Impish mischief in effective ministry: looking back on the retiring Bishop of Lincoln

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Almost nine years after taking up his mitre and crosier, the Rt Rev Dr John Saxbee retires next Monday from his post as the Bishop of Lincoln. JASON HIPPISLEY looks back on his tenure, a period exemplified by appropriately Impish mischief as much as his effective ministry.

Regarded universally by church-goers and non-churchgoers alike as ‘Our Bishop’, Bishop John has proved himself an ambassador for much more than just the church and the county, but for its communities too.

He has always believed in leading from the front, establishing the Lincolnshire Assembly to pioneer for the county’s fortunes, acting as an advocate for many charities and organisations and carrying out countless stunts to raise their profile and funds.

He has engaged with all and everyone with characteristic patience, a listening ear and wise words, he has dressed as Santa to run through the city, cleaned toilets during volunteer week, thrown himself from aeroplanes and trees, worn a yoke and chains to walk in remembrance of slaves and turned his hand to pretty well every challenge thrown before him.

Dr Saxbee has also successfully pressed for the re-opening of the Lincoln Theological College, spoken up for educational issues in the House of Lords and inspired and influenced congregations in the face of falling numbers.

This campaigning zeal will see him through to the closing days of his outstanding episcopacy as he sleeps rough on the cathedral steps on his last night in office.

With this same candour, humour and humility, which has typified his tenure the retiring Bishop proved to be far from retiring in his valedictory message addressed to a packed Cathedral.

“Lincolnshire is a big county with big skies and, I believe, a big future. It’s not the promised land, but it is a land full of promise,” he said.

Citing the county’s prospects for harnessing new energy sources through wind, solar and bio fuels and leading the way in a new agricultural revolution for food security and sustainability, Dr Saxbee said Lincolnshire was ‘a county whose time has come.’

Having been a prominent speaker and advocate for education and civil liberties, he does however see ‘great irony’ in the cuts being imposed by Government at the same time as promoting the Big Society.

“Big Society has been around in Lincolnshire for generations but the rush to cut funding for councils and voluntary bodies could jeopardise the big society we already have.

“Christianity is nothing if not a protest movement. We must all protest against injustice and take to the streets if necessary to defend what is good about this county before it is lost,” he said.

Characteristically he also quipped that the lasting legacy of his time as the 71st Bishop of Lincoln was somewhat more prosaic than his predecessors’. Where Remigius built the Cathedral’s great West Front and Bishop Hugh the Angel Choir and Burghesh and Longland have a chantry and a chapel apiece, the only addition during his time had been the new toilet block.

He paid heartfelt tribute to the ‘wonderfully talented people working with commitment, creativity and courage’ throughout the Diocese in the many walks of life he has encountered; recalling the communities, churches, people and parishioners of Historic Lincolnshire for their dedication and determination.

“Our lives have been enriched by your fellowship and uplifted by your love. Thank you for being the people God likes you to be and the wonderful people you are,” he concluded to a standing ovation in a packed cathedral.

He recalled how predecessor the Rt Rev Bob Hardy congratulated him on being made ‘Bishop of 2,000 square miles of bugger all’. “He knew as I know now that this is a diocese full of promise,” said Dr Saxbee whose retirement comes weeks after his 65th birthday.

And in an irreverent reference to changes within the diocesan structure of parishes he thoughtfully prescribed to the massed clergy the miracle cure he had discovered, biochemic tissue salts called New Era, ‘for soothing nervous headaches due to worry or excitement’.

But he did say the Diocese of Lincoln and its churches were in good health, with church attendance ‘holding up very well’ increasing numbers seeking a vocation in ministry and thriving ecumenical inter-faith relationships.

The Dean of Lincoln, the Very Rev Philip Buckler also described how the Bishop had made the church relevant to the world today through the clarity of his thought and speech, through wide public engagement, through his wisdom, his vision and his actions.

Bishop John’s capacity for remembering the names of everyone he ever met, his delight in engaging with all questions of faith whether from the pulpit or through the media, his challenge of politicians and his powerfully persuasive presidential addresses, the ways in which he touched hearts and brought Jesus Christ close to all through his ministry were also recalled.

He said, “We do well to remember the vision Bishop John offered and to thank God for this episcopacy and all that John and Jackie have done for this Diocese and its people.”

Canon John Patrick, Vicar of Sleaford and Chairman of the House of Clergy in the Lincoln Diocesan Synod referred to Bishop John’s leadership in the church, the county and the nation, ‘giving thanks for his wisdom, wit, sharp intellect and compassion; an example of living out the Christian faith’.

On behalf of the Diocese Robin Whitehead, Vicar of Boston, detailed aspects of Bishop John’s career and how much he had done for the Diocese of Lincoln which ‘will never be forgotten’. “Your many legacies will live on,” he said.

As Bishop John and Jackie, his wife of 46 years, prepare for retirement in Pembrokeshire they were given a summerhouse in which to read and write and behind them they leave a stunning portrait commissioned from county artist Nancy Fletcher to hang in Bishop’s House or the Diocesan offices at the Old Palace.

That portrait will ensure his glinting eye, warm smile and comforting manner remain long after he has sought pastures new.