The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell was appointed as Archbishop of York in 2020, is married to Rebecca, and has three sons. He talked to us about where he came from, his priorities for York Diocese, and his own family Christmas plans.
Q What is your background?
I was born and grew up in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. I went to Belfairs High School in the town and then the Polytechnic of Central London. I found faith as a teenager through the work of youth organisations in my local church. Having spent a brief spell working in the film industry, and at St Christopher’s Hospice in South London, I began training for ministry at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, in 1981. I was ordained deacon when I was 25.
Q At what age did you decide that you wanted to be priest? What informed this decision?
I was about 21 and had been thinking that God might be calling me to ordained ministry, so I decided to speak to my parish priest. Because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, I find it quite hard to distinguish between starting to go to church, becoming a Christian and sensing a vocation to ordained ministry.
Q You have completed several walking pilgrimages. How valuable were these experiences, for both your development as a Christian and your development as a person?
Christian people, and people of all the great religions of the world, often go on journeys to their holy places to rekindle their faith and to get back in touch with that most basic reality of all, namely that life itself is a journey. I remember that my life is a journey home. I learn how to travel light and to appreciate what is around me and in front of me in every step. I learn to be more vulnerable to the people I meet, and the things I see. I learn that I can’t always choose my fellow travellers, that we’re in this together. I learn to receive hospitality. I look to encounter God. In each step of the way, I learn how to be led.
Q What are your main priorities for York Diocese in 2022?
The diocese refreshed its vision in 2021, committing us to:
• Becoming more like Christ. This means receiving and knowing the story ourselves. Before we do anything else, we remember who we are: God’s beloved children—those whom he came to seek and save. We also remember that we know this story by prayer and service, as well as by Bible study and learning. This is demandingly life-changing, and it happens by God’s grace alone, working with us and through us. Without this foundation, nothing else makes sense.
• Reaching people we currently don’t. We can do this by living and telling this story, remembering that the story we share is those two stories of what God has done in Christ and what God is doing through the Church down through the centuries and in us.
• Growing churches of missionary disciples. This will be the best way of reaching new people and how we’ll grow those we reach, striving to be younger and more diverse, and moving towards becoming a mixed ecology church. In every community we want our churches to be places where the story of Christ is known and lived out.
• Transforming our finances and structures. Together we can support a presence in all the neighbourhoods and networks of the diocese to find a new story that will not just be about sustaining our life, but recognising that our life needs to be transformed to be an agent of God’s transformation in the world.
Q How do you see the Church changing over the coming decades?
The Church of England has shared its vision for the 2020s. We must adapt and put our trust in God to become a simpler, humbler, bolder Church that is Jesus Christ centred and Jesus Christ shaped.
• A simpler Church, both in governance and structure, and in the way we live and share the gospel.
• A humbler Church, recognising our failings and working with others to serve the common good.
• A bolder Church energised and enthused by the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ and sharing that with everyone.
Our strategic priorities are:
• To be a church that is younger and more diverse.
• To be a church where mixed ecology is the norm, where every person in England has access to an enriching and compelling community of faith by adding new churches and new forms of Church to our parishes, schools and chaplaincies.
• To become a church of missionary disciples, where all God’s people are released to live the Christian life.
Q Congregations are growing older. How do you see the role of young people in the Church changing?
We believe God is calling us to be a younger and more diverse church, a church that serves children and young people and involves them in its leadership and ministry.
Q Who will you be celebrating Christmas with?
As many of my family that I can gather around me.
Q Do you have any of your own family traditions at Christmas?
Started by my father or my uncle, I was told as a child that Father Christmas had a hole in his sack and Smarties leaked out so you could tell where he had been around the house. On Christmas morning I woke up to not just a stocking of presents at the end of my bed, but also a Smartie trail to follow. My children and all my nieces and nephews inherited the same tradition, and now that I have become a grandad, I look forward to this passing to another generation. Perhaps in a few hundred years’ time, every child in the country will wake up on Christmas morning to a Smartie trail! I also enjoyed coming home for Midnight Mass at about 2am and laying the trail before going to bed. Of course, the other tradition is just going to church. It is still the time of the year when church attendances are massively larger than usual. And now I cannot really imagine Christmas without crib and carols and the profound beauty of the story of God come down to earth sharing our joys and sorrows and giving us something to celebrate.
Q Who does the cooking at Christmas?
It’s a joint effort!
Q What is a proverb you live by?
If you want people to share your vision, ask them to help you design it.
Q If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Q What, if anything, do you like doing in your spare time?
Walking, cooking, listening to music.
Q What have you missed, and what have you enjoyed, during the pandemic?
I’ve missed cinema and restaurants and concerts. I’ve enjoyed boxed sets on the TV.
Q Favourite hymn?
“I heard the voice of Jesus say” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Q What have you found out about yourself in the last year?
Not to say yes about filling in questionnaires!
Q “I couldn’t get through the weekend without…”
As a priest and Archbishop, I don’t really have weekends.