Keswick Hall College of Education

Former principal: John Gibbs

The Right Reverend John Gibbs, who died on December 20th  2007, aged 90, was Bishop of Coventry from 1976 to 1985 and the only former Congregational minister in modern times to become a diocesan bishop in the Church of England. He was principal of Keswick Hall at a crucial time in its history.

His rise to the episcopate was relatively speedy, for it was only after 18 years as an Anglican priest, and with only a modicum of parochial experience, that he became suffragan bishop of Bradwell in Chelmsford diocese.

Gibbs's gifts were primarily pastoral and administrative, and explained his appointment to Coventry as the successor to Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley. A flamboyant figure who had presided over the rebuilding and consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, Bardsley had become increasingly drawn into the conducting of missions in Britain and North America, and by the time of his retirement the diocese felt neglected.

The need was for a bishop who would shun the national and international stages, concentrate on the pastoral care of his own clergy, and undertake some reorganisation and financial retrenchment. Gibbs was well equipped for these tasks, but his quiet, restrained style was too great a contrast with that of his predecessor for his leadership to be widely appreciated in the diocese.

The clergy, however, became grateful for his friendly pastoral ministry, and the leading laity were glad to have a bishop with financial skill.

John Gibbs was born at Bournemouth on March 15 1917. After some business experience, he went to Western College, Bristol, to prepare for the ministry of the Congregational Church, taking an Arts degree at Bristol University and later an external degree in Divinity at London University.
From 1943 to 1949 he held a number of appointments in local Congregational churches, but then joined the staff of the Student Christian Movement, thus starting what was to become a distinguished career in religious education. The SCM was at that time a flourishing organisation which expressed the idealistic aspirations of the postwar student generation, and Gibbs's liberal, ecumenical outlook was in tune with that of the movement's leadership.

As inter-collegiate secretary from 1949 to 1951, he travelled to all the British universities, helping to form new branches and to guide those already established. Then he became study secretary, responsible for organising the content of conferences and meetings, and also editor of the lively and influential magazine Student Movement. In 1955, however, Gibbs felt drawn to the ministry of the Church of England, and, after a short spell at Lincoln Theological College, he was ordained to a curacy at St Luke's church, Brislington, Bristol.

But his experience of the world of education was too valuable to be squandered, and after only two years in the parish he was appointed chaplain and head of divinity at the College of St Matthew, a teacher-training college in Bristol. In 1962 he became the college's vice-principal.
These were the days of burgeoning higher education, and in 1964 Gibbs was appointed principal of 
Keswick Hall College of Education in Norfolk. He was ideally suited to this post, for he had a natural sympathy with the student world of the 1960s and at the same time the tough administrative skills necessary to the successful running of an expanding institution.

By now the Church was also claiming his skill and experience for the formulation of its educational policies.

In 1967 he joined the Durham Commission on the future of religious education in schools, and in the following year he became chairman of the Church of England Children's Council and a member of the Board of Education's publications committee.

Meanwhile the British Council of Churches co-opted Gibbs on to its education working parties, and in 1968 he was appointed an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral and an examining chaplain to the Bishop of Norwich.

After nearly a quarter of a century of continuous involvement in education, Gibbs felt the need of a change, and Bishop John Trillo of Chelmsford, who had been a colleague during his SCM days, nominated him for the suffragan bishopric of Bradwell, Essex. Three years in this post provided him with the experience necessary for a diocesan bishopric and led to his appointment to Coventry in 1976.

During the next nine years Gibbs was preoccupied with the demands of a diocese that needed a lot of attention, and he secured the creation of a new suffragan bishopric of Warwick in 1980. But he spared a little time, between 1980 and 1982, to serve as co-chairman of the Anglican-Lutheran European Regional Committee.

Following his retirement in 1985 he served on the General Synod's further and higher education committee and was an honorary assistant bishop in the dioceses of Bristol and Gloucester.

John Gibbs and his wife Marion, whom he married in 1943, had a son and a daughter.

(The Telegraph 31 Dec 2007)