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Bishop of the Poor: Edward King reinvented the role of diocesan bishop

Friday 5th March 2010

The Archbishop talks to Crosslincs (Diocese of Lincoln newspaper) about the legacy of Bishop Edward King.

By Will Harrison.

While many Bishops of Lincoln have passed out of people's memories, just a few of the 71 bishops who have held the post remain firmly in the memories and observances of the Church of England.

But it is Edward King − perhaps even more than St Hugh − who remains steadfastly in the minds of the Church, particularly for his extraordinary capacity for pastoral energy and dedication.

So 100 years after his death, the Diocese of Lincoln will be honoured by an extended visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, who strongly believes that it is necessary to honour Edward King.

"Edward King reinvented two things in the 19th century," said the Archbishop.

"He reinvented pastoral theology − the whole science of training a clergy which was competent pastorally and humanly; clergy who had a sort of professionalism in care.

"And he reinvented what a diocesan bishop could be and do, I think, in terms of accessibility, concern for the poorest − not something that other 19th century bishops had ignored, but certainly something that he brought to the fore in a quite fresh way.

"I think that in both of the those ways he contributed enormously to what we now absolutely take for granted about the role of a priest and a bishop."

On his invitation from Gladstone to be Bishop of Lincoln, Edward King wrote to a friend: "I am glad it is John Wesley's diocese. I shall try to be the Bishop of the Poor. If I can feel that I think I shall be happy."

The Church has, of course, changed greatly from King's day, and I asked the Archbishop whether his legacy was still relevant, given the world we live in, or consigned to history.

"The Church has changed enormously, of course, but I hope it hasn't changed in those two respects," said the Archbishop.

"I hope that it hasn't changed in taking absolutely seriously the need to have clergy who are deeply trained in prayer, in thinking and in the disciplines of caring for people.

"And I hope that we still believe that bishops ought to be that sort of person, that sort of apostolic, person-related character who can speak for those who are disadvantaged, who can uphold a really compelling vision of what the Church might be and what God's love is."

Edward King famously befriended and converted condemned prisoners in Lincoln Prison. In 1887 he heard about a young fisherman from Grimsby who had killed his girlfriend. The chaplain at the prison was having great difficulty in relating to the condemned man, and King intervened. He taught the prisoner about the "unseen realities of life and death, sin and forgiveness, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son." The young man was reportedly deeply moved, and was confirmed. Bishop King received his confession, and applied − unsuccessfully − to the Home Secretary to have the capital sentence commuted.

King accompanied the prisoner to the scaffold, and sustained him with "strong prayers" until the trapdoor was opened.

It would, however, be hard to imagine a diocesan bishop today being able to devote so much time to individual causes.

"I think it's certainly a job with different pressures," said the Archbishop.

"I should be very, very sad if I thought that the job as it is now has made it impossible for bishops to be that sort of person. I think we would have lost something absolutely essential to the nature of being a bishop.

"A bishop is not somebody who is separated from clergy by a whole load of administrative responsibilities. A bishop is a priest who has a certain number of extra symbolic, co-ordinating functions, but remains fundamentally a pastor in the Church."

In 1890 Edward King was tried before Archbishop Edward Benson for ritual practices, after a churchwarden from Cleethorpes witnessed the bishop celebrate the Eucharist at St Peter at Gowts Church in Lincoln. The Bishop faced eastwards away from the congregation, and at the Offertory he mixed water with the wine. At the absolution and the concluding blessing the Bishop faced the congregation and made the sign of the cross with upraised hand − all of which became usual practice within a few years.

J Hanchard's Sketch of the Life of Bishop King, with portrait lists what those opposed to his appointment felt: "By his continued connection with the English Church Union, we have the link which connects him with the Ultra-Ritualistic faction. From the approbation his Lordship has bestowed upon persistent law-breakers, we cannot feel any confidence that he will exercise his authority to stem the tide of unreasoning sacerdotalism. By the work he maintained at Cuddesdon; by his apparently sincere regard for Romish playthings; by the display of gaudy gew-gaws at his enthronement; and by his self-conscious vanity in sitting to be 'taken' for the admiration of 'the faithful' without even having sacrificed his whiskers to the Catholic razor, he is unquestionably assisting in 'digging the grave of the Establishment.'"

Dr Williams believes that the trial was an embarrassment to the Church, and only served to strengthen the affection with which Edward King was held.

"I think that after the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 there was a growing sense that the attempt to impose conformity on Church worship by the laws of Parliament was actually making both the Church and the state look rather silly," said the Archbishop.

"King's trial brought that to a head, in a sense. Here was one of the holiest, most learned, most pastorally engaged, most involved bishops in the Church of England going through a ridiculous process, which everybody was embarrassed about.

"Archbishop Benson was clearly embarrassed about it, and I think that general embarrassment did teach Church and State something about the need to give the Church a little bit of room to work out its own disciplines on its own terms about worship, and to catch up with the flexibility and changes in worship practices that were going on on the ground."

The Archbishop said that there would always be a temptation for the Church to try and over-regulate worship.

"We rightly believe that there are standards for public worship and that there are things that we have got to have in common and say in common and do in common," he said.

"You can't just make it up as you go along. At the same time, what really speaks to people and transforms people and deepens their faith will change from one context to another.

"The Church of England learned that the hard way in the late 19th century by this series of rather daft experiments in control. King's trial, in a sense, showed the absurdity of it."

A century after King's death, the Church of England is a very different organisation, and I asked the Archbishop what he thought King would have felt about its development.

"I think he would be amazed at the amount of paperwork and regulation that we've created for ourselves and that we've created in response to Government pressure," he said.

"And I think he would be disappointed that we were focussed so much on rather short-term goals.

"King was a deep man, and he believed that clergy ought to have depth; that they ought to have the kind of training that allowed them to go deep in their own faith, and the resources of the tradition, and of the Bible, and I think he would have said that we're very much at risk of crowding that out, of creating people who are problem-solvers rather than thinkers and reflectors.

"He would have said, in the words of somebody else, it's not High Church and Low Church that matter, it's deep Church."

Times change, and the Church in 2110 may not bear much resemblance to today's Church of England, but the Archbishop is certain that Bishop King will still provide an example in another 100 years.

"I hope that in 100 years' time the Church will still remember him with gratitude, and will remember how it was possible − even in a very stratified Victorian society − for somebody in his privileged position to be a trusted spokesman for the railway workers and the brick-makers, and all the people at the bottom of the heap in society," said the Archbishop.

"I hope the Church will still think that that is part of what a bishop ought to do, and that the Church will still be working for the kind of depth and the kind of groundedness in spiritual integrity that belonged to Bishop King."

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