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Funeral of Ian Bentley – Bishop Alan’s address

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Below is the address given by the Rt Revd Alan Winton, the Bishop of Thetford.

Matthew 28.16-20

There is so much to love, to celebrate, to admire, to be inspired by in Ian’s rich and full life. The sadness we feel comes from the fact that we are doing these things, not at his retirement service that was planned for next month, or indeed looking back on a long life in 20 or 30 years’ time, but today, far too soon. For that reason, our deep gratitude for Ian is tinged with sorrow and the pain of what is in today’s terms a too-early death.

That sadness is felt particularly for Caroline, Hannah, and Tim and their families who Ian loved dearly and who have always been the first priority in his life. Ian was so keen to talk about them, to tell us their news, their latest achievements, to share the joy that he and Caroline felt at the arrival of the grandchildren, to show how proud he was of them all, how much he cherished them. I know that Ian loved being with his family, and he always worked hard to make time to ensure that was possible amidst the demands of a busy ministry – just one of the ways in which he set us all an example we would do well to follow.

Ian has also set us an example – a unique one in my experience – in his choice of reading from the Scriptures for us today. I’ve never before come across this particular reading at a funeral service, but those verses from Matthew 28, sometimes called The Great Commission, were very clearly the inspiration behind so much of Ian’s life and ministry, and are clearly the legacy he wanted to leave us as we remember and reflect upon such a fruitful and well-lived life.

As some of you will know, Ian’s lively and attractive faith really came alive at University, after a childhood in Southend, where he grew up, the middle of three brothers. He was a keen and active Sea Scout and a pupil at Westcliff High School for Boys. Unsure quite what subject to do, Ian chose to study Geography mostly because of the tempting prospect of field trips abroad. And having lived the somewhat sheltered life of an all-boys school, he went off expecting to have a really wild time at University, only to have his plans, in his own word, “ruined” by becoming a Christian through the ministry of the Navigators. I think it fair to say that his initial frustration at the way his new-found faith rather cramped his style gave way pretty quickly to a joyful sense that God was calling him to true fullness of life, and a lifetime of deeply fulfilling service.

But like many a young ordination prospect back in the day he was advised to go off and do something else for a while. This led Ian into teaching where he excelled. His first job in Stanford in Lincolnshire also brought him into contact, through the church choir, with the love of his life, Caroline. Once Caroline had finished her University degree they were married, and headed off to Germany where they both taught, Ian becoming a very young Deputy Head at one of the Services Children’s Schools. It was here that Hannah and then Tim were born and the family involved themselves in the Garrison Church where Ian served as a Reader, building on his teaching skills and honing them to become the inspiring preacher that so many of us knew and loved. Ian was in line for a headship, but apparently, he got a very clear sense of God’s call to ministry whilst patrolling between the desks in a Maths lesson. Ian might well have made a quip about things starting to add up for him, but I’ll refrain from going down that path. I wouldn’t dream of trying to fill Ian’s comedic shoes when it comes to his particular brand of sermon humour as illustrated so well for us by Tim.

Two years’ training in Cranmer Hall, Durham, led Ian – thanks be to God – to a curacy in this Diocese at Mattishall, and we never let him escape! Initially, David Pearson, the incumbent wasn’t sure about him coming there as he felt he and Ian were just too much alike. But Ian turned up to try and persuade him otherwise, and David experienced something of those powers of persuasion that many of us came to love and admire in Ian.

After a happy and fruitful time there, Ian and Caroline then had a powerful sense of God’s call to the Earsham benefice. The years there were very happy and very fruitful, with Ian shaping the sort of ministry that was to become his hallmark for the years ahead. Modeled on Jesus’ own ministry and seeking to fulfill that commission to make disciples, Ian knew that his had to be a shared ministry if his time there was going to have a lasting impact.

Just as Jesus gathered disciples around him, so Ian has always sought out those whom God might be calling to serve with him, nurturing, encouraging, supporting their response to God’s call. That legacy has served the Earsham Benefice well and does so still today; it’s a pattern of priorities in ministry that Ian repeated when he went to Oulton Broad where he built another fine ministry team.

Ian was also ahead of his time in developing something akin to a Café Church during his time at Earsham, before we knew to call this a Fresh Expression of Church. Youth Work and Schools Work and Holiday Clubs all flourished during this first incumbency, and he took this experience and built upon it when he moved to be Vicar of Oulton Broad in 2006.

Throughout his ministry, Ian often knew that he needed to push the boundaries but he had the ability to do this with a degree of tact and gentleness, making it possible for people to see the reasons for change and therefore often happily accept that change.

He was particularly careful in the process of introducing what became known at St Mark’s as Mark 1 and Mark 2. This was two different expressions of church taking place at the same time side by side, one in the church building, one in the attached hall; one fairly traditional worship, one more informal, more akin to Café Church. The really important proposal was that the two parts would join up to receive Communion together, and the plan was passed with no objections, a tribute to his ability to take the time and the trouble to take people with him – further lessons to be learned there I think.

Ian worked with a number of curates during his time in Oulton Broad and, as a wise and purposeful teacher, helped form them into the fine priests they are today. When I went to commission him as rural dean – a role he filled with characteristic grace and purpose – he described himself to me as a cuddly evangelical, a phrase that seemed to stick. I think many people who knew him would recognise that self-description, although some who experienced Ian as an Archdeacon might, on occasion, have raised an eyebrow at the cuddly part of that description.

Ian left Oulton Broad in 2017 at the request of the then Bishop of Norwich to take up an interim ministry at St Peter, Mancroft. He and they were somewhat surprised by this and wondered at the wisdom of the move, given the difference in tradition and style of worship, but it proved to be an inspired and immensely fruitful appointment for Ian and for them.

Alongside Ian’s role as Chapter Canon here in the Cathedral, his time at Mancroft helped to broaden his experience and his appreciation of the diverse ways in which churches and individuals respond to God’s call. First-hand experience of different ways of worship and different ways of talking about faith helped Ian to see the integrity of traditions beyond his own, and this prepared him well for what was to come next in his ministry. He couldn’t quite bring himself to embrace ‘smells and bells’ as he put it, but he did acknowledge the value and the enjoyment of that year at Mancroft as well as his time here on the Chapter.

In a recent Facebook post, the curate at Mancroft at the time, Graham Kirk-Spriggs, mentioned the anxiety he felt about who this character was who was coming to be his Training Incumbent, but anxiety soon gave way to deep affection and gratitude. Graham wrote: “Ian was that very rare mix of both kindness and patience, but also had a gentle assertiveness that never left you feeling bad. You always knew what was expected of you …. He was passionate about the Gospel in all the right ways.”

Having helped to address some challenges and accompanied the PCC as they prepared themselves to welcome a new incumbent, just a year after arriving and Ian was off again to become Archdeacon of Lynn.

This was a chance to test many aspects of the now Venerable Ian’s ministry on a much broader canvas as he threw himself into what he described as his most demanding role. He brought his depth of hands-on practical experience and his gift for encouragement, not least through the rural ministry forum he initiated, and his tireless desire to get out and about among the parishes. He brought his strategic brain and powers of persuasion to the never-easy challenge of pastoral reorganisation.

And with Jesus’ call to make disciples never far from his thoughts, he took every opportunity to encourage new ventures in mission, both through the large-scale work of the Church Planting and Revitalization Programme, and in every visit and sermon he undertook.

Ian also became a wonderful colleague in the Bishop’s Staff team, bringing loyalty, encouragement and a willingness to challenge, quite robustly when he didn’t think we were listening well enough. With his fellow Archdeacons he formed a close bond of friendship, and I’ll leave it to you to guess what their regular meetings were often fuelled by. Archdeacons often get a bad press and one medieval writer, John of Salisbury, is frequently cited for his question “Can an Archdeacon be saved?”: the obvious sincerity and energy of Ian’s faith left you in no doubt about that – he knew his need of God’s grace.

Ian was a man whose genuine warmth and great sense of fun never obscured the depth of his faith or his enthusiasm to see the churches he led reaching out with the simple yet compelling message of the gospel. His charisma and presence meant people listened to him, he was a fine leader, but capable of tremendous sensitivity, gentleness and kindness, always accompanied with that winning smile.

When he was pretty sure that the chemotherapy he’d received wasn’t working, he wore his clerical collar to the next hospital appointment because he thought it would make it easier for the consultant to break the bad news.

He was always so proud of his family, his children and grandchildren and so devoted to his beloved wife, Caroline, and they supported him beautifully through these last days of increasing ill-health. When he finally moved to Priscilla Bacon Lodge for what turned out to be the last weeks of his life, all who visited were struck by his sense of calm and peacefulness – he really did know where he was going.

His one-time curate and successor at Oulton Broad, Helen Jary, wrote of Ian: “Ian has always been a faithful follower of Jesus but he was as much a witness to God’s saving love whilst approaching death, as he was in life.”

On my last visit to bring him communion we spoke together of the peacefulness with which he was approaching death, but then he looked a bit concerned and said: “I hope I’m not going on too much about being at peace because I wouldn’t want Caroline to think I’m not going to miss her”.

We will all miss his huge presence in our lives, and our hearts go out particularly to Caroline, Hannah and Tim and their families, but Ian has left them and us so much, such a rich legacy of a life well-lived in the service of God with such a tremendous appetite for love and friendship and encouragement.

In this service, Ian has also left us a mantle to take up, a challenge to respond with joy and devotion to Jesus’ Great Commission to go and make disciples. I am sure Ian chose this reading because he truly believed, indeed he lived and died in the conviction that we are all in need of God’s grace and that God’s love is what truly enriches our lives, in this world and in the next, and that is a message that the church can’t possibly keep to itself – so we’d better get on and do what Ian has told us!

Today we give thanks to Almighty God for Ian: may he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.