The bishopric of Bath and Wells comes with more bear-traps than most. For one thing, there’s the baby-eating. Ever since Blackadder told Baldrick he was being chased for a debt by the ‘baby–eating Bishop of Bath and Wells’, the image has stuck. When the last incumbent, Peter Price, made his first visit to the House of Lords, accompanied by his five-week-old granddaughter, the Bishop of Southwark remarked: ‘I see the bishop has brought his own lunch.’
The present incumbent, who was elected in March, and will be formally enthroned in June, has suffered a worse indignity. Peter Hancock is to become the first appointee not to live in the Bishop’s Palace, home to each of his predecessors since Jocelin of Wells laid the first stone in 1206. In the opinion of the church commissioners, chief among them the Independent’s founder Andreas Whittam Smith and the Tory MP Tony Baldry, it makes more sense to buy a new rectory two miles away, at a cost of £900,000, so that the bishop ‘should not be encumbered’ by the 60,000 tourists who visit the palace each year. Moving him to a different parish will, they say, enable him to ‘carry out his ministry and mission in a more sustainable way’.
Not many people agree. Certainly the Rt Revd John Bickersteth, 92, the oldest living former Bishop of Bath and Wells, doesn’t. He held the post from 1975 to 1988, and was succeeded by George Carey. Bickersteth was an immensely popular bishop, not least with the Queen, but he retired aged 66 to dedicate more time to wildlife conservation. Now he has emerged from retirement to voice his opposition to the proposals.
‘It doesn’t make any sense,’ he says. ‘The poor fellow shouldn’t be made to live two miles away when there’s a perfectly serviceable flat next door.’ He describes the palace, with its walls, gatehouse and moat, as ‘a wonderful place to live’, a lovely family home (he and his wife had four children, mostly grown up by the time they took up residence). He liked to shoot geese from the parapet.
‘I think it’s immensely important to have a sense of continuity,’ he says. He is confident the proposals will be ‘squashed on the head’, not least as he has come up with his own solution. He suggests renaming it ‘the Bishop’s Lodgings’. ‘Then he can still live in the palace, but it won’t be called a palace,’ he says. ‘The new bishop came to see me a couple of days ago, and he loved it.’
We are having tea in Bickersteth’s cosy ground-floor flat within bun-throwing distance of Salisbury cathedral. The opinions of a retired bishop may normally be confined to the letters pages of the Times, but Bickersteth comes from one of the largest and most continuous dynasties of English clergy. He is the sixth clergyman in a row, his son the seventh, and there have been 20 Bickersteth priests going back to 1781, including three bishops. Bob Runcie used to say there must be a fair amount of purple in the Bickersteth blood.
To talk to John Bickersteth, or to read his memoirs, is to plunge into an England free from busybody church commissioners. Ask him how he became a bishop and he says: ‘You used to have lunch at the Athenaeum.’ His appointment as Her Majesty’s Clerk of the Closet, soon after he was made Bishop of Bath and Wells, was entirely due to his shooting prowess. He had been invited to preach at Sandringham for two weeks in January, as all bishops are. The Queen’s private secretary, the then Bishop of Norwich, mentioned to HM that Bickersteth enjoyed a bit of shooting, and she in turn told Prince Philip. Bickersteth performed so well on the Saturday that he was asked to come back and shoot geese. ‘So, early on Monday morning, I was roused by the head keeper, and went bumping out in a Land Rover across the fields and put in a very deep ditch, eight feet deep. I had very little room to swing my gun. As it was getting light, these great skeins of geese appeared. It was a lovely sight, and as they were getting lower, I shot two or three times. Then it got lighter and the head keeper came across and said — “Three geese! Very good indeed. Marvellous.” So I went back to Sandringham with three geese under my bag, and as I came into breakfast Prince Philip said, “Rather successful, I hear”.’ The following week, he was appointed Clerk of the Closet.
He got to know the Queen quite well over the following decade. The role involves three duties: choosing the monarch’s chaplains; being present when a new bishop pays homage; and, most intriguingly, vetting all the monarch’s reading material. This dates back to the Reformation, when the church was keen to prevent the Queen being exposed to Roman Catholic propaganda. Under Elizabeth II, it is not an arduous task. ‘She’s not much of a reader,’ he says. Was there no truth to Alan Bennett’s story The Uncommon Reader? ‘Wasn’t that brilliant! A lovely book. But no. I don’t think she has the time. I think her knowledge of the world is unsurpassed, though. She has met so many millions of people, and has known some of them really well indeed. She’s an incredibly knowledgeable person, and has a marvellous sense of humour. Her job must be so boring. She has to sign her signature endlessly.’
It’s not surprising the Queen and he got on so well: they have much in common. They share a quiet devotion to the church and to the military and to serving their people. Bickersteth was born the youngest of four children to a country rector in west Kent, where he had a bucolic childhood. After prep school at Lambrook, he won a scholarship to Rugby, where he played cricket and rugby and joined the OTC. The death of his mother of breast cancer when he was 15 cast a shadow over his adolescence. But he resolved to ‘keep in touch with her’ through the Sacrament every single Sunday if he could, a resolution he has kept to this day.
He never considered becoming a clergyman in his youth — quite the opposite. ‘Being the son of a priest tended rather to vitiate against doing the same thing.’ Instead, he planned to go into farming. That was put on hold by the war, which broke out in his last year of school. ‘I saw men killed around me, and I thought this was an absurd activity.’
After the war he went up to Oxford. ‘It was fairly idle,’ he says of his time reading Greats at Christ Church. He lived in the same room in college — Peck quad 5/6 — given to all previous Bickersteths, including his two uncles and brother. It meant the maintenance men only had to repaint the initial.
Towards the end of his Oxford career, he began to consider ordination. He chose to train at Wells, then became a curate at St Matthew’s Moorfields in Bristol. Stints as a vicar in Surrey and Kent led to his being appointed Bishop of Warrington in 1970.
Was he ambitious? ‘It never occurred to me to be a bishop,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to serve God.’ It helped that he was a member of Nobody’s, a discussion and glee club for parsons that met regularly at Lambeth Palace. There, his talents must have been spotted, and the invitation to lunch at the Athenaeum soon materialised. Actually, it was at the Commonwealth Club, with ‘a lovely man called Stuart Blanche, who was Bishop of Liverpool, a very holy man’. So off he went ‘to darkest Liverpool, which I knew nothing about, and had a marvellous time’.
Five years later, he became Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was, he says, a fairly conservative clergyman, and initially voted against the appointment of women priests, as he felt that the people of ‘deep Somerset’ would oppose it. But over the next couple of years, he changed his mind, and ended up leading the campaign for the ordination of women. Why the change of heart? ‘Well, I began to realise what potential they had, as being sympathetic and sometimes forceful people,’ he says. ‘As potential leaders, they were not being used properly by the church.’ As for women bishops, he is fully supportive, arguing that ‘you cannot have clergy who do not have the opportunity of being a bishop if others are.’ His money is on Lucy Winkett, vicar of St James’s Piccadilly, ‘a dear person’, to be one of the first.
Bickersteth has also changed his mind on gay marriage. ‘I am changing,’ he says. ‘Part of me says I don’t like the idea of it being called a marriage, it’s a misnomer. But I see how happy homosexuals, both lesbians and men, can be. I’m more liberal than I was on so many things.’ Not that he was ever an arch-conservative. In the late 1970s, he was delighted to be asked to preach at the Glastonbury festival, addressing thousands of hippies in his purple cassocks.
‘Some say I’m too liberal-minded,’ he says. These include his own son, Piers Bickersteth, the vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Reading, and a sometime spokesman for Evangelical Alliance. He is a ‘marvellous priest’, but as an evangelical, has views ‘almost diametrically opposed’ to his father’s. ‘We’re good friends, we shall always be. But I don’t debate these matters with him, there would be no point.’
Instead, he takes the Times and The Spectator, and hosts a stream of visitors. Much of his retirement has been dedicated to conservation, and in 1995 he took a history degree at the Open University. Of his 14 grandchildren, he suspects at least one will follow in the family profession. He counts himself lucky to have enjoyed such a rich and varied life, including 55 years with his beloved late wife, Rosemary. He is blessed now to live with Maya, a ‘gorgeous’ Polish carer, who brings him a cup of tea in bed each morning. And what about the babies — does he eat them for breakfast? No. He’s just not that sort.
Matthew Bell was once a receptionist at The Spectator, and is now commissioning editor at Tatler.