. I wish them both well. With Jonathan’s heart for the Gospel, I know that this is not the end of his ministry.