Living God's Love Values - Generosity, Joy, Imagination and Courage
Living God's Love Values - Generosity, Joy, Imagination and Courage

Archdeacon of Hertford’s Retirement


This weekend, July 2/3, will see the ordination of new deacons and priests for the Diocese of St Albans and the moments of the Archdeacon of Hertford’s public ministry.

Last Saturday the Diocese of St Albans said farewell to Archdeacon Trevor and his wife Sue at Evensong in All Saints Church, Hertford.

In a packed church, Bishop Alan paid warm tribute to him, noting especially the breadth of his ministry as well as its length and the gift Trevor had for commending good things that were going on in the diocese to him.

Trevor preached at the service and his sermon can be read below:

“In my part of the land there used to be

An archdeacon, a man of high degree,

Who’d execute with bold determination

The punishment for acts of fornication,

Of pandering, also of sorcery,

Of defamation and adultery,

Of errant churchmen, of false testaments

And contracts and of lack of sacraments,

Of usury and simony also……..Before the bishop caught them with his hook,

Their names were down in this archdeacon’s book.”

So Geoffrey Chaucer opens the Prologue to the Friar’s Tale. It represents an age when Archdeacon’s held sway across the land, maintaining discipline and enforcing the law which, in every respect, impinged on people’s lives.  As a consequence, the historian deals the archdeacon a pretty fatal blow.

Over most of Europe, writes the medieval historian R W Southern,   the worst terrors ordinary people had to face were archdeacons …… They were seldom men of liberal outlook, but they wanted a quiet life and kept most of their thunder for village lechers, drunkards and adulterers.                                             

So, Archdeacon’s were pretty low in the popularity stakes! In 1160 John of Salisbury, secretary to Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, wrote: “for archdeacons, the whole way of salvation is utterly barred.” Pretty damning, isn’t it?! But, the archdeacons of those days were a worldly lot; they kept a tight rein on the Diocesan purse strings, and mysteriously did quite well out of it for themselves – hence the question, “Can an Archdeacon be saved?”

 Well, in some respects, salvation came with the Reformation.  Thomas Cranmer was Archdeacon of Taunton before he was catapulted after two years to Canterbury. John Chambre, Archdeacon of Bedford had quite a repertoire as he was also Precentor of Exeter, Treasurer of Wells and a Prebendary of Lincoln where, indeed, the stall of the Archdeacon of Bedford still exists, although now described as defunct….the stall that is! The Archdeacon of St Albans emerged out of the rubble of the dissolved Abbey Church, was dispossessed of the ‘old abbey archdeaconry’, and made a diocesan archdeacon for Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, in the Diocese of London, where he was required to do some work, but began to suffer what can best be described as an identity crisis being moved from the diocese of London, to Rochester and then, in the 19th century, to St Albans where he thought he’d always been anyway.

Of course the 19th century gave rise to another literary flowering about archdeacons in the writings of Anthony Trollope. Here we meet Theophilus Grantly, the intrepid Archdeacon of Barchester and Rector of Plumstead Episcopi:

“…he looked like an ecclesiastical statue … as a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth; his shovel hat, large, new, and well-pronounced, a churchman’s hat in every inch, declared the profession as plainly as does the Quakers broad brim; his heavy eyebrow, large, open eyes, and full mouth and chin expressed the solidity of his order; the broad chest, amply covered with fine cloth, told how well to do was his estate; one hand ensconced within his pocket, evinced the practical hold which our mother church keeps on her temporal possessions; and the other, loose for action, was ready to fight if need be for her defence; and, below these, the decorous breeches and neat black gaiters showing so admirably that well-turned leg, betokened the decency, the outward beauty, and grace of our church establishment”.  – The Warden

Archdeacons are equally fascinating to 20th century authors. Susan Howatch, in her Starbridge Novels, written from her home overlooking the beautiful Salisbury Cathedral Close, draws the archdeacon into the narrative of one of her novels.  Indeed, it was said that you should never get into conversation with Howitch, or you may find yourself in the novels; some did!  Her novel Ultimate Prizes, set during World War II introduces us to Neville Aysgarth, the young and somewhat ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge. After being widowed and remarried, he suffers a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow, the rather enigmatic priest with powerful gifts of healing and spiritual insight. Here Howatch’s twin preoccupations – human fallibility and the necessity of a life transformed by divine grace – are weaved into a compelling narrative that speaks to both body and soul; to our humanity and our spirituality, a word that embraces us all – Archdeacons included.

The concluding chapter of the book of Job, our first lesson this evening, offers us a deep reflection on human fallibility and divine grace. Job powerfully declares:

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you”.

Job acknowledges that God is bigger than he was. Job has heard much about God, but now he claims with his own eye that he sees.  It is a moment of insight.

Archdeacons who, according to canon law, (I had to get that in somewhere – Canon C.22); Archdeacons ‘assist the bishop in their pastoral care and office’. In doing so you indeed keep your ear to the ground, you listen to what people are saying, and you pray for the needful gifts of the spirit, particularly discernment and interpretation. But, there is more to it than that. It was Richard Vaughan, the 17th century bishop of London who declared, ‘the Archdeacon is to be our eyes, whereby I see into every part of my diocese’ and this gave rise to that famous description of the Archdeacon as Oculus Episcopi – ‘the eye of the bishop’. In a less well-known work, Anthony Trollope, in his portrait of the Archdeacon, says, ‘Archdeacons much prefer to wink an eye than to see too much’. They indeed share with the bishop in the oversight of the diocese, but must do so with insight and discretion; being ever mindful of human fallibility and the needful gift of the grace of God. And whilst a key task of the Archdeacon is discipline, the Archdeacon must remember that it is always exercised in the name of him who, ‘while we were yet sinners, died for us’. Discipline, albeit firm, which lacks kindness, gentleness, is far from the loving character of the God who seeks to embrace us and bring us home; the character we are called to reflect in all that we do and say.

That is not to say, however, that we have to stand aside and when things are not quite right.  The Archdeacon’s other canonical duty is ‘to bring to the bishop what calls for correction or merits praise’. And I must say that it has been a great pleasure for me, consistently I hope, to commend people, ordained and lay, and communities – parishes – where there is much to be praised.  But I trust I have not shirked from those challenges that call for correction. Part of our human fallibility is to share in that experience encountered by Paul with the Church in Rome:

‘Keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offences’, he advises his co-workers. And, of course, there has been the need to respond to such situations over the years.  We cannot stop up our ears, or turn a blind eye when disputes, disagreements and squabbles break out and detract us from the primary function of the Church – finding out what God is doing and joining in; in other words – mission.  Of course our human fallibility gets in the way, more often than not; but it is inherent in the office of the Archdeacon not to stand by but to supply the means for a process of mutual understanding, healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. The Gospel we are called to live and proclaim is too urgent a duty laid on us to stand by and allow dissension to fester.

We are privileged in this diocese to be called to be a people who are ‘Living God’s Love’, but like all callings they need constantly to be renewed and refreshed. Going deeper into God, Transforming Communities, Making New Disciples – there is the urgency of our calling: approaching God with gratitude – remember the words of my last Visitation Charge, “Count your blessings name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. Expressing our faith in Jesus Christ with generosity and joy, it is our privilege and our calling to witness to God’s Kingdom and God’s values with imagination and courage.

You may have heard of the bishop who discerned the call: ‘Who shall I send and who will go for us; to which the bishop replied, Here I am Lord, send the Archdeacon! So, I take my leave of you after 19 profoundly happy years – years that have tested me, years that have shaped me – but with a deep sense of gratitude to those who have entrusted me with this office and to you, and to the communities you represent, but above all to God for the privilege of this opportunity and calling, to serve with you and among you.

The only appropriate words I can find on which to end are those of St Paul in our second lesson this evening:

‘…to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ…be the glory for ever. Amen’

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  • Going Deeper into God
  • Making New Disciples
  • Transforming Communities