Farewell but not goodbye

JUST days after chief constable Alastair McWhirter announced he is to retire next year, Suffolk's most senior churchman the Rt Rev Richard Lewis announced that he too would be leaving next summer.

By Paul Geater

JUST days after chief constable Alastair McWhirter announced he is to retire next year, Suffolk's most senior churchman the Rt Rev Richard Lewis announced that he too would be leaving next summer. PAUL GEATER looks at the very different futures facing the civic leaders.

WHEN he arrived in Suffolk from Taunton in Somerset ten years ago, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Rt Rev Richard Lewis knew very little about the county.

But after a decade as head of the church here, he now feels completely at home - and when he retires next year he isn't planning to move far away.

“We will probably move to Norfolk - I've come to love this part of the world and while I shan't stay in Suffolk I would not want to move too far away,” he said.

Bishop Richard will be 64 when he retires at the end of June at the end of a very eventful decade for the church in the county. The cathedral at Bury St Edmunds has been completed with a magnificent tower and the diocesan administration has moved to new offices in the heart of Ipswich and opened the St Nicholas centre in one of the town's most historic churches.

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But it is the less obvious changes in the diocese that he sees as just as important for the church in Suffolk. It is one part of the country where the number of ordained clergy has increased - by 23 since 1997 - although their pattern of working has changed.

Bishop Richard said: “When I came to Suffolk in 1997 there were just seven non-stipendiary clergy in the diocese, working in parishes.

“Now there are 93 - and the way parishes are organised has changed.

“In many cases there is a full-time priest responsible for several parishes, but they have unpaid priests working within their local communities helping him or her out.

“That is a model that has to some extent been pioneered in this diocese and it is something that is likely to be followed elsewhere in the country,” he said.

“When I look at the cathedral and at Churchgate House and the St Nicholas Centre I see them as building the foundations for a change in the church over the last decade.”

The bishop has never been one to appear too stuffy - when Churchgate House opened he could not resist vaulting over a fence in his enthusiasm.

And he was very keen to inspect a rally car run by a church team.

He will retire at the end of June next year after a busy final month: “I am president of the Suffolk Show next year and then there will be an ordination service in the cathedral. That will see me go out on a high,” he said.

He has decided to go now so his successor is in place in time for the next Lambeth conference in 2008 - that is a gathering of all the Anglican bishops from across the world and takes place every 10 years.

Bishop Richard said: “I think it is important that the conference is attended by someone who is just coming into the job rather than someone who is likely to be leaving within a short time.

“The 1998 conference came when I had been here for a year and it was very valuable for me - I hope my successor finds the next one equally valuable.”

WHEN they leave their jobs next summer, Alastair McWhirter and Richard Lewis are set to face very different futures - although their experience means they will probably remain in demand.

Mr McWhirter, at 53, is younger than Bishop Richard was when he was appointed to the top job in the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich in 1997. He will retire on a full pension after serving 30 years in the police force, and have time to start a new career. He will probably be in demand as a consultant in either the public or private sector - or possibly both.

Chief constables, or any senior police officers, have valuable experience which is useful for organisations needing security advice, or an independent voice on their board. He is unlikely to have too much time to spend digging his garden!

The options for a retired bishop are not so wide - although Bishop Richard suspects he may be called on to advise other dioceses who are bringing in more local ministers.

He said: “For the first couple of years after I step down I will still have relevant recent experience which some of my colleagues may think is useful. It could be looked at as a form of consultancy.”

And he is looking forward to pursuing a hobby he has maintained throughout his ministry - as an amateur furniture maker.

“I have made furniture for our house and our children's homes - and I have recently completed my first workbench,” he said.

“I am looking forward to doing a bit more of that in the future. In my vocation, the work of a carpenter features pretty heavily!”