After twenty years as Bishop of London Richard Chartres has announced he is to retire. The announcement marks the end of a remarkable career which culminated in him becoming the Church of England’s third most senior Bishop. A figure of true national importance his record in London is one of exceptional significance. It is a departure that has ramifications for the Diocese of London, the established church, and for the country as a whole.

Many outside of the Church will not understand why his retirement matters to them and the country. This is reflected in the small amount of media coverage the decision has received. Only the Times reported the announcement and did so in the context of who could succeed him. Yet Richard Chartres has been a pivotal figure in one of the nation’s key institutions for over 40 years. He has a close relationship with the Royal Family, is one of the few Anglican Bishops politicians know and respect, and he has been a key source of support and advice to four Archbishops of Canterbury.

Chartres eschews social media and rarely does TV or radio slots. He prefers to make his contribution to Christian mission and debate through speeches, sermons, lectures and writing. In appearance he would seem to be the very model of a traditional Bishop. A very Establishment figure. A substantial physical presence, he strikes an imposing figure. This image should not mislead. He has been one of the most radical and innovative faith leaders since William Temple coined the phrase ‘welfare state’.

‎Chartres has championed environmental issues,concern over social inequality, and inter-faith dialogue – most notably with the Orthodox Church. In his diocese he has avoided factional splits, and promoted a programme of church opening. His greatest success has been to keep his diocese together, harnessing the energy of newer forms of worship, whilst keeping the more traditional form at the centre of the Church’s life. His impatience with meetings, committees, and the General Synod – the Church’s Parliament – are well known and in London he has scythed through administrative structures. He has been confident in innovation and to take risks radiating the sense that his Church is central to the life of the Capital and the nation.

In London that success was not assured. He inherited a diocese that was fractured and divided. A diocese that was closing churches, hostile to women’s vocations, split between different expressions of worship (or traditions as the church somewhat pompously calls it) and struggling to respond to the changing nature of the communities it served. His success has been based on a confident and consistent expression of his Anglican Christian faith.

Through prayer, insight and wisdom he has responded in a more profoundly radical way than many younger Bishops obsessed with ‘relevance’ and ‘accessibility’.

This retirement comes at a difficult moment for Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who presides over a national church that is increasingly riven by fractured theology and approach to its worship styles. Bishops seem to be appointed to appease factions, so instead of being points of unity they increasingly entrench division. At the latest meeting of the General Synod mediators experienced in conflict resolution had to be deployed by to moderate discussions on how the church should treat gay people. Falling revenues and increasing expenses are forcing some diocese to the point of being unviable. Declining numbers in the pews continues to be the clearest manifestation of long-term structural decline.

This matters not just for those who attend the Church of England’s churches but for the whole nation. The unique characteristic the CofE enjoys, that distinguishes it from every other Christian denomination in the country, is that it is meant to minister to every citizen in every corner of the country. It’s increasingly incoherent approach to the worship and ministry means that that vision is being damaged.

Post-Brexit the nation needs strong and trusted national institutions, and the Church of England ought to be one of them.

Not since Robert Runcie sat on St Augustine’s throne has the Church of England truly had a significant impact on the national debate – that is to say commanded the national news and political debate by something it had to say on the state of the nation, with the exception of the work of Richard Chartres. To take one example, his sermon at Lady Thatcher’s funeral more eloquently explained her life and work than any colleague or biographer. He laid to rest the canard that she believed there was no such thing as society.

Runcie’s Faith In The City report had a profound impact on the national debate of the time and its influence still reverberates today. None of Runcie’s three successors has made such a significant contribution. Robert Runcie remains the Church’s most effective leader of the late Twentieth Century. At his side throughout his time as a Bishop and Archbishop was Richard Chartres.

His ability to understand a situation and to respond in ways that draws people together is understated and effective. Through the appointments he has made, the encouragement of women’s ministry, his determination to embrace old as well as new forms of worship, his respect for the purpose and generosity of the Church of England in its fullest expression he has knitted his diocese together under the theme ‘unity through diversity’.

Few of his colleagues in the House of Bishops show similar ability. Yet it has never been more important for the Church of England to live up to its role as the nation’s church.

In choosing his successor Justin Welby is likely to find the new Prime Minister taking a keen interest. Although technically retaining the role of suggesting to the Queen who should be Anglican Bishops in practice in recent years the task has been delegated to the Archbishop and a committee. Mrs May is a practising member of the Archbishop’s church – indeed she has been an active member for far longer than the Archbishop himself. Her tradition is not one that automatically sympathises with Archbishops transatlantic charismatic approach. It seems quite likely Justin Welby will join the ranks of others who have recently been introduced to the Prime Minister’s energetic and rigorous approach to her new job.

The question now for all those playing a part in Bishop Richard’s successor is whether they can find a person of similar breadth, generosity, faith and instinctive Anglicanism to lead the country’s largest and most successful diocese. Or whether his retirement marks the effective end of the last in a long and distinguished line of Church of England Bishops as national leaders.