The Big Interview with The Right Reverend Robert Atwell

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

“Too often society is a place of strangers. Community is society with a human face”

As we enter a new year, leaving behind one of the worst in recent memory, it seemed appropriate to me to begin our Big Interviews of 2021 with the Bishop of Exeter – The Right Reverend Robert Atwell.

A diocesan bishop is the ‘chief pastor’ of everyone in their
diocese, lay people as well as clergy. They are required to
proclaim the gospel, teach and uphold ‘sound doctrine’ and to be an example of ‘righteous and godly living’. So, it is quite a serious position to hold.

Robert was installed as the city’s bishop in 2014, serving with distinction ever since. As usual with these interviews, we start at the beginning, charting the story of how all this came to be:
“I grew up in Ilford, Essex, on the edge of London. My dad worked for WH Smith and my mum was a shop assistant. I have one younger sister and I went to the local comprehensive school.

‘Although ours was not a church-going family, I was dispatched to Sunday School at the age of three. I was confirmed at the age of fourteen and never looked back. As a teenager, I wanted to be both a doctor and a priest. When I realised the training to do both would take years, I opted for ordination and read theology at Durham University. I have never regretted my decision.”

At this point in the interview, I am not afraid to admit that I was slightly naive. That is, I described taking up a position with the Church as being a ‘career’. Of course, it is much more than that to those who have done so:

“I don’t see the Church as a ‘career’ in any conventional sense: it is a calling. I believe God calls us to be ourselves. Being a Christian from a young age enabled me to discover the different dimensions of that. From that emerged my vocation to be a priest. I was ordained in 1978 and my first role was as a curate in north London.

‘The Church of England sent me on a scholarship to study in Rome. Studying with ordinands (trainee priests) from across the world was a transformative experience, though my Italian was pathetic. What my time also gave me was an enduring love of Italy and Italian food!”

Returning from Rome, I asked Robert about the long and winding road that lead him to take up one of the foremost positions in the Church of England. His answer did not disappoint:

“After my curacy, I became Chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge. I then spent a decade as a Benedictine Monk at Burford Priory in
the Cotswolds. Monastic life forged in me an inner rhythm and gave me an abiding love of contemplative prayer which continues to nourish me. After the monastery, I became Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill in London, which is the church the carol In the Bleak Midwinter was written for!

‘In 2008 I became Bishop of Stockport and in 2014 was appointed Bishop of Exeter. I was consecrated (ordained) a bishop in York Minster by Archbishop Sentamu. The experience was awesome and overwhelming, but I had a strong sense of the grace of God that I knew would make up for my many deficiencies.

‘I felt a mixture of things: excited, honoured, scared, intimidated, and decidedly out of my comfort zone!”

I know for many, including myself, in 21st Century Britain, it is
not always clear what those in senior positions in the Church do
day to day. I therefore took the opportunity to ask that Robert enlighten us as to what responsibilities he has as Bishop:
“The role is essentially the spiritual and practical oversight of
the Church of England in Devon. In some ways, it is a cross
between a ceremonial head of state and a Chief Executive of
a large company!

‘Devon has 614 churches; 134 church schools, hundreds of paid and self-supporting clergy and lay leaders. There are also chaplains in schools, hospitals, prisons and the military, plus various outreach projects, such as charities like Transforming Plymouth Together.

‘My days involve lots of meetings and decision-making, as well as the services I lead around the county. Obviously, in recent months, a lot of things have been happening on Zoom. Life is busy, but I have a good team of colleagues to help me. I love gardening and that is what you will find me doing when I do get some time to myself.
‘As well as my work in Devon, I have a national role chairing the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England, which is responsible for writing new prayers and liturgy (the words said in church services).”

In an area particularly relevant to us here in Devon, Robert holds the position of Chair of the Rural Affairs Group for the Church of England – the leading national spokesperson for matters such as agriculture. I therefore took the opportunity to ask what he thinks will be the biggest challenge facing rural England in the coming months and years?

“The biggest challenge for the entire nation will be recovering from COVID-19 and its aftermath. As far as rural communities are concerned, there is the added challenge of life after Brexit.

‘It will be interesting to see how the new trade agreement plays out for the farming and fishing industries in the South-West and we adjust to the phasing out of CAPs (Common Agricultural Policy payments) and the phasing in of ELMs (Environmental Land Management schemes).

‘I am keen to make sure that environmental and food standards are upheld now we have left the EU. No matter what the Government says, I fear some farmers in Devon are going to go out of business.”

As many of our readers will have seen, we recently ran a number of features on renewable energy and the effect of this type of technology on Devon. I asked Bishop Robert for his opinion on this type of conflict: “Many of our churches are surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes in England, especially on Dartmoor. Safeguarding the environment has to be top of our list of national priorities for the sake of our grandchildren. The Church of England is committed to supporting the Government in the journey to a carbon zero economy, but that will require changes from each of us in our lifestyles, lower energy consumption and balancing competing interests, eg: green energy versus protecting the landscape. In some circles, compromise is a dirty word, but when compromise emerges as a result of communities arguing matters out and building consensus, then it is thoroughly positive.”

No matter the religion, one of the most important issues for any is to make sure that people continue to encourage people to become involved. This is particularly true for the small rural churches in and around Devon. I asked Robert about this, as he is leading a project in this area: “Growing the Rural Church is a £1m pilot project in Devon to create a sustainable future for our rural churches to ensure they remain as the praying, worshipping, heart of our communities.

‘Often the church is the only public building left in a village. The project team works with church groups and people in a local area to make the best use of the building for everyone, for example opening-up a post office there or community café, or using it as a shared workspace or venue for community groups during the week. A lot of the work had to be put on hold because of the pandemic, but Growing the Rural Church is due to relaunch in March; so watch this space!”

I ended our interview, as I always do, by asking what is next for the Right Reverend: “Looking-out for our neighbour has been a big part of life over the last twelve months and it is central to the message of the gospel. This past year has been very difficult for everyone, but it has also brought about some positive changes, which I hope will be long-lasting.
‘A community is where we create the things you can’t buy in the shops like friendship, generosity, loyalty and trust. I have been moved by the generosity and creativity of people and impressed by the way communities have come together in Devon. Many churches have begun offering online church services, whether over Zoom or social media. As a result, people have been able to connect with their local church in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before. All this gives me hope for 2021!

‘Going forward, I would like everyone in Devon to feel a
connection to their local church, to feel welcomed and supported.
I hope our church communities will have renewed confidence in the exciting and life-changing message of God’s love for each and every one of us.

‘Too often society is a place of strangers. Community is society with a human face, the place where we know we are not alone. And in that task of transformation and belonging, the Church has a significant part to play.”

Despite not being religious myself, I am always warmed by the words of people like Robert – people who have such a strong faith. And it reminds me of one of my favourite lines from film:
‘Faith is a gift that I am yet to receive’.

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