Bishop Christopher

Words by:
Jason Hippisley
Featured in:
December 2011

With a picnic box of county produce provided for every guest at his enthronement and a clear delight in what he has discovered so far, the new Bishop of Lincoln tells Jason Hippisley how he intends to be an ambassador for the historic county of Lincolnshire.

With so much to look forward to as he settles into life as the 72nd Bishop of Lincoln, the aspiration of unpacking his pots, pans and cookery books seems an unlikely one.

But the Right Reverend Christopher Lowson is a man who is passionate about food, cooking and entertaining.

You would think that moving to Lincolnshire is like heaven on earth for the new bishop – and so it is as he finds the farm shops, local supplies and nationally renowned delicacies while out on the road around the diocese’s 2,673 square miles – but for now he is caught in metaphoric purgatory as he waits for his new smaller-scale and more affordable house to become available in the new year.

Only then will the Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater recipe books be unpacked and the bishop’s desire to extend his hospitality to the clergy and wider community be truly realised. Until then he and wife Susan are residing in a flat and his style as a self-confessed ‘fundamentalist chef who follows a recipe to the letter’ is curtailed.

“The challenge will be to watch the waistline as the food in Lincolnshire is so lovely and nourishing,” he confesses.

This brief hiatus is being used to good effect in that area though: “I’ve been spending the time that other bishops use in putting their books in order and settling in to their new home to travel the diocese and walk the city,” he said. “I’ve been to every part of the diocese and met clergy from every deanery, civic leaders and interest groups. I’m discovering what wonderful and varied places Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire are.”

Such cool headed, calm and practical opportunism would seem to be a mark of the Rt Rev Lowson; so too his humour, charm and gentle manner.

It is the Church Commissioners who decide where they are to live and he and Susan are delighted with their lot. It is a consequence of the expense needed to upgrade the current twenty-five-room Bishop’s House, when the Church Commissioners could otherwise invest in needy mission and ministry projects elsewhere and provide a more modest home which still offers scope for hospitality whilst not being a drain on resources,” he said.

“I’ve been saying for sometime that it’s good when bishops find ways of living more simply. What we can save on bishops houses we can spend on ministry.”

Such an emphasis on simple hospitality and humility – while lacking nothing in warmth and welcome – made an early impression in his diocesan life from day one when every one of the 2,000 guests at his enthronement in Lincoln Cathedral – including the Bishop, his family and senior church and civic brass – found a tuck box beneath their seat, complete with pork pie, plum bread with cheese and crisps.

This was all generously sponsored by the producers and much welcomed and it looks as though it will become a standard across the Church of England in these cost-cutting times since it’s already planned for Ely and is on the cards for other dioceses.

A further sense of what’s to come from the 72nd Bishop of Lincoln was contained within his captivating sermon where it was revealed that the Lowsons’ money is on Russell Grant to win Strictly Come Dancing after he was once mistaken for the astrologer many moons ago. In the same introductory message the bishop explained why it is that he puts so much store in the act of sitting down together in fellowship, ‘to build and restore relationships by sharing the conviviality of a common table.’

“It makes a big difference in relationships if people have shared a meal together and those of you who know Susan and me will know that conviviality and hospitality will be one of the marks of my time as a bishop,” he said, which fully explained the mass picnic gesture.

A further mark is likely to be considered and informed standard-bearing, where he takes up a cause and champions it.

From the outset he made it clear that ‘serving the community, the wider community beyond the church, will be one of my strategic aims as your new bishop’ and as he discovered more about the way Lincolnshire works over the weeks preceding his enthronement, the reality of how important this aspect of his role is has delighted him.

The difficulties faced by industry of recruiting and retaining the right skills has emerged as an early potential campaign platform. “It’s the same with clergy. People don’t know about Lincolnshire. But once they get here and discover what a fascinating place it is, that it’s more interesting than they thought and much more varied than the flat landscapes they envisaged, they’re pleasantly surprised and they want to stay. Given that I knew little about Lincolnshire apart from driving through on the A1 to visit my parents in Durham, a stay with my predecessor Bishop John last summer while advising on ministry matters and distant remembrance of visiting Immingham to see my father when he was in the Merchant Navy, I know how easy it to overlook Lincolnshire.

“That’s why I intend to make the most of an unexpected but very exciting aspect of my role. Whilst many bishops are probably not very well known in the wider community beyond the boundaries of the church, there is something special in the role of the Bishop of Lincoln in that he is one of Lincolnshire’s senior advocates. People seem to know who the Bishop of Lincoln is and seem to listen to him and I hope to build on that status and use it to the benefit of the county.

“In my previous job I was very much behind the scenes writing speeches and papers, in training and selection, but here I have a strong pastoral and leadership role to play. It’s rather nice to come out from the shadows and be a voice. I’m looking forward to that and my fellow bishops are looking forward to seeing how well I do as it’s exactly what I have been encouraging them to do. Now they will see if I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

In time he should be able to champion such causes from a grass-roots perspective in the House of Lords; perhaps as soon as four years if the system does change. But for now he’s flexing his muscle on a deep and insightful consideration of the state of general affairs.

In his inaugural sermon, he challenged ‘the mindset of the last fifty years in which we have worshipped the great god of economic growth’ and scoped the need for ‘those of us who are comfortable to have to make do with a little less’ in response to the need for a fairer share of resources for all to enjoy a dignified life, tempering it with a positive outlook of increased creative mission and ministry within the Diocese of Lincoln and growing disillusionment with existing social priorities in preference for vibrant communities, stable family life, opportunities for the young and respect for the elderly.

Before even taking up his bishop’s seat he was conjecturing that it may be filled by a woman bishop. He will be voting for women bishops in the General Synod next July and anticipates that ‘it is very likely that a woman should succeed me if, God willing, I’m still here in ten to twelve years’.

At the age of just fifty-eight, he has the prospect of a further twelve years in this episcopacy – time to effect great change. His first intention is in ‘deepening the discipleship, faith and commitment of the members of our churches’ coupled with a ‘fairly sharp and swift’ determination of the extent to which the central workings of the diocesan machine are meeting the needs of the 513 parishes, 240 benefices, 645 Anglican churches and wider population of 950,000 in the Diocese.

One thing that has struck him is the dedication of the parishioners serving these churches from Stamford to Scunthorpe and Epworth to Huttoft.

“In this diocese we may find it easier to remember God than in some places. Not only do we have the beauty of the landscape – which is quite a change from the tall buildings of central London – but we have inherited a collection of some of the most beautiful churches in the land,” he said, calling for ‘bold and imaginative’ ways for this gift to be shared with the wider community.

As with the concept behind his TV favourite, Strictly Come Dancing, he sees the inauguration of a new bishop – and the path of Christianity generally – as ‘being about discovering something new, exploring a vocation and expressing that vocation, if not in dance then certainly through liturgy.’

Whether dancing or not, Bishop Christopher’s job is to lead from the front on both community matters and those of the church. “There have been some outstanding Bishops of Lincoln and it’s an honour for me to try and follow in their footsteps,” he said.

Of his seventy-one predecessors, he has hit upon the example of Edward King, whose desk he uses at Bishop’s House, whose pastoral staff he has been given and whose chasuble he wore at his enthronement. The crozier he used on entry to the cathedral was that used by the 68th Bishop of Lincoln Kenneth Riches and passed back to the Bishop of Lincoln via the widow of his former bishop in Portsmouth, one-time county curate the Rt Rev Kenneth Stevenson.

“The quality and integrity of Bishop King’s personal and spiritual life, his commitment to the poor, the convicts and those condemned to capital punishment is especially inspiring. As a curate in Richmond I visited a lady who had been a servant girl in Lincolnshire and the highlight of her life was being confirmed by Edward King, largely for the kindness he showed society; again serving the community beyond the church.”

Referring to Dr Saxbee’s ‘friendly style and personal ability to get alongside people within the church community and outside it,’ he said, “I hope to build on his ministry as a bishop whilst bringing my own gifts to the role of building God’s Kingdom in this place.”

Born in 1953 in Consett, County Durham, Christopher Lowson attended his local comprehensive school before reading Theology at King’s College London where the Bishops of Grantham and Grimsby, Tim Ellis and David Rossdale, were among his contemporaries.

During two summers while undertaking initial ministry training he laboured in the coke ovens of the Consett steelworks where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had worked.

His grandfather had passed up a chance to play professional football for Newcastle United in the 1920s; instead bringing his family to Lincoln where he played professionally – presumably for Lincoln City. He also turned out for the ‘England Possibles’.

Ordained a deacon in 1977 and a priest in 1978, he spent fourteen years in ministry in London before eight years as a parish priest of both Petersfield and Buriton in Hampshire, during which time there were four years as Rural Dean of Petersfield.

After six years as Archdeacon of Portsdown, Hampshire, including oversight of prisons and hospitals, he moved in 2006 to his most recent position as the Church of England’s Director of Ministry Division working out of Church House in Westminster.

Having been appointed 72nd Bishop of Lincoln in mid-April, he was consecrated Bishop on 21st September, exactly 825 years to the day after Lincoln’s most famous Bishop, the Cathedral-building Hugh of Avalon’s consecration.

Married to Susan for thirty-five years and with children James (31) and Rebecca (29), his interests include contemporary literature, theatre, watching live sport – particularly football and cricket – the cinema, walking and cookery.

The ancient and time-honoured symbolism associated with the making of a bishop runs thick with deep meaning.

At the consecration, the laying on of hands represents a transfer of the Holy Spirit.

His knocking three times at the West Door to gain entry indicates the limits to his jurisdiction.

Being placed in his chair – the cathedra from which the cathedral takes its name – by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative illustrates the importance of the bishop sitting down and sharing the faith; his traditional role being to gather others around his chair to discover what it means to be a Christian.

Bishop Christopher made great play of the three actions associated with the liturgical movement of his enthronement expressing something of the ministry of a bishop and the vocation of everyone, Christian or otherwise: to sit, to stand, to kneel. Sitting with others to listen and learn, to speak, to share silence and to reinforce relationships. Standing up for Jesus and justice for all people. Kneeling to bring energy, imagination and ingenuity into our sharing of faith and our engagement with the world.

“I invite you all to join in these steps: To sit down in fellowship to share your faith; to stand up for Jesus Christ and to kneel to allow God to resource your life,” he concluded.

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