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Soup, but glorious soup  

24 February 2017

Richard Chartres is a bishop whose policy in London was that ‘Everybody must have a spoon in the soup.’ Amid a long round of farewells, he gave this interview to Madeleine Davies


“Humbled and moved”: Bishop Chartres acknowledges a prolonged standing ovation from the General Synod last week. “You’re not supposed to be a Soviet party!” he responded

“Humbled and moved”: Bishop Chartres acknowledges a prolonged standing ovation from the General Synod last week. “You’re not s...

WHOEVER succeeds the present Bishop of London will receive a healthier diocese than the one that the Rt Revd Richard Chartres sur­veyed 22 years ago. “Capital shep­herd passes on crook after doubling his flock”, as The Times put it this month.

The tale of its transformation was told by the man himself, two years ago, in a lecture at Lambeth Palace. Part-memoir, part-blueprint, it con­tained a frank assessment of institu­tional failings — “mistaken policies and dysfunctional struc­tures” — and a candid account of moral ones. Characters singled out included an incumbent with two assistants who allowed a thriving congregation to decline by a third in two years (”it apparently occurred to no one that this was a scandalous situation”), and the “weevils of the common­wealth”, whose “cynicism and gos­sip” had damaged morale.

Bishop Chartres is fond of can­dour, but tends to leaven his ob­­serva­tions with a sharp wit. He has a knack for coining labels that simul­taneously acknowledge his audi­ence’s concerns — emotions run high in a diocese with a history of factional strife — while intro­ducing a note of satire. Announcing the revival of the see of Islington, now a bishopric for church-plants, he offered reassurance that it did not herald the unleashing of “Byronic young Evangelical pastors establish­ing smoothie bars un­­in­vited” (News, 6 March 2015).

Much is made of his credentials as a historian, and he enjoys draw­ing on parallels with the past, par­ticu­larly if they can allay con­­cerns about change (the afore­mentioned Bishop of Islington is “a bishop of a very primitive kind, rather like St Aidan”); but there is also something of the surgeon in his pronounce­ments. Maladies are named, and remedies are pre­scribed. In London, this included a “bonfire of the Boards”; an unfash­ion­able, now vin­dic­ated, commit­ment to keeping the City churches open; and a return into the black of a budget that was once running deficits of a million pounds a year.


IT IS an impressive story, but, de­­spite the detailed roadmap pro­­vided, is it replicable? Is London, as post-Brexit commentators argued, another country?

“One of the great difficulties in the country is suspicion and some­­­times downright hostility to London,” Bishop Chartres reflects. “This is not a particularly church problem, although it has its spillover in church terms. I was absolutely determined that, whatever we did, we would share that.” He points to the St Mellitus College now planted in the north-west, and another set to open in Plymouth later this year.

It is notable that much of the diagnosis in the Lambeth lecture identified attitudinal problems: an absorption of the media’s narrative of decline, and the damage wrought by cynicism. One of the phrases that he finds himself returning to is “Vote for life.” It is, he says, “incredibly important to start with a sense not of scarcity and problems. The problems are real, the resources are not infinite . . . but if we begin with a sense of abundance — that we have an astonishing inheritance and God’s blessings are abundant — that worldview reveals a landscape that is hidden to pessimism.”

Pessimism, he has come to believe, is “a luxury which quite pro­­­sperous people indulge in. The poor don’t have much of an interest in pessimism.”

A proponent of “opportunism”, he is wary of “massively prescriptive plans and forward strategies”; but he believes in setting out a “general direction of travel”, best summed up, he says, in the three words under­­pinning the diocese’s Capital Vision 2020: “confidence, compas­sion, and creativity”.

“We rediscover energy not by any deft planning, or by being par­­ticu­larly talented or remarkable indiv­iduals, but by digging deep into the Spirit-filled tradition of the Church, reading the scriptures with people from other times and other cultures so that we don’t become provincial, and reading them in the context of prayer; reading them in the context of a believing commu­nity, which is marked by generosity, humility, the ability to make friends.”

He laughs: “I don’t want to sell it as a package to transform con­tem­por­ary England,” he says. None the less, “It’s right! It’s true! . . . It brings us all alive!”


A CONCERN to distinguish the Church from a sales venture was evident in his farewell sermon at St Paul’s, where he has celebrated most Friday mornings. “What the Church has to offer is not an ideology or a mere critique, but a community in which the Spirit of Jesus Christ dwells,” he argued. “In a market­place of strident sales­­men of war­ring ideologies, we seek not to add to the din, but to build relationships that endure and give meaning to life.”

“What we are actually doing is con­­structing a Church, a commun­ity of faith indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and it’s Jesus Christ who is touching, healing, helping through the community,” he says.

“We have the privilege of living together and being challenged by difference. . . I’ve always found it very difficult to understand how anyone thinks that it is possible to convey electricity by public readings from the wiring diagram. The truth is: the word has to become flesh and blood for it really to communicate and penetrate.”

Holding together a diocese where difference has sometimes led to con­flict has required no little skill. An­­other of the phrases that he returns to is: “Everybody must have a spoon in the soup,” and he readily provides examples of working across tradi­tions. He was delighted to see an ordinand from the Bishop of Fulham’s community training at St Mellitus. The perception that all church-planting originates with Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), is, he argues, “out of date.

“Nobody has wanted to obsess or concentrate on that part of the Church to the exclusion of other parts of the Church, but there was a lot of energy there,” he says. “One of the facts is that, by staying part of the mainstream Church, HTB has stirred a lot of other people to emulation. . . I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be a great ferment of church extension.”

He is “extremely grateful”, he says, that HTB didn’t go into “in­­ternal exile”, forming “some kind of Alpha International Association”, but remained, and invested in, the Church. It is obvious that the estab­lishment of St Mellitus, which he founded in 2007 in partnership with the Bishop of Chelmsford, merg­ing the North Thames Minis­terial Train­­­ing Course and the St Paul’s Theological Centre, is a cherished part of his legacy.

It is now training 220 candidates a year, a vital part of the diocese’s ambition to increase the number of ordinands by 50 per cent, to stave off what he calls an imminent “famine of priests”.

His history of the diocese is one that highlights the parts played by individuals: “Some of the most import­­ant things that have hap­pened have been because of the ap­­pearance of a person.” Dr Graham Tomlin, first Dean of St Mellitus, now its president, besides being the Bishop of Kensington, was one, he says. But he is at pains, too, to celeb­rate unsung heroes. His Lambeth lecture in­­cluded a tribute to Theresa, May, Mabel, and Stanley, a “small band of stalwarts, mostly over 70, and, in some cases, 80: proof against the discouragement of these spiritually lean times.”

Another person he credits with hav­ing “taught me a lot” was a young man who confronted him during a school visit in the wake of riots, when he was the Bishop of Step­ney. “I used to go round schools saying ‘We’ve got to respect Bengali culture,’ which, of course, I still be­­lieve in. And I re­mem­ber being con­fronted by one furious young man who said to me: ‘Well, what’s my effing culture then, Bishop?’”

It’s a story that he tells in re­­­sponse to a request to elaborate on a phrase that he has used twice in recent sermons: “You do not exor­cise the Satanic by creating a spir­itual vacuum.

“I see it very clearly in schools,” he explains. “There seems to be a feeling that if you can only edit out the national memories, the par­ticular Christian culture which is historically so significant in the formation of civilisation here, you are going to leave the room free for a more tolerant and kindly atmo­sphere.”

He is unconvinced, and hears in the young man’s question “a real sense of poverty, a real sense that our own British culture is being shunted aside in order to give way to a more tolerant, kindly . . . and I think this is an error.

“People who have nothing, no home, nothing to believe in, no things to be proud of, are easy meat for radicalisation of one sort or another.” He refers to Jesus’s warn­ing about the “unclean spirit” who returns to a swept house with seven other, worse, devils.

Every school ought to equip young people with religious literacy and “ethical clarity”, he argues. “There ought to be positive teaching about right and wrong, and also about spiritual awareness, which largely comes through music and art and that sort of thing. . .

”You want to equip young people with skills to go on their CV, which equips them to perform a useful function in the global economy. Actually, that’s not what’s remembered as valuable about a person towards the end of their lives.” It
is “the qualities and vir­tues that make for character” which people appreci­ate and are trans­formed by.

The current approach, he says, isn’t working. He shares the Arch­bishop of Canterbury’s con­cerns about the inadequacy of the Gov­ern­­ment’s emphasis on British values: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and tolerance (News, 9 December).

“How do you grasp those things? How do they contribute to charac­ter? They seem to be rather at a remove. . . You can’t have a genu­inely democratic culture unless you have those social institutions which incubate.”

Churches, he argues, are one such institution.

“Interestingly, it doesn’t lead to tolerance,” he observes. “It leads to lashing out and scapegoating. You don’t make a tolerant citizen by removing the landmarks. That I think is something which I think some people have failed to see.” 


HIS recent sermons have been al­­most apocalyptic in tone. At Christ­mas, he quoted W. B. Yeats (”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), and warned of the potential for a “new Ice Age of humanity, sterile and tedious”. He is exercised by questions of identity, personal stories, belonging.

London, he predicted, was a “lab­or­atory” that would be either a “beacon of hope or a dreadful warning”. Was it possible to “hold together the fast-becoming global reality of a cosmopolitan civilisa­tion”?

In December, he launched the #LondonUnited campaign, a re­­sponse to the refugee crisis and to reports of tension and intolerance in the wake of the EU referendum. He spoke of his desire for the city to be “a beacon for the uniting of neighbours across all barriers”. It is “rather ironic”, he suggests, that the most diverse area in the country was the one that voted to remain: “If anyone was going to feel under pressure from immigration, you might have thought it was people in London.” He points to a C of E school in Haringey where pupils speak 70 languages “from Albanian to Zulu”.

But he is dismissive of “mono­causal” explanations of the vote to leave. “There are so many streams flowing together, and I’m afraid very often just naming one of them is just a way of denigrating people who disagree with you.”

Hansard records his concern about holding a referendum at all. Now that it has happened, he hopes to see “creative” responses that will enable a “fruitful relationship” with Europe. He speaks with evident pleasure of Saint-Jérôme School, Harrow, the first bilingual C of E primary, opened this month. He would like to see education “over­­come English monoglotism”: “to enter into other people’s linguistic worlds is a major contribution to the growth of understanding, and is one modest element in rebuilding a relationship with Europe.”

The Bishop of Sheffield designate, the Rt Revd Philip North, a former London parish priest, has warned against the Church “jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror” and accused it of abandoning the poor (Comment, 2 December).

Bishop Chartres agrees that there has to be a “greater zeal to engage with areas of real difficulty” but is concerned, too, about another dereliction of duty.

“Part of the role of the Church of England was to minister to, to take seriously, those who had leadership roles and heavy decisions to take,” he says. “I don’t think we ought to underestimate the extent to which we have parted company — with not only the great estates, I don’t disagree with that — but also with the movers and shakers; and they are also a significant mission area.”

He is conscious of the national part played by a Bishop of London. Chairing the Governing Board of the Church Commissioners for the past 15 years has been “the most challenging, exciting, and exacting work”. He has also “vastly enjoyed” his chairmanship of the Church Buildings Division, during which tax relief of £40 million a year was secured from the Chancellor.

As Bishop, he stood against the prevailing wisdom that buildings had become a burden to be dis­carded, opposing, for example, the closure of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, and the conversion into of­­fices of St Ethelburga’s, Bishops­gate, after it was wrecked by an IRA bomb in 1993. The former is now a thriving parish church, the latter a centre for peace and reconciliation.


PERSISTENCE in the service of con­­viction has characterised his tenure. Can he give an example of changing his mind? The question causes him to hesitate.

“I’ve learned and I’ve grown, I hope, and I’ve broadened my sym­pathies, but I don’t actually think . . .”, he begins. “Changing one’s mind, I mean I . . . I think I would put it in a different way. I think that I’ve devel­oped — as I have got to know people — deeper sympathies.”

It is not, he explains, that there hasn’t been “enormous change”. He has been “educated by the commun­ity . . . judged . . . humbled and moved by the numbers of people I’ve met. So that’s been the change. Have I been converted to new translations of holy scripture? No. Have I got used to the sort of music that obviously strikes a chord with many young people? No.”

He jokes that one of the most graceful of HTB’s gestures has been to provide earplugs at its events. “I suppose a change would be if I‘d turned into an elderly, follically challenged bopper, but I haven’t. But I don’t find it necessary to con­demn or criticise people who are.”

He wonders whether he sounds “awfully hidebound”, but decides: “I don’t think in any essential manner I’ve changed my mind. I think that I believe more than I did, at the beginning, but not more things. I think I believe more deeply.”

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