The Right Reverend Robert Hardy, popular Bishop of Lincoln whose pastoral skills were tested by conflict within the cathedral Chapter – obituary

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, right, outside Canterbury Cathedral after consecrating the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Rev Robert Hardy, the youngest Church of England Bishop at the time, November 1980
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, right, outside Canterbury Cathedral after consecrating the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Rev Robert Hardy, the youngest Church of England Bishop at the time, November 1980

The Right Reverend Robert Hardy, who has died aged 84, was Bishop of Lincoln from 1987 to 2001 – a time bedevilled by war within the Chapter of his Cathedral.

A plain-speaking Yorkshireman, always known as Bob, he was apt to be surprisingly informal on important occasions, his academic, pastoral and administrative gifts making him ideally equipped for a diocesan bishopric.

However, the problems within the Chapter, reported in the national media, brought shame on the Church of England with headlines such as “Fear and loathing in the Cloisters”.

Although the historic office of Dean is of some seniority in the Church, it had until recently very little independent authority within a Cathedral. Power had to be shared with the four Canons who constituted the rest of the Chapter. In the best of circumstances this was achieved with the friendship expected within a Christian community, but sometimes it was not.

Bob Hardy - PA Archive
Bob Hardy - PA Archive

At Lincoln conflicts had started some years before Hardy’s arrival when the then Dean, Oliver Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, a moderate reformer, found himself confronted by an ultra-conservative Chapter who resisted virtually everything he proposed.

(On the day the Series Two service was first introduced, the canon preaching concluded his sermon, in front of the Dean, with the words ‘Dean Dunlop, the man of taste, rejected this service. Dean Peck, the man of prayer, rejected this service. It remained for the present Dean to introduce it. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen’.”)

The tensions eventually led to a breakdown in Dean Fiennes’s health. This was widely known, not least by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose Lincolnshire friends urged her to remedy the situation when the Deanery became vacant in 1989. The need for this was naturally shared by Hardy who told a member of his Diocesan Synod that “a bastard is required to sort things out”.

Mrs Thatcher alighted on the Very Reverend Brandon Jackson who had had a highly successful spell as Provost of the very different kind of Cathedral at Bradford and combined a powerful personality with legal training. The Prime Minister told him to “get rid of those Canons”, not recognising that this was less easy than dismissing Cabinet ministers.

The news of his appointment was not welcomed by the Lincoln Canons and it had the same effect as the pouring of petrol on an already blazing fire. Hardy’s response was, in 1990, to instigate a formal Visitation of the Cathedral – his only weapon.

The “Charge” which followed after several months consisted of a careful analysis of the causes of the problem and recommendations for their remedy. The basic issue, Hardy asserted, was the failure by the Chapter to “follow the way of Jesus”. The Dean, he said, had sometimes acted improperly and spoken in “intemperate and extravagant language”.

The Canons were asked to consider their positions. They did but chose to stay. There followed another eight years of unedifying conflict.

At a meeting with Jackson, Hardy said: “We must get the buggers out”; but they remained secure with their lifelong freeholds. The intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury was of no avail; neither was that of a Mayor of Lincoln who at the official illumination of the City’s Christmas Tree urged the Cathedral Clergy to display the love and peace of the season.

Eventually some retired, including the Dean, and the way was then open for his successor, Alec Knight, Archdeacon of Basingstoke and a Canon of Winchester Cathedral, to lead the way to a new era of peace and harmony. Hardy later confessed that the first decade of his time at Lincoln had been the most unhappy period of his ministry.

Across the Diocese, however, Hardy was a popular and effective bishop. Known to all as Bishop Bob, he displayed a keen knowledge and understanding of rural affairs and was made a President of the Lincolnshire Show.

Robert Maynard Hardy was born on October 5 1936 and educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield. After graduating from Clare College, Cambridge, he trained for Holy Orders at Cuddesdon College, Oxford.

His arrival there in 1960 coincided with that of a new Principal, Robert Runcie, who went on to become Bishop of St Albans and then Archbishop of Canterbury. Their paths were to cross significantly in the future.

Hardy was ordained in 1962 to a curacy at Langley in the Manchester diocese. Three years later he was appointed Chaplain and Fellow at Selwyn College, Cambridge, one of a dynamic leadership team assembled under the Master, Professor Owen Chadwick. He acted as a tutor in church history for theology undergraduates and was well-regarded as a pastor by students and staff alike.

Outside Canterbury Cathedral with the Archbishop, Robert Runcie - PA Archive
Outside Canterbury Cathedral with the Archbishop, Robert Runcie - PA Archive

In 1972 Bishop Runcie appointed Hardy as Vicar of Borehamwood in the St Albans diocese. Just three years later he became Director of the St Albans Diocese Ministerial Training Scheme, a post which was combined with the incumbency of the parishes of Apsley Guise with Husborne Crawley and Ridgmont.

When Runcie became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1980, he consecrated Hardy as his suffragan bishop of Maidstone, the youngest bishop at the time. From 1985 until his retirement in 2001 Hardy was also the Church of England’s bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons.

His work in the field of prison ministry, as well as his services to the Church of England, was recognised when he was appointed CBE in the 2001 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

When he retired, Hardy moved near to Penrith in Cumbria where he enjoyed walking, gardening and reading. He served as an honorary assistant in the diocese of Carlisle until his death.

He is survived by his wife Isobel, a doctor whom he married in 1970, and by their two sons and a daughter.

The Right Reverend Robert Hardy, born October 5 1936, died April 9 2021