Bishop's good tidings

SUFFOLK'S senior Bishop is today preparing for his last Christmas as head of the diocese - a Christmas that is being celebrated under a very dark cloud.

SUFFOLK'S senior Bishop is today preparing for his last Christmas as head of the diocese - a Christmas that is being celebrated under a very dark cloud. Rt Rev Richard Lewis took time off from his preparations to tell Political Editor Paul Geater about the challenges for the future - and his bleak view of the world at the end of 2006.

TALKING to Bishop Richard as he prepares for his last Christmas at the head of the Church of England in Suffolk is a slightly curious experience.

His manner, his tone of voice, and his smile - sometimes breaking into a gentle laugh - is quite uplifting.

But his words - the heart of his message - is frankly pretty gloomy. He is clearly looking for signs of hope for the future - especially at this time of the year - but feels that there is a great deal wrong with the world that needs to be put right.

Of course recent events in Ipswich dominated our conversation, but Bishop Richard is also troubled by the world situation - especially the Iraq war and the way America is engaging in the War on Terror.

“I do think that Mr Bush has a great deal to answer for,” he said. “I think Guantanamo Bay is an appalling symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the world.

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“We have the strongest nation in the world apparently showing little regard for human rights, employing extraordinary rendition, and holding people without trial in Guantanamo.”

The bishop feels very uncomfortable about the efforts to defeat terrorism across the world.

He said: “I don't know why governments feel that the only way to defeat terrorism is through brute force.

“If you look at what has happened around the world, that doesn't look like the most effective way of dealing with the problem - especially in the middle east.”

Bishop Richard feels that the world has become a little harsher over recent years - not only in the battle against terrorism and the threat to human rights, but in other ways as well.

“I cannot work out what is happening with the NHS when hospitals are fined for carrying out too many operations. That seems quite extraordinary.

“Why on earth is the government considering spending hundreds of millions or billions of pounds on a new generation of nuclear weapons? That is no use in the battle against terrorism. The money could be spent on other things - like the health service.”

Bishop Richard also has concerns about the Suffolk community - although he hopes that the tragic events of the last few weeks will focus minds on some of the underlying social problems faced in the area.

“I really don't want to sound patronising, but if this does shine a light on the serious social problems that lead young women into prostitution then there would be something.

“But it is necessary to remember that all the victims were people with families who loved and cared about them - but they were people with serious problems.”

Bishop Richard felt that issues such as the shortage of affordable housing in the area was a key factor in driving young women into drug addiction and prostitution.

“We need to try to ensure people don't end up feeling alienated from the rest of society - and a fundamental problem is the lack of affordable housing for many families,” he said.

The bishop hoped that the healing process once the killer has been caught could lead to a re-establishment of a feeling of community, although he acknowledged that the concept of “community” had changed.

“Many people regard community as a question of time rather than place - your community is the people you spend most time with not necessarily where you live.

“So people who live in Ipswich and travel to London every day may feel more part of the London community than that here,” he said.

The bishop is due to retire in the summer after 10 years in Suffolk.

So what is he looking forward to once he has hung up his crook and mitre?

“It will be nice to have my days not regulated by my diary and schedule. I look forward to doing some more writing - and it will be nice to get my workbench out,” he said.

A keen woodworker, his hobby has had to take more of a back seat over the last few years.

“I have really enjoyed my time in Suffolk, I cannot believe I will have completed 10 years by next summer. But it will be nice to have more time to myself,” he said.

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