Interview: A humbler Church
The new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, talks to Stephen Tomkins
Stephen Cottrell recalls the time a barista at Caffè Nero in Paddington Station asked him why he became a priest. She suggested that while religion seemed a mere hobby for a lot of Christians, the rest embraced their faith so tightly it frightened everyone else away. ‘Is there another way?’ she said.
The aim of his book, Dear England, and his mission as Archbishop of York, is to present a positive vision of the faith to a sceptical country, a faith that is personal and communal, life-enhancing and world-changing. It is ‘a pathway to follow rather than a list of things to believe in’.
And to the Church, he says: ‘Our primary vocation is to share this story and to tell people about God and God’s vision for the world. There are lots of other things we need to do as well – not least live it out each day – but it has to begin with the story itself: the amazing, inexplicable, challenging and lovely story of what God has done in Jesus Christ to change the course of human history and to win our hearts.
You’ve stepped into a role with some serious history to it. Is that daunting?
There are times when a history and a heritage is an incredible blessing and you feel: I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, but also part of this wonderful long, living tradition. There are other times when it feels like you’re dragging this great millstone around your neck all the time. I have good days and bad days, but generally speaking, I think there’s something wonderful about the continuity of the place, of the Gospel and the Church in our history and culture.
I also think a position like mine, with so many predecessors and so much history, is quite good at putting your self in perspective. I’ll never believe my own publicity. I’ve received the baton from those who were before me, and I’ll pass the baton on and, in the meantime, I will seek to be faithful in the things that I believe God has called me to do.
Do you think there’s any chance of reversing the long-term decline of Christianity in this country?
Yes. That’s the short answer. Otherwise, I’d pack up.
I won’t consider my ministry a failure if that doesn’t happen, because God is the evangelist, not me. These are not things I have control over, but God asks me to be faithful. If I try to be faithful in living out, and speaking about, the Gospel, and trying to make the Church the very best Church we can be, that’s what I can do. I wasn’t brought up going to church, and I’m now a member of the Church. If it can happen to me, it can happen to others.
So yes, I do believe that. That’s what gets me up each morning. My almost daily prayer is: Lord, open a door of opportunity, somewhere, with someone, somehow, to share the Gospel today.
What do you think are the great barriers to evangelism in the UK today?
I don’t know, but my hunch is that one of them is that people have never actually heard the story. I increasingly think of evangelism – for me – as getting the obstacles out of the way, so that people can see Jesus and the Gospel clearly.
They think they’ve heard the story. They think they know about the Church, and have this vague idea that science has disproved religion, or that, if you’re going to be a Christian, you’ve got to believe all these other things, or that Christians are very anti things. These images make them think: Christianity is not for me.
I’m trying to say: ‘Could you, for a moment, just put that to one side?’ I use the image of going to the theatre, where you suspend your disbelief. If you don’t, you’re never going to enjoy the play. I’m saying: ‘Enter into the world of somebody who is a follower of Jesus Christ and have a look and see what it’s really like.’ That’s the method the book takes. Of course there are many other approaches…
This is an extract from an article published in the April 2021 edition of Reform