Before choosing a life in the priesthood, the archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, studied Media Communications at the University of Westminster (then the Polytechnic of Central London). Following his enthronement this summer, we got in touch with Archbishop Stephen to find out about his first months in the role and how his time at Westminster prepared him for the job.
“When I began at PCL, I didn’t know quite where my career would go,” he says. “I wasn’t brought up going to church. Back then, I was most interested in writing, film and media, and gave no thought to becoming a priest, let alone a Bishop or an Archbishop! But actually, as I look back now, I feel I’ve been in the communications business my whole life, because a major part of my work is communication – in all kinds of ways. So some of the things I studied all those years ago have, in roundabout ways, really helped me.
“In terms of highlights from my time at Westminster… well, there aren’t many that are repeatable! I was in the Bolsover Street halls of residence, just around the corner from Riding House Street. I was in a band; we played in the Mowbray Street buildings. I had great fun.
“Surprisingly, something which I really got interested in during my time at PCL was radio documentaries and drama. We had to do a piece of work in final year and I wrote a radio play, which others helped perform and that was a wonderful thing to be part of.
“Charles Parker, a ground-breaking figure in radio documentary in the 1950s and 60s, was a visiting lecturer. His documentaries were told through song and speech which I found very inspiring. I even wrote one myself as an amateur musician – although it was probably terrible and very embarrassing! One of my lecturers at PCL, Tony Schooling, was very encouraging of my writing when he saw the script of the radio show I’d written, and told me to carry on writing.
“This passion for writing never went away, and happily, the writer bit of me has also found expression; I’ve written an embarrassingly large number of books over the years. I can’t quite believe it, but they keep churning out. Mostly of a spiritual or theological flavour, but I’ve also recently written a book of poems and two children’s stories too.”
Despite his interest in the media, Stephen’s career in the film industry was short-lived, and soon after graduating in 1981, he had a call to follow a different path.
“I’ve always been a bit of a revolutionary,” he explains. “I was during my time at PCL and I still am. I want to change the world and I’ve come to learn that the best way of changing the world is changing the human heart. I believe that God can change hearts, and so I found myself becoming a priest.
“Once I got a ‘call’ to live life differently and take a different direction, it all happened rather quickly. I went back to college and studied Theology in Oxford, got ordained, and then I thought my life would be as a priest. I didn’t imagine much else, but to my surprise I was invited to be a Bishop, and later an Archbishop.”
The enthronement, or ceremony in which Stephen was promoted to Archbishop, took place in the summer. However, with all the restrictions in place this year, neither the service nor the months succeeding have been business as usual for the Church. So what’s it been like as Archbishop in 2020?
“Well, it’s been weird,” Stephen says. “One thing the Church is usually very good at is a grand do, and none of the big events have happened this year. But compared with what’s happening in the world, it’s a small thing.
“Meanwhile, the Church like every other organisation is facing huge challenges – financial challenges – as many of our income streams have dried up. But what has been wonderful is the Church being on the front line of offering care, and everywhere I turn I bump into incredible stories of wonderfully heroic things that ordinary people are doing in their communities.
“There’s also a strong political side to my role, and as a Bishop in the Church of England I’m a member of the House of Lords, which means I can be a voice, particularly for the poor and vulnerable, on a number of issues.
“For example, when the Government advice came out about the groups of six and who in terms of childcare could be additional to the group – the additional childcare only referred to paid child carers. I and other church leaders were quick to point out that in poorer communities childcare is always provided, not by a nanny, but by a neighbour, or in most cases, another family member. So this legislation discriminates against the poor. Thankfully on something as blindingly obvious as that, the Government changed its mind.
“But the Church has a really important role, and one thing I’ve noticed in the House of Lords, and in other spheres, is when the church speaks on those kinds of issues, we do usually get listened to. Because I think people can see that this is beyond party politics; it’s about what kind of a moral universe we want to inhabit and to build.
“It’s the work with local communities that for me is the most enjoyable. The opportunity to write and speak, and the doors that open – really interesting doors open when you’re a Bishop and an Archbishop. And if you can use that, and be a voice for those who don’t have a voice, then that’s a great privilege.”
In order to keep in touch with the community, the Church, as with many organisations this year, has been forced to adapt and embrace new digital opportunities. Luckily for Stephen, exploring new platforms and media is something his degree equipped him with.
“I remember when I first explored a vocation to the priesthood, the Bishop who I then went to see was extremely troubled by my CV. Because after I graduated, I worked for a short amount of time in the film industry, and most clergy didn’t come through that kind of world. The Bishop asked, ‘are you going to be showing films from the pulpit?’ I assured him that I wasn’t, but of course I am! Because just this summer the whole world has moved online.
“On the one hand, the pandemic has been a huge challenge for the Church, because we’ve had to close our doors this year. And it’s been irritating for us that the Government has treated us as though we were the same as McDonald’s or a gym – as part of the leisure industry really. But on the other hand, the really positive impact has been our huge digital acceleration. For an organisation that doesn’t do change well – we think in terms of centuries – we’ve moved online really quickly, and it’s been incredibly fruitful.
“I could tell you story after story of churches who, say their Sunday congregation is 20 or 30 people, since moving online, they have 140 or more. So the congregation – the virtual congregation has grown massively. And that says something very interesting I think, that we are still learning from.
“If you’ve never been to church in your life, to cross the threshold into the physical space is a big step to make. As somebody who wasn’t brought up going to church, I still remember what that’s like. Whereas the online space is much easier space to step into. So actually, I think the Church online is here to stay. To our surprise, we’ve stumbled upon a very good way in today’s world of building some community with people who are not ready to come to church, or are not sure if they believe in God, and a digital platform provides a safe space to explore those questions.
“We need to be careful – we can’t be rubbing our hands together in glee that we’re living through a crisis and so people are thinking about God. It is horrible what’s happening in our world. But we are aware that it’s leading people to ask questions – ultimate questions. Therefore, the Church seems to have a more significant place in the community that it did this time last year for many people.”
Looking to future, Stephen has other ambitious plans of how to bring the Church into the 21st Century, and has set many goals of what he hopes to achieve while in the role.
“I’ve set the bar of my expectation ridiculously high,” he says. “I want the Church to be less anxious, less pompous; I’d like it to look a bit more like Jesus – to be simpler, humbler, and I would really like more people to come to Church. The decline of the Church has probably been overstated in the press; we’re not growing in number, but it has levelled off. People just come less often nowadays because of the way the world has changed. But that doesn’t mean any less commitment.
“Wherever I’ve gone, what I’ve tried to do is be a voice for the Christian faith. There are a few religious nutters around and there are some atheists around too, but actually a lot of people nowadays – young people especially – would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. And I get that. I enjoy speaking into that and asking, when you say ‘spiritual’, what do you mean? Where do you think that comes from? How can we understand that more? I want the Church to be a place for people who are spiritual and not religious, to have a home; to come and explore Christian spirituality.”
And in what ways does Stephen feel his time at the University prepared him to achieve all of this?
“I have very happy memories of my time at PCL, and there is for me a strong connection between my degree and my career; it’s about the business of how we communicate ideas in a winsome and compelling way. That’s what the arts and the media do – it’s all about ideas. I still feel that I’m in the ideas business.”