“Some of my fondest memories are the visits to parishes and schools, where I’ve met our students. They’ve been wonderful moments. You receive so much pleasure. You give so much, but you get many returns.
“It’s the people I will miss most. It will be different, but when a Catholic bishop retires, he still goes on working. But I will be under the new bishop, and he’ll be asking me to do things. I can’t just make decisions on my own. That’s a good thing.
“During the last nine years the biggest challenge has been bringing the diocese to a greater sense of unity, because we are so scattered, right across Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Peterborough. It’s a very big area.
“But it’s happened and I think that people feel more part of the diocesan family. Another big challenge of course was Covid. It was like nothing else we’ve ever experienced. And particularly those first few months when we were forced to close our churches. That was very difficult, but our priests were absolutely wonderful in how they responded to people’s needs.
“I started off in the Catholic Church as a curate in Kensington High Street for two years. Then as a parish priest down in Chelsea. Then I was made vicar general for the Diocese of Westminster, which is a huge area right the way to the end of Hertfordshire. Then I was appointed an auxiliary bishop by Pope John Paul II. And then I was appointed to East Anglia nine and half years ago. It was a tremendous privilege.
“Over the past 27 years I’ve met each of the popes several times. It’s fantastic, you know you’re in the presence of a holy person. They’re so encouraging. When I was first made a bishop in the September, I had to go to what they called the ‘baby bishops’ classes’ in Rome and we met the Pope individually there. Two weeks later I went back with all the bishops of England and Wales. We had to go on our five-year visit to Rome and all met the Pope again. It was an extraordinary thing. We also met Pope John Paul II just before he died. It was Pope Francis who appointed me to East Anglia in 2013.
I was an Anglican minister at one stage. The vocation comes from there really. All I can say is that it was a persistent call to serve God in this way. Even when for a little while I thought ‘No, this can’t be right’ and I was going to train as a teacher, this voice persistently said, ‘You must discern your vocation and see where this takes you.’
“So I did, and then made this journey through to the Catholic Church in the 1990s, which is where I found real fulfilment. The most important thing was that I really wanted to be united with the Church which was founded by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago and be united to Peter the Apostle, who we believe is embodied in each Pope. And it was that sense of authority and unity which I was looking for. I couldn’t find that in my latter days in the Church of England.
But I’m so grateful to the Church of England and the priests that I knew in those days because they helped my faith to grow and to discern my way forward into the priesthood.
Pope Francis has set us on what they call the Synodal Pathway, which is trying to involve as many people as possible in decisions within the parishes and within the dioceses. And I think that’s an excellent way forward.
I think the most important thing is that the Church is always changing, but the Gospel it proclaims is always the same. The structures need to change and are changing always, but the Gospel remains the same and that is what we must proclaim to people. We’re finding that so many young people are now discovering the real message in the Gospel and an encounter with Jesus Christ, and I think we just have to remain firm.
It’s a huge privilege that I was able to ordain Peter Collins as my successor. My words of advice for him are, just be yourself, and be a jolly good shepherd of the people God has given you.
At his installation, I think I will feel two things. I shall be really happy and joyful for my successor because he’s got a wonderful diocese to take on and I shall be happy and joyful for myself because I’m now 79 years old and I think I’m looking forward to a bit of retirement and rest.
There is a Farewell and Thanksgiving Mass for Bishop Alan at 11.30am on Tuesday January 24 at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich and all are very welcome to attend. It also marks the twentieth anniversary of Bishop Emeritus Alan’s episcopal ordination. It will also be live on the diocesan YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/@rcdea
Pictured above is Bishop Alan ordaining his successor at Bishop Of East Anglia, Peter Collins.