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Former Bishop of Chelmsford reflects on near decade serving east London

PUBLISHED: 14:00 24 May 2020

The new Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA

The new Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA

PA Wire/PA Images

“I’m in double lockdown,” admits Stephen Cottrell as he speaks from his Essex home via video conferencing tool Zoom.

The Archbishop of Canterbury visits Westfield Stratford City in 2014.  Picture: Isabel InfantesThe Archbishop of Canterbury visits Westfield Stratford City in 2014. Picture: Isabel Infantes

The right reverend left his role as Bishop of Chelmsford over Easter and is due to become Archbishop of York in July - the second highest role in the Church of England.

But the coronavirus restrictions have left him unable to say a proper goodbye to the people of east London, something that disappoints him.

“For me, it’s been a kind of double lockdown - the lockdown we are all experiencing but a lot of the things I had been doing have been taken away altogether. So it’s a kind of double limbo for me at the moment.

“Rites of passage are important and it’s hard to say goodbye without the chance to say goodbye but there’s so much I’ll miss.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury eats with children at St Lukes School, Canning Town in 2014.  Picture: Isabel InfantesThe Archbishop of Canterbury eats with children at St Lukes School, Canning Town in 2014. Picture: Isabel Infantes

Bishop Stephen has been head of the Chelmsford diocese, which takes in Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Newham and Redbridge, since October 2010.

He said it had been a privilege to serve the people of the area and admitted the Archbishop role is the only one he would have left for.

“This part of the world will always have a very special place in my heart,” he added. “To be invited to come and serve as your bishop was a huge honour.

“I go with a large degree of sadness. I love the energy, the entrepreneurial zeal, the creativity of this part of the world.

The Archbishop of Canterbury talks to children at St Lukes School, Canning Town in 2014.  Picture: Isabel InfantesThe Archbishop of Canterbury talks to children at St Lukes School, Canning Town in 2014. Picture: Isabel Infantes

“East London has always been this amazing smorgasbord of humanity. It’s like the whole world has been muddled together and I think it’s given us a great spirit. I love that spirit.

“I think it’s shaped my life. I hope I’ve embibed some of that spirit. It’s going to be sad to leave that behind.”

He named the London 2012 Olympics and the Chelmsford diocese’s centenary in 2014 as two highlights of his time.

The latter saw Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tour the diocese, including a visit to Newham where he went to Westfield Stratford City and met pupils at St Luke’s Primary School in Canning Town.

The closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. Picture: John Stilwell/PAThe closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. Picture: John Stilwell/PA

The diocese ran the multi-faith chaplaincy for Olympic athletes and Bishop Stephen said the Games were a “fantastic success”.

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“We were the Olympic diocese and we had the great excitement of running and setting up the chaplaincy for the Olympic Games. That was a great highlight.”

But it was the week-in, week-out life as Bishop of Chelmsford that capped both of those events for him.

“What I’ve loved most about being your bishop is visiting communities. That’s been the greatest joy. Pretty much every Sunday, one in the morning, one in the evening, I have been getting around our parishes and communities and meeting some incredible people.”

Churches have been streaming services online during the coronavirus crisis and Bishop Stephen said thousands have tuned in.

He suspected this was because people are looking for hope at a time of hurt and anxiety.

“It backs up a hunch that I’ve always had that just because people don’t come to church, it doesn’t mean to say they are atheists and that they are not interested in the Christian faith.

“Dipping in to an online service is such an easy thing to do and I imagine that once we get to the other side of all this that we will carry on having a much greater online presence.”

He added that his heart goes out to those concerned about loved ones who are ill or anxious about their jobs.

His message to them was one of perseverance. “One of the ways we will beat this pandemic is by observing the restrictions and the guidelines to the letter. That’s the way we will defeat this.”

The bishop described the pandemic as “terrible” and “ghastly” but was adamant that some good could come from the crisis.

He said: “I think we are seeing that good in the way that people are reaching out for each other, caring for each other and I’m very thankful for that.

“The church is here for everybody in our communities and we don’t make distinctions between people and everyone is welcome.

“There’s a lot of hurt around, a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. So we are here with a narrative and a message of hope.”

He will be officially confirmed as the Archbishop of York on July 9 in a video service.

The Diocese of Chelmsford is in the process of choosing his successor and has launched a consultation to gather views from churches, community groups and individuals.

To take part, visit chelmsford.anglican.org.


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