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Stephen Cottrell: Saying goodbye to Essex

03 July 2020

As he heads for York, Stephen Cottrell writes in praise of the county — and of a sense of place

Setting off for a walk from Emmanuel Church, Leytonstone

Setting off for a walk from Emmanuel Church, Leytonstone

A POPULAR pub quiz question asks: Which English county has the longest coastline? The surprising answer is — Essex.

As I prepare to move back to Yorkshire and take up new responsibilities, I am saying goodbye to Essex, the county of my birth — and probably the most misunderstood, caricatured, and overlooked county in the country. Those of us who love Essex quickly get used to predictable jibes about white stilettos and fake tan. In the north of the county, worn down by the jokes, some Essex people just say they come from East Anglia.

AlamyThe Woolpack, Coggeshall

But I am Essex, and proud of it. It is a fabulous county. It is full of surprises — and not just the length of its coastline. As the recently published Excellent Essex, by Gillian Darley (Old Street Publishing), illustrates, it is a land of energy, wit, and creativity. This is the county of Billy Bragg and Bobby Moore; Thomas Tallis, Priti Patel, and Grayson Perry; Alison Moyet, Russell Brand, Hannah Stodel, and John Dankworth; Paul Ince, Maggie Smith, and Keith Flint; Lancelot Andrews and Wilco Johnson.

It has the oldest town in England: Colchester; its longest pier at Southend; its oldest church at Bradwell-on-Sea; and the oldest wooden church in the world at Greensted-juxta-Ongar. It has the newest public art, Julie’s House, at Wrabness; and the oldest competition, the Dunmow Flitch, for the happiest married couple.

On Mersea Island, at the Company Shed, you will eat some of the scrummiest oysters ever. Go to any hotel in the world, and you will find a pot of jam from Tiptree. Any cook worth his salt gets it from Maldon. The first live internationally broad­cast recital came from Writtle a cen­tury ago last month, and Marconi built his first radio factory in Chelmsford.

 

ESSEX is also a county of fiercely held independence of thought and fascinating minorities and peculiarities — the most interesting, historically, being the Peculiar People themselves. They were one of many puritanical sects that started in Essex, this one taking its name from Deuteronomy 14.2: “The Lord has chosen this to be a peculiar people unto himself.”

Conrad Noel, the famous “Red Vicar” who flew the red flag from the church tower, addressed his congregation as comrades, preached on the Trinity as the model for a social revolution, and championed a revival of folk traditions in dancing and music, was, of course, the Vicar of Thaxted, in Essex.

When I presided at mass there on Plough Sunday a few years ago, dancing morris men accompanied the offertory procession. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were regular visitors in the 1930s; they helped to start the music festival that is held there each year. Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious set up their artistic community near by in Great Bardfield, and the Fry Gallery, in Saffron Walden, houses much of their work.

AlamyWestfield Shopping Centre, Stratford East

This innovative, sometimes individualistic, but always aspiring vision to build new communities and generate new thinking can also be seen in some of the architecture in Essex, from the elegant simplicity of the art-deco designs of the workers’ town at Silver End, built by Francis Crittall in the 1930s, to the expansive visions of post-war new towns and the open spaces and fantastic public art of Harlow. Or the whimsical quirkiness of Julie’s House; even in contemporary church buildings such as St Paul’s, Harlow, St Martin’s, Basildon, or St Edmund’s, Forest Gate.

Essex is a county with its own thought, style, and vision. There is something in the water. It is on the edge. A vast expanse of water is never far away. There is always a far horizon. The tides ebb and flow, meaning the landscape is always shifting, especially on those parts of the coast where the sea reclaims the land. Sometimes, this is overwhelming. In 1953, many people in Canvey Island and other towns below sea level, such as Jaywick, lost their lives when those waters flooded.

 

IT IS a place of arrivals and departures: two large ports at Harwich and Tilbury, and an international airport at Stansted. The idiosyncratic and independent thinking of Essex has been shaped by waves of immigration. Dutch engineers helped to drain the marshes to form the fertile agricultural land of north Essex. They stayed. Those who make it good in east London still look east.

But Essex has also exported ideas across the world. That sense of being slightly out of step with its neighbours has sometimes led to extremism. But, at its best, it has shaped new dreams. Free thinkers found that their ideas flourished in the Essex terroir, even if they had to be lived out elsewhere.

William Penn set up his “holy experiment” in a colony that became Pennsylvania. He grew up in Wanstead. John Locke, whose writings would substantially underpin the American declaration of independence in 1776, lived and wrote in Essex. And Thomas Hooker, the founder of the state of Connecticut and known as the father of American democracy, was a preacher at St Mary’s Parish Church in Chelmsford, now the Cathedral.

istockClacton on Sea

They also took Essex with them. There is an Essex County in Virginia and Massachusetts, and an Essex Town in Connecticut.

Even St Cedd, whom we remember as our evangelist, was changed by his arrival. He learned mission and ministry on Holy Island, but, arriving on the Dengie peninsula in 653, adopted a different strategy. Usually, if the word “minster” is in an English place name, it means that there was a stonking great church building there at one time. Not in Essex. Cedd’s minsters were communities of missionary disciples, not buildings, although the one he did build still stands today. When we go there, we learn how to be sent out; we learn how to respond to the contexts we find.

 

WHY am I writing all this? Because I love this county — the diocese is the old county of Essex, which means the five boroughs now in east London as well — and have been hugely privileged to serve as its bishop. But, also, because love of people and place, be it Essex, east London, or Yorkshire, is fundamental and vital for Christian ministry.

Come to think of it, there are striking similarities between Essex and Yorkshire which I look forward to exploring. Both have a passionate and deeply held sense of identity and place. Although that is not unusual in the north, it is less common in the south. I have often said to clergy who are moving into Essex that the best way to understand the place is to realise that it is not the Home Counties.

In these recent months of lockdown, the Church of England has gained a great deal through our creative forays into digital community and digital communication. That is here to stay. But we also need the rootedness of place. The Church of England is the Church for the whole nation. We are the Church of people and place, not just congregation and parish church.

With ordinands at Bradwell

Of course, our buildings, with their rich history, are especially important places. They are woven into the tapestry, the landscape, and carry the story of the communities they serve. We look forward to re-inhabiting them and weaving the stories of this terrible pandemic into the continuing chronicle that they convey.

But we are also the Church in the public square, and the Church that should be at home on the edges and the margins, where new ideas and new communities flourish and form. We are called to honour, celebrate, and understand the rich diversity and complicated history of the people and places we serve.

For me, getting to grips with the history and culture of the greatly misunderstood and undervalued Essex has helped me to understand why the diocese itself is rarely compliant, but always creative, and how I needed to manage both.

 

SO, AS I look back over my time as Bishop of Chelmsford, it has been attending the Oyster Feast in Colchester, or watching Southend United at Roots Hall, or standing at the war memorial in an Essex village, or joining with young people to cry out for climate justice, or supporting Travellers whose settlements were being cleared away, or having supper with friends from other faith communities, receiving hospitality in their sacred places, which has helped me to be a bishop for the whole community and the whole county, not just the gathered congregations of those who worship week by week.

This seems to me to be a hugely important part of Anglican ministry, and I look forward to reacquainting myself with Yorkshire and getting to know the people and places and stories of the north. Paulinus, the first Bishop of York, was a southerner. I follow in his footsteps.

So, how come Essex has the longest coastline? Well, it isn’t just the sea: it is the meandering estuaries of the Stour, Blackwater, Colne, and Thames that also count as coastline. Then there are 27 islands. That helps. In fact, I have often thought about renaming the diocese Chelmsford & the Isles.

Since 1514, Trinity House, in Harwich, has watched over not just this coastline, but the coastlines of the nation, and every lighthouse. I have spent many hours, both as Bishop of Chelmsford on missionary journeys across the diocese, and in my childhood at Chalkwell or Paglesham, walking that coastline. Big skies don’t just fill the horizon: they fill the imagination as well.

The Church of Jesus Christ and its ministers are called to be sentinels watching over this land, seeing and understanding what is happening, leading the rejoicing, and warning of danger ahead.

When I lived in Huddersfield, on the edge of the Pennines, it was the hills that got inside me and shaped my thinking. I look forward to listening to them again.

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