I don’t have many personal recollections of bishops of Norwich. Perhaps the one who I remember most affectionately was Lancelot Fleming (Bishop 1959-1971) who presented me with two prize books on Speech Day in 1967. He was followed by Maurice Wood who remained Bishop of Norwich until 1985. He was a low churchman and in contrast to his predecessor he did not wear the traditional black breeches and gaiters of a Church of England bishop. That was a sign of the times as much as of his low church disposition, and bishops have not worn such things for many years; Lancelot Fleming must have been one of the last. In matters of faith Maurice Wood was quite conservative in attitude.
The 20th century opened with a remarkable man in the bishop’s chair. John Sheepshanks (1834-1912) had an adventurous life before being appointed bishop of Norwich in 1893. A Londoner by birth he attended Cambridge University before entering the church. After serving as curate in Leeds he took up a position at New Westminster, British Columbia in 1859. He was the first rector of Holy Trinity, New Westminster, the settlement only having been founded the previous year. The church stood among the trees and the rectory – a small log cabin – alongside. The growth of the colony was phenomenal and long before he died his little church had been rebuilt as a cathedral; the church lost its cathedral status in 1929 when it was transferred to Christchurch Vancouver. The original church did not last long, being burnt down within a few years. The stone building that is there today was erected in 1899 and replaced a second church that was also destroyed by fire. (Although Holy Trinity is no longer the see of the diocese it retains the courtesy title of cathedral.)
The Revd John Sheepshanks returned home to England from Canada by a route that took him to San Francisco and thence to Utah where he met Brigham Young the founder of the Mormons at Salt Lake City. The Mormons at that time still practised polygamy. He preached to them – it would be interesting to know what he said. He next went across the continent to Montreal, New York and Washington D.C. where he boarded a ship for England. After a short stay he returned to BC but did not remain there long. This time he came home west about, by Honolulu, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Siberia, Moscow and St Petersburg, having thus circumnavigated the globe.
After such an adventurous life it must have been a great change to resume the duties of an English parish priest, which he did in 1868. Living at Bilton near Harrogate in Yorkshire he was the rector of St John the Evangelist, a church built in 1855 to the design of Gilbert Scott with money provided by the Sheepshanks family. Here he experienced a very different kind of life from the wilds BC and the remoteness of Siberia. A high churchman, he was a liberal in politics. He thought it important to know all the priests in his large diocese of Norwich, which at the time included the whole of Suffolk. The railway system was at its most extensive during his episcopate, and he used it to travel Norfolk and Suffolk, but he always went third class to mix with the people. Before the coming of the railways it would have been quite impossible for the bishops even to entertain the thought of becoming acquainted with all the members of the clergy of his diocese (almost 1000 of them). Even the railways did not go to every parish, and when going by horse drawn fly he preferred to ride beside the driver and not on his own inside. When he died he left a fortune £43,000, a sum equivalent to five million pounds today; he was from a rich background.
Bishop Sheepshanks had a large family, of whom 13 survived infancy. The second of these children was Mary, born in 1872, who grew up to be a very intelligent but emotionally deprived adult. Her wish for love and affection was largely ignored by her parents, who were busy bring up her brothers and sisters, and with the demands of a church life.
She turned against her parents’ religion and became a socialist, pacifist and suffragist. She was influential among the Hampstead intellectuals; Virginia Woolf, R. H. Tawney and Bertrand Russell were among her friends. She had been opposed to the Great War but she was so appalled by the actions of Hitler at the outbreak of the Second World War that she made the difficult decision to renounce her pacifism and support the British forces. She remained unmarried. Crippled with arthritis and faced with the prospect of ending her days in a care home, Mary Sheepshanks took her own life in 1960. She had fallen out with her carer – it was a sad end for an exceptional lady.
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