Your title is Bishop of Kensington. How is it you are involved in Spelthorne?
As Bishop of Kensington I have oversight and care for Church of England parishes across an area of West London stretching from Knightsbridge to Staines. This includes 120 churches, 27 Church Schools as well as numerous other activities and ministries that seek to serve all the people who live in this area.
What sort of activities have you been involved in with the Borough of Spelthorne?
Over the past year it has been a privilege to have a particular involvement in a number of the schools across Spelthorne, especially Bishop Wand Church of England School where I participated in a special series of activities during Lent, which included offering a Christian world-view on a range of subjects, as well as speaking in a number of assemblies. It was also a joy to visit and celebrate the outstanding care being provided through two of our Foodbanks in the Borough pioneered by local churches in Staines and Upper Sunbury. This vital work of caring for people who face sudden financial difficulties will inevitably intensify over the period around Christmas.
Thinking of the changing cultural landscape of our country, what are the challenges in today’s society for a Bishop at Christmas?
I love Christmas and the unique opportunity it gives to celebrate the gift of life with family and friends. For many Christmas is a largely secular holiday, with the main element the exchange of gifts on Christmas Day. However, in my experience more and more people are recognising that there is a spiritual dimension to life which cannot be satisfied by any amount of presents and good things to eat and drink.
In 2007 Christopher Hitchens published a book called God is not Great, which made him a celebrity in his adopted homeland of the United States as he happily took on the role of the country’s best-known atheist. Hitchens maintained his devout atheism even after being diagnosed with cancer in 2010, telling one interviewer: “No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind.” Then he added, “But I like surprises.”
The reality of the Christmas message is that for all his doubts and determined objections Christopher Hitchens was right to expect surprises. The Christian faith is a long series of great surprises, beginning in a small town a day’s walk from Jerusalem. Bethlehem goes down in history as playing host to the greatest surprise of all – God becoming a human being, born as a baby.
One of Hitchens most often quoted arguments against Christianity was that, “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.” I don’t think John in his Gospel would argue with that for one moment. In his grand opening he writes this: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The truth is most people would like to believe in something that’s bigger and greater than themselves. And the most clear thinking and honourable atheists recognize the destructive forces that can be unleashed when a society ceases to believe in a source of higher good. As G.K. Chesterton once pointed out, “When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything.” If ‘anything goes’ then that creates a terrifying world.
This is why the deeper significance of the Christmas message is so vitally important for modern people, whether or not they would consider themselves religious. Over Christmas all the churches across the Borough will throw open their doors to welcome people whatever their background or outlook on life. Everyone is warmly invited to come and celebrate the Christmas story.
What would your message to the people of Spelthorne be at Christmas?
A couple of Christmases ago the adventurer Bear Grylls was invited to send a special message to our troops stationed in Afghanistan. What he had to say expresses so well what I would like to say to the people of Spelthorne this Christmas.
“Christmas is often about coming home – it’s also about finding a home. Let me explain. You see, faith is sometimes hard to talk about openly and Christian faith if it’s to be real and meaningful is intensely personal. But that’s also part of what makes it so special.
I’ve learnt over the years from numerous expeditions, close calls and hairy moments…that it takes a proud man to say he never needs any help and I’ve yet to meet an atheist in the Everest death zone. Life is a journey and we all need a guide. But that guide for me has become much more than simply a pointer of the way. He’s become my backbone, my confident, my helper, my companion and my friend. It’s taken me some time and a whole host of getting it wrong to have the courage to quietly bend the knee and admit my need for my Christian faith – but what a world, what a comfort, what a revelation it’s since been and that’s what I mean by coming home.”
You may spend this Christmas surrounded by many people, or just a few. You may approach this Christmas in prosperity or up to your neck with financial worries. You may enjoy good health or struggle with a body that doesn’t perform like it used to. But the real Jesus is ready to be present in our lives in a way that can make a difference not just to our Christmas Day but every day.
Whatever your perspective on issues of faith and however you plan to celebrate this Christmas I wish you a very happy and joyful season.
I understand you are keen on football…Do you play? Who do you support?
I do enjoy football and am a loyal supporter of Ipswich Town, which has not always been an easy ride in recent years, but things are improving. I’ve also have second team now in local club Brentford, so Boxing Day will see me managing my divided loyalties as my two teams meet! With three very active teenage boys all manner of sports form a big part of our lives, including rowing on the Thames near our home in Twickenham.