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Greater diversity in leadership, and the beauty of holiness: Bishop Cottrell sets out his hopes as Archbishop of York

17 December 2019


Bishop Stephen Cottrell

Bishop Stephen Cottrell

THE Archbishop of York designate, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, introduced himself to the press on Tuesday by describing how, as a 12-year-old boy, he found himself unable to stop crying after watching the crucifixion scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on television.

“I couldn’t pull myself together then, and I have been unable to pull myself together ever since,” he said. “That story that I encountered that day has changed my life, and the vision it offers of what humanity is supposed to look like is so compelling and so beautiful that I have given my life to it.”

Bishop of Chelmsford since 2010, and before that Bishop of Reading, he succeeds Dr Sentamu, who retires on 7 July next year. One of the founders of the College of Evangelists, Bishop Cottrell returned repeatedly to the priority of mission. “The really important thing is to get ourselves back on the front foot of living and sharing the gospel joyfully and effectively,” he said.

“I simply don’t find England to be a nation of atheists,” he told the audience at Church House, Westminster. “We are obviously not a nation of churchgoers either; but we are a nation of people who are hungry for meaning, hungry for value, looking for way to navigate their way through life.”

Born in Leigh-on-See, Essex, in 1958, Bishop Cottrell is unusual among the bishops (News, 5 September 2014) in having been educated at a secondary modern school and polytechnic — an education that he spoke about in his first address in the House of Lords.

Diversity of social background, such as gender and ethnic background, was important in the Church’s leadership, he said.

“I am not embarrassed or ashamed or my background, but I am aware when I am with my dear sister and brother bishops that my experience of education is very different from theirs, and sometimes, if I am really honest with you, I feel a little bit exposed, because I think I didn’t have the educational opportunities they had and therefore don’t have a hinterland of stuff that they have,” he said. “But generally I find it an advantage. . . It’s not that I’m right and they’re wrong, but I am able to add a perspective that how could they possibly have?”

A member of the Committee for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), Bishop Cottrell has previously warned that the Church was “going backwards” on ethnic diversity in its leadership (News, 17 July 2015). “There is still racism in our Church,” he told General Synod. “It is high time we woke out of our sleep and realised we are guilty of complacency and neglect.”

On Tuesday, he said: “Our record is not good: there is no point in pretending otherwise.” He dared to hope that, “when I do hang up my mitre . . . the Church will look different.” The Bishops enjoyed a “significant power” in making appointments, he observed. “We need to use it much more generously and wisely, to bring more people round the table. . . We will be a much better stronger Church for being more diverse in leadership.”

Bishop Cottrell has also warned that the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships means that it is “seen as immoral by the culture in which it is set” and has suggested that prayers of thanksgiving for these relationships — “perhaps a eucharist” — should be offered (News, 17 March 2017).

In a diocesan-synod address in 2017, he warned of the “missiological damage that is done when that which is held to be morally normative and desirable by much of society, and by what seems to be a significant number of Anglican Christian people in this country, is deemed morally unacceptable by the Church. . .

“And, though I am proud to confirm that all of us, whatever our views on this matter, are united in our condemnation of homophobia, we must also acknowledge that it is of little comfort to young gay or lesbian members of our Church to know that while prejudice against them is abhorred, any committed faithful sexual expression of their love for another is forbidden. . . Our ambivalence and opposition to faithful and permanent same-sex relationships can legitimise homophobia in others.”

Asked about this on Tuesday, he said that the Church “must be the Church for everyone — I mean those who find it most difficult even to contemplate that there might be any change in the Church’s traditional teaching and those who are campaigning for radical change. . .

“There is absolutely no place for homophobia in our Church, and absolutely everyone, regardless of their sexuality, is welcome in that Church.”

The Living in Love and Faith reports due next year would “help give us a vocabulary” for the debate on “appropriate ways to give expression to that welcome,” he said. “But I am an optimist, and I believe that as we have that conversation we will hold the Church together, because what binds us together is not our views on this issue or that issue but our faith in Jesus Christ . . . It’s our baptism and belonging to each other which is what really matters.”

He heads to York with experience of parish, theological college, diocesan, and cathedral ministry. Ordained priest in 1985, he served his title at Christ Church and St Paul’s, Forest Hill, south London.

He was appointed Priest-in-Charge of St Wilfrid’s, Chichester, in 1988, combining this post with those of assistant director of pastoral studies and tutor in apologetics at Chichester Theological College. In 1993, he became Diocesan Missioner and Bishop’s Chaplain for Evangelism in the diocese of Wakefield; and, in 1998, he took up the post of Spring board Missioner and Consultant in Evangelism.

On Tuesday, he acknowledged that, in the Northern Province, “discrepancies of wealth and opportunity are most evident”, and set out plans to continue to speak out on behalf of “the poorest and most marginalised”.

Climate change would also be a priority for his public speaking, he said, after seeing at first hand the impact in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

Asked about the election, he said that the Prime Minister’s spoken commitment to “wanting to lead one nation . . . deserves our support”, but that the Church’s message was that “one nation must also be one nation in relationship with other nations.”

The current Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that his successor had “the gospel in his belly and a tiger in the tank”. For his part, Bishop Cottrell paid tribute to Dr Sentamu’s “big heart, and . . . big vision” and spoke of his desire to emulate Dr Sentamu’s gift for “not taking yourself too seriously”.

The Church must be “more joyful, less anxious and more effective in sharing that story [of the gospel]”, he said. “We need to be more like Christ.”

He continued: “Where the Church is flourishing and growing, it’s actually because they are not worried about the Church, they are worried about the gospel and how do we live a distinctive Christian life in a way that is good news for the world? When that happens, people are very interested, Russell Brand included” (News, 28 June).

Bishop Cottrell chairs the board of the Church Army and is Bishop Protector of the Society of St Francis. His vocation developed at St Margaret’s, Leigh-on-Sea, under the Revd Ernest Stroud, and he was trained for the ministry at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and studied for an MA at St Mellitus — the college that he helped to found in partnership with the former Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres.

While suggesting that “rather too much is made of people’s different traditions”, he acknowledged that his understanding of the Christian faith was “shaped very much by the Catholic tradition”. He was concerned with “the beauty of the gospel”, he said.

“I want people to fall in love with the Christian faith. For me, being a Christian is not giving intellectual assent to a number of abstract propositions. I feel that on the journey of my life I met Christ, and it was beautiful. His vision of what humanity is supposed to be like is a beautiful vision, and the beauty of that vision in music and art and literature . . . are the ways that we will connect with a lot of our culture. We live in a very visual, sensual culture.

“Why are cathedrals growing? A cynical view is it’s pain-free religion, everything is done for you, you go and sit behind a pillar, nobody is going to put you on a rota. But I don’t believe that. I think it’s beauty — the beauty of holiness.”

Bishop Cottrell is one of the authors of the C of E’s Pilgrim course for new Christians, as well as contributing to the Emmaus programme.

He is married to Rebecca, a potter, and they have three adult sons.

He is is the author of more than 20 books, including Christ in the Wilderness, the book about Stanley Spencer which first prompted Russell Brand to request a conversation.

“Although my background might be quite ordinary, I come from a very loving home and family,” he said on Tuesday. “I believe the very greatest gift that one human being can give to another is the gift of affirmation: the unequivocal knowledge that you are loved.

“It is on that foundation that I have built my life and for a world where so many people have not received the security and affirmation of that love, I offer not an alternative, but the source and origin and wellspring of love itself: God. Who, as Christmas approaches, is coming to us in his son Jesus Christ, to give us precisely the love and peace that the world can’t.”

Listen to highlights from the press conference and Q&A

Bishop Cottrell speaks about his appointment:

Archbishop Welby and Bishop Cottrell in conversation:

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