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Archbishop's farewell tribute - Bishop of Sheffield

Thursday 14th February 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a farewell speech at the General Synod to mark the retirement of the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Jack Nicholls.

And while we are on the subject of Bishops who just do as it says on the mitre, I turn to Jack. Brought up in Rossendale it seems he must in some point in his early years have had a conversion experience; he switched from supporting Burnley to Manchester United. A passion that has lasted for fifty years or more - and perhaps was a preparation for that more mystical transition between Lancashire and Yorkshire. He was at Kings College London and then St Boniface Yorkshire and for the next thirty years he was fairly constantly in motion across the Pennines. A mark of his ministry has been that capacity to win the trust of communities wherever he has been by, just as I said about Bill, that absolute willingness to be real and to be there and what more could really be said of any good Bishop or good pastor. I'm told that the product you see before you, in spite of all appearances, is not absolutely untouched or unpolished Lancashire. They tell me that an attempt was made in his early days of training to iron out some of the edges of the Lancashire accent and he was trained by someone from RADA who also trained Albert Finney. Is that true Jack? But gave up! Or at least one supposes it's either that or what Jack sounded like thirty years ago was almost unimaginable. Not unconnected to that, Jack has been quite fond of the stage at Synod from early years and was much involved in acting and singing. He sung the part of Papageno in the Magic Flute in 1966, a part of which some of you will know turns on the utter inability of this very engaging chap to keep silent at crucial moments. And some of you will have heard the results of Jack's skills in Synod reviews and the like, but his brush with the performing arts lead him to accept a part in Cinderella when he was a curate. Now no one has been able to tell me what part that was but it certainly involved a fair amount of singing and dancing and I believe that his dance teacher was a particular significance to him; significance enough to make for a lifelong tango involving Jack and Judith. Judith is in the gallery today as well, somewhere I think.

Now Jack's talents as a stand up comedian made him a natural candidate for the episcopate. He has always used his gifts of humour not only as a means of entertainment but as a means of diffusing tense situations and bringing us down to earth again in ways that we badly need from time to time. A disarming gift in every sense. And that has kept him in demand not only in the north but as a preacher and after dinner speaker in almost equal quantities but certainly respectable representation in both roles, but those are roles that he uses as opportunities to open doors for the good news. He became a fellow in 1997 of the University of Central Lancashire which is an honour he greatly values coming from his own county and the citation that accompanied this award described him as a communicator with the gift of saying 'deep things simply' which I think we would all want to endorse. Two things Jack which you and I have in common, perhaps three. One of course is our common debt to Mother Mary Claire, that greatest of spiritual teachers and grandmothers in God of the Church of England of the 20th century and not unconnected with that as second thing in common is the devotion we share to St Seraphim of Surov. The third thing, perhaps not quite as important as either of those, is the attitude we share to technology. I don't claim to be at the cutting edge of technology myself but I think I have the edge, just a little, on Jack. I may even have started using a computer before he did. He may well have been the last Diocesan Bishop in the Church of England to resist the universal lure of the computer. The machine at his desk, I am reliably informed, is entirely decorative. It is there to placate the Church Commissioners who like to know how their money is being spent. I believe there was a picture of you Jack sitting at your desk launching this, is that right? Giving the slightly misleading impression that you knew what you were doing. In recent years Jack's role as Vice Chair of Fresh Expressions has, as they say, brought him to a wider audience but has embedded in the life of Fresh Expressions in the Church of England a profound spirituality; a sense of the Catholic Dimension of mission which has been wonderful for the life of the project. Jack's pastoral presence in Lancashire and in Yorkshire has been valued and loved by all. He has been again real and there. The recent time of severe flooding saw him speaking up in the House of Lords for those affected and he has continued his advocacy and his compassion for those communities even when they have gone out of the glare of public notice after the crisis has passed. So to you Jack and Judith as to Bill and Francis we say again thank you for being yourself, thank you for all that you have contributed to this Church, this Synod, to the House of Bishops. We shall miss both of you more than it is easy to say and you go with immense love and gratitude from all of us here.

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