Stephen Cottrell talks to Vicky Walker about his address to the nation. This was first published in the Church Times. 

WHEN the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, stopped to get a coffee at Paddington Station, he wasn’t expecting a conversation that would spark a book-length letter to the nation. It started with a question. What, asked the barista who prepared his flat white, made you become a priest?

The answer, he writes in Dear England, the book prompted by their exchange, boils down to two key truths: “It is because I believe in God and I want to change the world.”

But the book contains much more than personal testimony. It’s a wide-ranging exploration of the current landscape, intended as a way into Christianity for those who may not have considered it; an opportunity to reflect on meaning and purpose, in a world full of “hurt and confusion”.

It’s a book addressed to the country at a time of division and pandemic, but one that encompasses thoughts on a range of subjects from his impressions of local churches to the global catastrophe of the climate emergency, and including Brexit, the NHS, racism, and much more.

He starts with the personal — unpacking the barista’s expectations about two particular types of people of faith she expects to encounter: those who treat faith as a hobby — “In most ways their lives were indistinguishable from other people’s lives, except for the fact that they went to church on Sunday,” he writes — and those who, in her words, “embraced their faith so tightly, it frightened everyone else away”.

He wants to advocate a third way, particularly to those outside the Church, saying in our conversation: “The heart of the Christian faith has always been about this is a new way of inhabiting the earth, in community with others.”

Its distinctiveness, he says, is in “its reordering of human community and the command to love our neighbour as ourselves” — something that may have lost its power to surprise. “Just because we got so used to hearing those phrases, it’s very easy to not see how very radical they are, and how counter-cultural and even counter-intuitive they are.”

Rather, it is important to remember that “the Christian way offers something strange and beautiful and different about belonging to each other.”

KEY to this is the local church. He draws a parallel between this and the post-pandemic appreciation for the health service. “Quite often you would hear people moaning about the NHS: there’s a lot of bureaucracy, it’s badly led, it’s inefficient. And then you’d ask them about their local GP and their local hospital and they say, ‘Oh, well, that’s different, my local GP, my local hospital. It’s fantastic, that: the service I’ve received.’

“I think it’s a bit like that with the Church of England. There’s often frustration with the Church of England. But, as soon as you ask people about their local church, they’re full of pride and admiration.”

He acknowledges that this isn’t a universal experience: “We could do better, of course. There’s much more we should be doing. But what they do experience is a kind of motley, muddled band of humanity of all ages and types. There aren’t many places left in our society where even people of different ages mix together, let alone others.”

Drawing on his own early inspiration by Anglo-Catholic slum priests, who “didn’t use the language of planting churches, but they planted churches in the poorest communities of Victorian England, in the new cities that were growing”, he remarks that “the history of the Church has been a history of adaptability and adaptation into different contexts. . .

“In every generation, you’re looking for new ways of reaching to new people and new communities,” he says, “So it’s never been a ‘one size fits all.’”

The England that he is addressing is riven by inequality, a topic that he approaches directly. “For those who are left behind and excluded,” he says, “we have to ask the hard questions about why the world has been ordered this way.

“The book is saying: ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’ And the Christian narrative offers a narrative of hope, which transcends party politics to say: ‘These are things that it would be good to see in our world. They’re not self-evident.’”

REBUILDING after the pandemic might offer an opportunity to do things differently. “One of my own predecessors, William Temple, was one of the great architects of what was known as the post-war consensus, the birth of the welfare state, the NHS; and that was a time when, again, across parties, Christian ideas, about who we are, how we belong to each other, our responsibilities to each other, started to shape the political narrative.”

Then he makes a contemporary analogy. “I was vaccinated yesterday,” he says. “I celebrate and give thanks for the health provision we have in this country and for the good it’s done for me and for my neighbour. For me, it’s not a very big step to say: ‘I want that to be solved for people’s housing. I want it to be so for other basic things, such as food on the table.’ And we shouldn’t accept living in a world where that is not the case.

He describes the impact of choice-culture in the book — “For most of us, there is simply no such thing as an absolute truth: you have your truth, I have mine; as long as we don’t hurt each other, what’s the problem?” — and outlines the social and religious shifts that have encouraged it. 

“The danger is, it’s only making the choices that suits me, and bring me what I want. And the danger is that, in the end, you can’t escape your neighbour. However you build the wall, your neighbour is still on the other side.

“So, much better to dismantle the walls. The vaccine is in a very, very good example. You could say that until everyone is vaccinated, no one is vaccinated.”

He argues for an “enlightened self-interest to loving your neighbour” which may resonate with those who haven’t been brought up with a self-sacrificing Christian world-view. “The best way to serve myself, paradoxically, is to serve my neighbour, because then we build a world of greater justice, greater opportunity for all, greater access to health care, housing, all the other things,” he says.

“And when the world is a better place, my life is better. . . And the alternative — not loving your neighbour? Seeing yourself in isolation from your neighbour? — well, is horribly, horribly dangerous.”

IN ADDITION to the uncertainty of post-pandemic England, we are also navigating post-Brexit England. “There are new challenges ahead of us,” he says, of the UK’s relationship with Europe.

Again, neighbourliness is important. “The narratives that have led to Brexit have rather undermined, perhaps, some of our confidence in our neighbours,” he says. “We need to work hard at rebuilding confidence, to say we want to have the very best relationships we can. Therefore, we have to believe in the very best in our neighbour, and work for their well-being as well as well as our own.”

He warns, though: “It’s really important that the Church stays out of party politics. It’s important that the Church has a voice, a distinct Christian voice on the Christian way of looking at the world, and then invites all people of goodwill, politicians of all parties, to respond in in the ways that they believe are appropriate. And the Church always stands ready to help in different ways.”

The book also touches on Englishness, and what he calls “a new patriotism”. He elucidates when we speak: “We need to develop a narrative about being English and [about] the English regions, which is a positive story, rooted in our belonging to each other. Particularly in England, and the United Kingdom now, which is multifaith, multi-ethnic, multiracial. There’s great and glorious diversity in the United Kingdom today.”

What would he say to those who view diversity differently, and refuse to see it as positive? In the book, he is blunt about the racial injustice, and asks: “Why is Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, still often portrayed as if he were white? White hegemony still controls the narrative of the world. And white people usually can’t see it.”

He also writes: “Racism operates rather like our perception of accent. It is there within us, but we don’t acknowledge it. I speak normally, we say to ourselves. Other people have accents.”

When we speak, he says: “My experience in the Church of England is a great desire, first of all, to face up to some of our own difficulties, and failings, with racism, and then to take a lead in a narrative of how to say there’s a different way of inhabiting the world.

“We want to confront our own difficult history in these matters, want to learn. And I dare to hope that, in due course, we will be able to offer something to the nation as well, about how we live together and celebrate our diversity.”

WE RETURN to the local church, and the working groups that are looking ten years ahead, while facing the immediate challenges presented by the pandemic. “We, like every organisation in the world, have taken a financial hit because of Covid. But we’re not panicking. It’s a challenge, but it’s not a desperate situation.

“I do get a bit frustrated,” he says of recent debates about the use and costs of buildings, “because I think there is some wilful misunderstanding in one or two places. And I don’t quite understand why that is. Perhaps I’m naïve.

“There will always be so-called central costs, but I’m committed to helping us find a way forward. In a very complex, dispersed organisation, is there a way of doing that that will be more efficient and more effective? It seems to me a kind of paradox that some of the tenor of the articles is ‘Why don’t they look at all these central costs?’, when, actually, that’s precisely what we are doing. 

“But, because it’s sensitive work, because it’s a work in progress, then clearly it would be inappropriate to even say what we’re thinking about. But when and if some plans emerge, of course they will be shared. The work that I’m doing is about what really matters, which is the spiritual, theological, missiological renewal of the Church, because without that there won’t be a Church.”

He continues: “Actually, in my own heart and mind, I’m clear that the Church of England is this beautiful network of local churches. I want there to be more churches, not fewer churches. I want us to have greater diversity.

“I’m not going to apologise for wanting us to reach out to younger people and more diverse people — not at the expense of older people. It’s often older people who care most about the fact the Church doesn’t have many young people in it. That’s what I’m spending my time thinking about.”

Dear England: Finding hope, taking heart and changing the world is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.99); 978-1-529-36095-0