AS the Bishop of Oxford prepares for our photoshoot in the garden of Diocesan Church House in North Hinksey, I slip on a mossy step and just manage not to fall flat on my face.

I immediately warn the Rt Rev John Pritchard about the impending hazard and he sidesteps it and carefully walks down a grassy bank without so much as a stumble.

Reassured by the Bishop’s calming presence, it occurs to me that he has not put a foot wrong in his eight-year tenure as Oxfordshire’s church leader.

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Visiting Mays Farm In Ewelme in 2006

Since his arrival in 2007 he has managed to avoid the pitfalls his predecessor the Rt Rev Richard Harries found in his path after he tried to appoint a gay but celibate cleric as a bishop.

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But Bishop John, who retires tomorrow, has not shied away from controversy – he has never ducked difficult issues and has tackled them in a thoughtful and intelligent way.

In fact he starts our talk by revealing potentially controversial information – that his replacement will be moving to Kidlington, as he and his wife Wendy retire to Richmond, North Yorkshire.

Bishop John’s replacement will not live at 27 Linton Road, North Oxford, as it is being handed back to Wolfson College.

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The Rt Rev John Pritchard before his official inauguration as the Bishop of Oxford at Christ Church in 2006

But the new incumbent should still be very comfortable in the new £1.7m home in Kidlington, even if he or she will have to face Oxford’s congested road system.

The recruitment process for the new Bishop is already under way, and it is quite possible that the new Kidlington resident will be a woman.

Bishop John, 66, a graduate of St Peter’s College in Oxford, would not be opposed to the city gaining headlines by breaking with tradition.

After the Church of England General Synod initially rejected the proposal to allow women bishops, the Synod voted in favour earlier this year and Rt Rev Pritchard says the timing could be right for the first woman bishop to be appointed in Oxford.

At his office in Church House the father-of-two and grandfather-of-five says: “By far the majority of people in the Church of England want women bishops.

“We have to do a final sealing of the deal in November at Synod.

“I am strongly in favour of women bishops and it is theoretically possible that my replacement could be a woman.

“I would not mind, but I think it’s unlikely. For such a large diocese it helps to have a suffragan bishop, someone who has done the job before.”

Shortly after he became Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev Pritchard was asked his views on a proposal for Muslims to be allowed a call to prayer in East Oxford.

The issue was potentially divisive, but he did not want to provoke any interfaith tensions and suggested the innovation should be allowed to go ahead. In the end, the proposal was not followed through, but Rt Rev Pritchard had given a clear indication he wanted people of different faiths in Oxford to work together.

Like everyone, he is concerned about the emergence of Isis and, in such extreme circumstances, he believes some military response can be justified.

The country must, he says, “indicate its abhorrence, and therefore some military intervention is necessary’’.

“But profound theological discussion will be needed to counter a theology which is so distorted and corrupt,” he insists.

“Therefore I want to stand with my Muslim brothers and Imams in this country, who are very responsibly tackling the theological issues and pointing out to Isis that their theological interpretation of the Qur’an is so damaging.”

He added: “There are very good interfaith relations in Oxford, both at the level of practitioners and academics. The annual friends’ walk gathers about 700 people walking between different religious buildings and includes Christians, Jews, Muslims and also Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.

“It is difficult to control what happens on the Internet, and radicalisation can occur anywhere, but if the overall atmosphere is one of harmony it lowers the temperature – that is what we have in Oxford.”

And does the Bishop leave the Oxford Diocese in a healthy state?

“It’s the second largest diocese in the country, with 815 churches and I have been to hundreds,” he said.

“The large evangelical churches do have very good facilities for families and actually employ about 30 staff, it’s not just a vicar and a curate. There is an enormous variety, from the larger churches to the churches where there are just a dozen people there on a Sunday morning, but our duty is to serve the whole community in the name of Christ.

“Eighty-one per cent of the churches in our diocese are involved in food banks, and street pastors are church-based.

“Work is being done in nightshelters, with the elderly in dementia clubs, in after-school clubs and with debt counselling.

“I am thrilled to see how much is going on.”

When I ask Bishop John what he has enjoyed most about his role and what has he liked least, he admits that he has struggled to cope with all the correspondence crossing his desk.

What he has enjoyed is “getting out and about”, visiting congregations, clergy and church volunteers.

On a recent pilgrimage along the Thames he stayed with clergy along the route, his arrival at each stop greeted with “mounds of cake”.

It’s perhaps a rude question for a Bishop, but I ask him if he ever experiences moments of doubt about his faith.

His poetic response begins with an emphatic “yes”.

“Doubt is part of a mature faith,” he says.

“It’s like a plant with deep roots that grow in darkness, which support the good growth reaching towards the light.”


IN 2003, the then Bishop of Oxford appointed gay but celibate Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, but the ensuing controvery led to Jeffrey John withdrawing from the role.
On issues of sexuality, Rt Rev Pritchard is keen that meaningful conversations in the Church should continue.
On the controversial topic of same-sex marriage, the Bishop says: “I want to affirm covenanted, faithful, lifelong relationships, either gay or straight.
“But I am unconvinced about same-sex marriage – it seems to me that that is a category confusion.
“The Church has to avoid any whiff of homophobia and affirm good, strong, loving relationships, but not confuse the gift of a heterosexual marriage with the gift of a same-sex relationship.”

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IN April, the Bishop of Oxford visited Prime Minister David Cameron at his constituency office to talk to him about food poverty.
Despite being turned back initially by a number of police officers the Bishop was able to put his case.
He said: “The PM invited me to come and meet him and we had a good conversation.
“About 3.5m children in this country live in poverty.
“We must move forward the huge disparities in rich and poor in our own back yard.”

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BISHOP John has been lead Bishop on education in the House of Lords and will remain a member of the House of Lords.
He says the Church of England has been a ‘critical friend’ of the education system, asking questions about the academy process, exam reforms and the sidelining of Religious Education.
“The advent of the Ebac (English Baccalaureate) which excluded RE had a very bad effect, and the removal of bursaries for RE had a bad effect but that has just been revised.
“You can not understand the modern world without understanding the place of religion,
“About 75 per cent of the world’s population is motivated by a faith.”

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From top: winning a bread bake-off at Marlborough School last year with the Rt Rev Alan Wilson and Rev Dr Amanda Bloor; taking part in the Ride and Stride church fundraiser in 2012 with Charles Baker; promoting this year’s Christian Aid with Sub Dean the Rev Canon Dr Ed Newey; and arriving at Christ Church in a new Mini in 2006


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