As Bishop Christine and her husband Roger prepare to bid a fond farewell, the 12th Bishop of Newcastle has taken some time to reflect on her last six years in our Diocese and the memories she will treasure.
Can you share some of the highlights from your time as our bishop?
“There are so many incredible moments to mention, but it’s not always a case of the big highlights – it’s the extraordinary gift of when, as a bishop, you visit churches and spend time with congregations, big and small, and just by being there you’re able to show people how valued they are. It has been a wonderful privilege to meet so many incredible people in our Diocese and the joy I’ve experienced from being with these people has been immeasurable.
“It has been fantastic to witness the transformation of our cathedral through the Common Ground Sacred Space project and the opening of our Resource Church, St Thomas. I love spending time with young people in schools and it’s been tremendous to see the great work in our Church of England schools.
“A particular highlight was visiting HMP Northumberland on Palm Sunday a couple of years ago where I baptised nine men and confirmed four others, and of course to see the work of our chaplain there. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit HMP Low Newton in Durham and had a glimpse of the lives of women in prison. It has been a privilege to be a member of the House of Lords and speak up for the North East in Parliament, and I’ve found it very fulfilling to chair the Board of Inclusive Economy for the North of Tyne Combined Authority and be involved, in a tiny way, in making a difference to the lives of those often left behind in our society. A big highlight is being patron of Street Zero which is doing incredible work and is on target to reach its goal of eliminating rough sleeping by 2022.
“Our Pathways Mission in 2018 was just extraordinary – one of my favourite pictures is of me and Archbishop Sentamu walking across Holy Island, striding along in our cassocks. “I’ll always remember being at the opening of the Great North Run, which coincided with the mission. Archbishop Sentamu blessed the start line and I had my little grandson with me. His parents and indeed my husband were all running in the Great North Run so he was stuck with grandma, but his big reward was meeting the pop singer Olly Murs, who happened to be one of the celebrities running that year.
“Another great memory was being offered a VIP place to run in the Great North Run in 2017 which was tremendous fun and I had my picture taken with Mo Farah.
“It’s also been a real privilege to participate in growing inter faith relations within our Diocese and I am delighted that we have developed such close relationships with other faith leaders.”
What challenges have there been?
“The challenge we share in this country as a whole is our society is growing increasingly secular at a very rapid pace. There isn’t hostility to the Christian faith, but sadly it just isn’t as relevant to a lot of people who have lost a religious view of the world. As a church we’re called to share the beauty and truth of our faith in God as particularly seen in Jesus, and it’s increasingly difficult to do that in a way that resonates and makes sense to people.
“The challenge is how do we share the truth of our faith in way that makes sense? I believe it’s more what we do than what we say. And I feel so proud of people of faith throughout the Diocese, in the way they lead their lives and get so involved in trying to make their communities better places. They live their faith, rather than just talking about it, by caring deeply about other people and the kind of world we live in. When we touch people’s lives, we do that through living authentic lives that are consonant with what we say we believe, rather than trying to preach at people.
“An example of that is when the cathedral opened for a couple of nights to provide shelter when the Beast from the East hit. The response from the community to help the cathedral was just phenomenal and a really powerful sign of what we believe. Out of that has grown the cathedral’s Lantern Initiative which is all about showing you care for people who are on the streets, giving them a place of welcome and helping turn their lives around.”
Can you reflect on the last 20 months, leading the Diocese through the Covid pandemic?
“It’s been one of the most extraordinary periods I have ever lived through, possibly the most extraordinary. When you think back to before the pandemic happened, I don’t think any of us could have imagined we would be facing a virus so dangerous to us that we would have to lockdown everything. Just before the first lockdown, my PA Canon Lesley Towers contracted Covid and within a few days was seriously in danger of losing her life – she was on a ventilator in hospital for a month, but thankfully she pulled through. So we knew right from the beginning how serious this was.
“My main concern throughout was that we didn’t become too obsessed with our own lives, but how we could serve people during this challenging period. I couldn’t be more proud of how our Diocese responded. It was astonishing to see how congregations got to grips with Zoom in order to come together on a Sunday morning, and it was incredible to witness the resilience of people and the innovative ways in which they served their communities – there was an extraordinary outpouring of passion and care.
“Our clergy and lay ministers have just been amazing. There was a level of exhaustion, but with great courage people fulfilled all they were being called to do in extraordinary ways. We have wonderful clergy and local incumbents and I was determined we should allow people to make local decisions rather than having a diktat from Bishop’s House - they were able to make the right decisions for their communities.
“I personally struggled because I’m not someone who enjoys technology and I also enjoy being with people, so knowing how to be a bishop while sitting in your study with a computer screen was something I had to work at quite hard, but I did my best! There’s a line in the ordination service that says ‘you cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength’. It is only when I place myself deeply in God’s strength that I know I can be of any use to anyone at all - and that became very real during the pandemic.”
A lot has changed in the Church of England since your ordination as deaconess in 1984. You have seen major shifts in attitude including the ordination of women into the priesthood in 1994, the ordination of female bishops in 2014, and the introduction of the landmark Living in Love and Faith resources to name but a few. How do you reflect on the changes that have happened within the Church and what do you think the future holds?
“At the heart of the journey I’ve made in the Church of England and in my own faith journey is a very deep belief that every human being is a beloved son and daughter of God and it is that which gives us our worth and our dignity, and so I very firmly believe that our church structures should reflect that truth. There’s a wonderful William Temple quote which says ‘My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a marvellous great deal, for Christ died for me.’ It was this heartfelt belief that completely inspired my work for the ordination of women. No matter what changes in the way we understand our world, I think for me it is that belief that every human being has profound worth and that worth is as a child of God.
“Because of my particular age, my journey in the Church of England has followed the timeline of changes for the ordained ministry of women – I was one of the first women priests, I was the fourth female archdeacon, and the second female diocesan bishop.
“I initially retired in 2012, having been an archdeacon for 11 years but I continued working in General Synod towards achieving the legislation that enabled women to become bishops, and it was a real joy that this legislation was passed at the end of my term in synod. Then one Saturday morning in August 2014 my diocesan bishop phoned me up and said he’d added my name to the list of women who were ready to become bishops. I didn’t think for a minute I would be appointed as a bishop but I let my name go on the list because I didn’t want anyone to say there were no women ready to become bishops. After all we’d worked for, I wasn’t going to have that! And so, in God’s grace, I was called to serve in Newcastle and it has led to the six most amazing years of my life.”
How has your role as bishop shaped or influenced your relationship with God and your faith?
“It’s made me realise at the deepest level my dependence upon being held in the strength and love of God. If you read the consecration prayer for a bishop, you just know that without God’s strength you could not fulfil that calling. It’s true to an extent as a deacon and as a priest, but the even greater weight of the calling makes it even more clear that just as a human being in a world without God you couldn’t fulfil this in your own strength.”
Our ‘growing church bringing hope’ vision is progressing at a pace with the introduction of our ‘Next Steps’ strategy. How do you think this will help shape the future of our Diocese?
“We’re called as a church to share the hope that we find in God’s hope - that ultimately through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, love overcomes evil and hatred.
“‘growing church bringing hope’ is a way of expressing that’s what we’re called to do. The thing that crystallised this for me was when in 2019 I had a real sense of a vision for the Diocese, inspired by Isiaiah 43:19 ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it’. The new ‘thing’ is that we find a way of living out the reality that we are called into the body of Christ, which means that lay and ordained will work together in collaboration in order to fulfil this task of bringing hope.
“We want to discover who we are here in the North East by living and walking in the spirit of the Northern Saints as the missionary people of God.”
There has been an outpouring of love and support since you announced your retirement. How does that feel?
“I am incredibly humbled and surprised by the response and the wonderful comments I’ve received. I’ve been very moved by it.”
What will you miss most about the Diocese?
“Roger and I have fallen in love with this part of the North East, its landscape, its city, but particularly the people. The people here are so kind and relational, and they will be the thing I miss the most.
I always say I’m the most blessed bishop in the Church of England and that this is the most special Diocese because of its beauty and its deeply spiritual heritage which sustains us to this day.
“It’s a landscape in which God’s presence is very real, whether in the forest of Kielder, the beauty of the Tyne Valley, the vibrancy of Newcastle, and the vibrancy too of South East Northumberland and North Tyneside with the history of our mining and industrial communities, and of course the amazing coastline up into North Northumberland. I’ve never encountered anywhere as deeply beautiful.”
This is actually your second retirement! Have you had the chance to think about it yet and do you have any plans?
“It’s the convention when you cease to be the bishop you don’t continue to live in the Diocese so we’re going back to our house in Stevenage, Hertfordshire which was our first retirement house! It certainly feels to be a bigger change this time - this role has been all encompassing and it’s been such a privilege but it’s absolutely the right time to step down.
“As well as a sense of looking forward to the next stage of the adventure I’m going to have to take a little bit of time to acknowledge that it is a big change and give myself some time to reflect.
“I’m really looking forward to being closer to my family, including my four grandchildren, and catching up with friends. I’m sure knowing our love of cycle touring and my husband’s love of sailing that there will be some wonderful bike tours ahead and, for me, venturing into the new excitement of coastal sailing. Within the next year I’ll be very pleased to take up the Bishop of St Albans’ offer to become an honorary bishop and see where life leads, but I am expecting that God’s surprises for me have not quite finished yet!”