The Right Reverend Robert Atwell, who is the 71st Bishop of Exeter, was installed three months ago.
The Bishop, whose diocese covers Plymouth, answers questions on his new job and his new start …
It’s been really great. I’m having a whale of a time. It’s a great privilege living in a place like this and it’s also a privilege, which I think goes with the territory, of meeting people. I love people, listening to people’s stories and where they’re coming from. Some people share some intimate things with me and it’s a great privilege to receive these things.
No day is like any other day. I’m not, and will never be, bored. Life is full of surprises. My day I begin with prayer. I have my little chapel downstairs and I always spend time there. If I’ve not been still before God then there’s no stillness in the work I might do. If I’m not listening to God then I can’t listen to other people. That’s the bedrock of my life, it’s where I begin. I would like to say to Christian people ‘you need to make prayer your priority too’. We are in the God business. A day will be a mixture. It may be seeing people individually, I may get invited to meet people, or come to the cathedral. We’ve got ordinations for 19 people coming up, which is fantastic. I’m about a lot, which is what I want to do. There are some national things I have to do but, fundamentally, I’m in Devon with the people and communities that make up this great county.
Do you ever get irritated by the ups and downs of daily life? If so, what gets your goat?
I certainly do. I’m a human being – of course I get irritated. What irritates me? Litter, graffiti, people who never say thank you, how about that for a starter? I’m good at preaching – I only wish I was able to live up to my own sermons.
How do you see the role of the church, particularly in terms of its relationship to politics?
I wouldn’t want to be a platitude machine. I would be personally reserved about what I spoke about and when I spoke about it. I would hope to be more effective in that way rather than people thinking ‘oh there he goes again, it’s Robert shooting his mouth off’. Anything I did say, I would want to be personally informed. The best advocates are those who listen first and are informed. I see the role vis-a-vis government as being a critical friend. Aren’t they the best friends to have?
Where do you think we are as a society?
I think that because I’ve lived in different parts of England, I think that media perceptions are London-centric and I’m cautious about that. I’ve lived in the North West and England looks very different when you’re in the North West compared to when I was vicar of Primrose Hill (in London). Moving to the South West, it looks different again. I’m cautious about generalisations about society. Society is always changing and evolving. The whole multi-cultural thing is an interesting thing to explore. One of the things I’m concerned about is what’s going on internationally. As a child I was living in greater London where there was a high Jewish population and when I was a vicar in North London I was very close to mosques. I don’t like the way Muslims are stereotyped. I worry with all the things that are going on and it’s great the way that Muslim leaders have come out so strongly condemning that.
Many of the international crises have religious differences at their heart. Does it concern you that religion is so often linked to conflicts?
There have always been fanatics – one does have to keep things in perspective. Atheism and secularism isn’t some wondrous panacea. If one thinks of the history of the 20th century Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin were all atheists and they managed to execute, was it 72 million human beings?
So there is something in humankind, I’m afraid. Perhaps that’s something the Christian gospel witnesses to, that we’re flawed human beings. I am. And yet God invites us into a fullness of life.
I’m concerned with what’s going on in the Middle East, particularly because, as Bishop of Exeter, our diocese is twinned with the Anglican diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf and that whole part of Middle East is somewhere we have close links to. Next year I’ve been invited to go on a coloqium looking at the interface between Islam and Christianity because that is a real concern. Coming back to education, in all schools religious education is important. We need to educate children to understand what’s going on. I don’t want our national curriculums to be dominated by computing and not to have that wider perspective, those spiritual and moral values that make human beings flourish.
What sort of changes to the education system would you like to see to help with that?
Most people would want a holistic curriculum, not one that is driven by examination attainment, though that is important, and one that enables for human flourishing. That’s where, within national picture of education, the Church of England has a contribution to make. We were in education long before the state. As long as the state wants the church to work in education, we’re happy to be partners in it. We value children and we want our children to have values to live by. That’s what we’re about.
How important is technology to the church in communicating with people?
It’s really important, particularly with the younger generation. I’m all fingers and thumbs but I do know how to text now, that’s a little miracle. For that whole generation, that’s the way it is. One of the things I’m sad about is that Facebook and Twitter is great, provided it’s not a substitute for real relationships and meeting people, not virtual friends but real friends. Having said that, when I was at a school visiting children, I did say ‘I think it’s time for a selfie’. As a society there’s always something else that comes along and modern technology is a great servant, provided it doesn’t become our master. I still hand write letters to thank people. When every priest retires from this diocese I write them a personal letter, or if their spouse has died, I write them a letter and doing that matters to me. I have friends who write to me and I know who it’s from because I recognise the handwriting. There is no substitute for that personal contact.
At your installation you broke with tradition and gave out ice creams to those who were gathered on Cathedral Green. Why?
(Laughs) Yes, I never got one myself – I was very frustrated about that. I didn’t want it to be just the great and the good. I wanted it to be for everyone. There was a whole congregation sitting on the green and I wanted to talk to them. I love ice cream and Devon ice cream is fab.
You’re also a bit of a real ale fan. How do breweries in the South West compare to those in the north?
I do like real ale…and drinking unaffordable wines. I’m always been given bottles of Bishop’s Finger as if I’ve never heard of it before. I’m always saying ‘how amusing!’. As for the local breweries, they are equally wondrous as the ones in the north – I’m not going to be caught out on that one.
How about the wines – which unaffordable ones do you particularly enjoy?
Jesus’ first miracle was performed in Cana of Galilee. Jesus loved a party. I want to bring joy to this role. Christians are stereotyped as being anti and negative and actually it’s not true.It’s all about joy. The great picture of Heaven in the Bible is of a feast, a party. Far from being boring it’s about joy and laughter and fun – that’s God’s invitation to us – let’s party. God invites us to share in that banquet and I want to help people on that journey. and to share that invitation.