The Bishop of Chelmsford reflects on life in Essex as he prepares to become Archbishop of York
PUBLISHED: 16:05 14 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:17 14 May 2020
As The Right Reverend Stephen Cottrell prepares to leave his role as Bishop of Chelmsford to become the new Archbishop of York in July, he takes time out to talk to Nicky Adams, reflecting on his life and work in Essex and looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead
They say home is where the heart is and the county of Essex will always be home for The Right Reverend Stephen Cottrell. Born and brought up in Leigh on Sea, Bishop Stephen has many family members who live here still.
‘Essex will always be home,’ he says. ‘I have always felt that Essex was a county with an entrepreneurial spirit. I think we owe this to our close relationship with East London. I believe that this has shaped me in more ways than I realise.’
Growing up next to the sea has also had quite an impact on Bishop Stephen.
‘When you live by the sea, everywhere you go there is this vast, beautiful and mysterious expanse of water on your horizon,’ he says.
‘You are always being reminded of things beyond yourself and beyond your control. On the Thames Estuary you witness the comings and goings of sailing boats, fishing boats as well as huge tankers and storage ships making their way to Tilbury.
‘All this has an influence and, perhaps, prepares you for journeys beyond your expectations.’
Bishop Stephen’s next journey will take him to York, where he will succeed the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr John Sentamu as the new Archbishop this July.
‘I am hugely honoured to have been appointed as the 98th Archbishop of York,’ he says.
‘I follow in the footsteps of many great and holy men, dating back to St Paulinus, who was the first Archbishop in 627. Like them, my first responsibility is to be faithful and to wait upon God and to see what emerges.
‘Therefore, I suppose, that first of all I am ambitious to be a person of prayer and ambitious to be someone who seeks the mind of Christ.’
Taking on the role at such a dramatic moment in British history gives Bishop Stephen the opportunity to be instrumental in bridging a divided nation and re-kindling friendships around the world.
‘We live in challenging times,’ he acknowledges. ‘Having left the European Union, we are renegotiating our place in the world. The recent General Election has highlighted the discrepancies between north and south, and the new government has spoken about the need for us to be one nation.
‘I think this is very important. I am ambitious to be a voice of the north. I will carry with me the entrepreneurial zeal I learned in the south. I hope to do what I can to find ways of building new bonds of unity and peace between the different nations in the United Kingdom, with our neighbours in Europe and across the world.’
Presenting a united front is the only way to resolve many of the Earth’s problems, Bishop Stephen believes.
‘The world faces huge challenges, especially the challenge of climate change, which has now become a climate emergency,’ he says.
‘We can only begin to solve this by working together. Therefore I am ambitious to be a unifying voice where the Christian conviction about the unity of the human family can shape decisions we make at local and universal levels.’
Having been ordained a deacon in 1984 and a priest in 1985, Bishop Stephen’s passions for ministry have always involved evangelism and teaching and commending the Christian faith.
He is a founding member of the College of Evangelists and has also served on the Church of England’s Mission, Renewal and Evangelism committee. He currently chairs the Church of England’s Religion in Media group.
Although Bishop Stephen was not brought up to go to church, many influences in his early life led him not just to a belief in God, but to a call to ministry in the Church.
‘For this I have to thank the faithful clergy of St Margaret’s in Leigh on Sea,’ he says. ‘Also the Girl Guide leaders who encouraged my sister to come to church – through her my whole family encountered the gospel.
‘There was an RE teacher at my school, Belfairs High School, who demonstrated by her own convictions and principles that the Christian faith made a difference to life.
The prayers of my godparents and my Auntie Millie, and the influence of other teachers and clergy all of whom believed in me, supported me and helped me see what life is all about and the part that I could play in making the world a better place.’
Although Essex shaped his early life and his ambitions, Bishop Stephen moved away at the age of 18 and didn’t return until he was appointed as Bishop of Chelmsford in 2010.
‘I was delighted to be returning to the county I still called home,’ he remembers. ‘However, I noticed a greater discrepancy between rich and poor.
‘The world that I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s seems to be one that was better equipped and more determined to give people an opportunity, no matter what their background. This doesn’t feel the same nowadays.
‘I was just about the first boy from Belfairs High School (a Secondary Modern School) to go on and get a degree, financed by a welfare state that still believed in the equality of service and equality of opportunity.
‘Nowadays, money seems to matter more and those without it don’t seem to have the same opportunities.’
Bishop Stephen was pleased to notice that some aspects of Essex life had moved in a more positive direction in his absence.
‘Essex is now more diverse and I really welcome this,’ he says. ‘The Christian faith has a vision about humanity, declaring that we belong to one another and inhabit one world.
‘I think our world is in danger when we retreat into silos and forget that we are neighbours. I really like the new diversity of our county and the cultural benefits it brings us.’
In his 10 years as Bishop of Chelmsford, Bishop Stephen headed up the chaplaincy for the London Olympics in 2012 (Newham is a part of the old county of Essex which makes up the Diocese of Chelmsford) and celebrated the diocese’s centenary year in 2014, which was marked by a visit from The Queen and also the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Through his decade of work in the Diocese, Bishop Stephen has become highly regarded within both the Church and the community.
Described by the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby, as, ‘one of the most inspiring leaders in the Church’, he is known for his straight-talking and down-to-earth character.
His opposition to nuclear weapons is also well-documented, as is his support for the marginalised travelling communities. He has also spoken of his hope that more women and more black and minority ethnic people will join the clergy in future.
Perhaps one of the most promising developments during his time as Bishop of Chelmsford has been the huge rise in the numbers of local people coming forward for ordination as priests in the church and also an increase in those offering themselves as lay ministers.
‘The church in Essex has a secure future and a fantastic new generation of young, able ministers,’ Bishop Stephen enthuses.
‘The newspapers often preface articles about the Church by saying we are in decline. This isn’t the most helpful way of looking at things. Or the most accurate. Yes, there are churches who are struggling. But there are also many churches that are growing.
‘The challenge is to learn from where the Church is flourishing and use our resources to support those who are not. I hope to hand onto my successor a Church which is asking the right questions about how we will sustain ministry into the future and continue to flourish.’
As he prepares to pack his bags for York, Bishop Stephen admits that there are a few things he will wish he could take with him from his home county.
‘There is so much about Essex that I will miss,’ he says. ‘I will miss eating oysters on Mersea Island. I will miss walking up Southend Pier and catching the train back. I will miss the cockle sheds at Leigh on Sea.
‘I will miss the fantastic little Chinese restaurant, Wings, in York Road in Southend where you can eat the very best soft-shelled crabs. I will miss the Good Friday evening performance of the St John Passion by Bach at St Mary’s, Maldon. I will miss the Oyster Feast in Colchester.
‘I will miss the sculptures in Harlow. I will miss the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden. I will miss Julie’s House at Wrabness and walking up the Stour Valley and around the old town of Harwich.
‘I will miss the lovely bread and the just as lovely fish that I buy most Fridays at the market in Chelmsford High Street. I will miss the ever-so-friendly and helpful staff at Ingatestone Station. I will miss carol singing in the Red Lion and Black Bull pubs in Margaretting each Christmas.
‘I will miss Abigail’s delicatessen in Ingatestone. I will miss our fantastic church buildings – from St Cedd’s little chapel at Bradwell on Sea and the oldest wooden church in the world at Greensted to the austere splendour of Thaxted parish church, we have some fantastic buildings in this county. And of course I will miss Chelmsford Cathedral.’
However, most of all Bishop Stephen will miss the people of Essex.
‘Wherever I have travelled over the county in the past 10 years, I have been made extraordinarily welcome and I’ve had the privilege of working alongside some fantastic people,’ he says.
‘I have had the privilege of working with a number of amazing homeless charities, especially Harp in Southend, Chess in Chelmsford, Streets to Homes in Harlow, plus Beacon House and Corban in Colchester.
‘I have worked alongside Lord Lieutenants, High Sheriffs, Members of Parliament, mayors, local councillors and politicians, and plain simple, honest hard-working men and women who wanted to make the world a better place.
‘Essex is a fantastic county. I shall be returning to Yorkshire with high expectations for all that lies ahead, but with sadness for what is left behind.’