The Generic Wisdom of the Bishop of Berwick

I recently posted an interview I did with professional Aled Jones lookalike, The Rt Revd Mark Tanner, Bishop of Berwick. It was part of a series I’m writing called “Marks of a Generous Church”.

However, there was significant overspill from that interview. Much more than I could fit into one blog. But I didn’t want readers to miss out because his answers were jam-packed with interesting views and teaching.

So I’ve extracted all the non-generosity-specific content and assembled it here under ‘generic wisdom’. For those of you interested in what else the lovely Mark Tanner had to say about the church, obedience, blood biking and wearing purple, read on.

Mark, you were consecrated last October and installed as the Bishop of Berwick on 3rd Dec 16. How did you end up as a priest in the first place? I was conscious of a calling to full time ministry from age 14. I expected I’d teach or be in the police force or something else people-based until I was in my thirties, then I’d explore ministry. I read Maths at University, then considered doing a PGCE but I had profound feeling that this was the wrong thing to do.

I still had this long-term calling to ministry. I went into one of those prayer spirals where you’re asking “Lord what should I do?” And the only other thing I really loved doing was youth work. So I applied for a full-time youth job at a church in Coventry and became a youth pastor. A year into that I recognised that the call that had been hanging around actually was a ‘now’ call.

And we’re very glad it was!  What about your Christian background? I grew up in the Baptist church. I became an Anglican entirely by accident whilst at university. So I often say because I’m an Anglican convert, I’m a really passionate Anglican!

What I love about the Anglican Church is that firstly we are the church for the whole country, not just the church for the church. So as a priest and now as a bishop, I am of course a priest for the people in the churches, but much more than that.

When I was a parish priest, whether you came from the church or not, I was there for you. That’s important. I love that God is not just interested in those who are interested in him, there’s that wonderful generosity of God who’s God for everyone.

So the parish system works? I am a big fan of the parish system, but I understand there has to be a mixed economy because people don’t just hang around in their geographic circles. That’s why we need Fresh Expressions and chaplaincy.

The breadth of the C of E reminds me that I don’t have everything right. I might come from a particular tradition within the church that has great gifts, but actually I need my brothers and sisters who come from different traditions.

God is bigger than any church or tradition, and the fact that the C of E, unlike some of the other denominations, doesn’t have just one way or praying, or doing worship, is that constant living reminder that it’s not about me it’s about God.

God is the one with the resources. God is the one who calls. God is the one who sends.

Being all the same would be a nightmare. It would be a Mark-shaped church or a Rachael-shaped church instead of a Christ-shaped church. So for me it’s about the responsibility for the nation and mission opportunities, and the breadth which draws us back to Christ time and time again.

What’s your own tradition? Mark takes a sip of tea and looks like he’s stalling for time, and about to dodge the question.

I tend not to be too bothered about that as a bishop, and that’s not me trying to dodge the question.

I smile, knowing full well what Mark’s tradition is, but eager to hear the wisdom in his answer. It’s a very good answer. He goes on…

The danger is that if people think the Bishop is only interested in that or that, then we lose the whole truth of what I’m talking about, which is that the C of E is there for the everyone. So I have to say I am rooted in a particular tradition in the church, but I love the breadth of the church.

When I went to Cranmer Hall as Warden, one of the most profound gifts that I had was out of term time, going to choral evensong every night. It was a real life saver for me. That’s not a tradition that I’ve been formed in, but for me, particularly in that period, it was so necessary.

In fact being a bishop, one of the things I miss is being too far away from the cathedral. I genuinely love every type of worship from the informal to the very formal, so long as Jesus is the focus.

What’s more important than the question, “What is your tradition?” is, “Are you focussed on those who don’t yet know the love, the grace, the forgiveness, the hope in Jesus?” The reality is, the vast majority of people in our nation will go to bed tonight, without knowing the things that we, as Christians, just take for granted.

It’s easy to say “Well, why don’t they just come in?” They don’t come in because they don’t actually know that we’re here, that it’s relevant. So in that great missional charge that all clergy get when they are plumbed-in to a parish, is to proclaim afresh in every generation the faith that we have received.

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re catholic or liberal or evangelical. Whichever badge you want to stick on, because that’s the key question.

Amen! I couldn’t agree more. Sense and wisdom like that is why Mark is a Bishop. Part of the trick to good interview is to know what questions to ask. They have to allow the interviewee the space to give answers like this. I feel like I’m on a roll, so hit him with another.

Have you always wanted to wear purple and funny hats? No I’ve always not wanted to wear purple and funny hats.

My interview technique needs a little work I think. I remark on how nice the tea is while thinking of something more mature to ask.

Could you tell me what you’re making of your first few months as a bishop? For me this is all about obedience. So if God had called me to be the cleaner of the church toilets, I genuinely hope I’d do that with as much grace and joy as I do being a bishop.

Obviously it’s a huge privilege being a bishop and I’m delighted to do it. But it’s got to be about obedience to a call. I actually don’t think the bishops are the most important people in the church. It’s those who are out doing day jobs or bringing up kids. We all have a unique calling and there is no hierarchy in terms of actual importance.

Of course the church can seem to be structured hierarchically, but the mission of God is the key thing, and therefore the people who are doing the mission of God are the key people, and that’s all of us. The reality is as a bishop, you spend most of your time with folk who are already Christians, so arguably we are the least important people in the church because we’re the furthest away from the mission field.

But do you think being a bishop opens up missional and evangelism opportunities because of the status? Yes absolutely and that for me is a great privilege and joy. It’s what gets me out of bed on a morning.

Are you invited to events that people would attend mainly because they know the bishop’s going to be there? Certainly. And the bishop can say things that other people can’t. One of the really fascinating things about going to a church is, you’ll stand up and say something and people will listen to it, take notice and try to do something about it.

And the vicar will say to you, “It’s really great you saying that. I’ve tried saying that and nobody listens!” and that’s right, you’re a different person with a different voice and different role and people listen.

What was it like when you got the call to be a bishop? It’s a very strange thing.  Obviously a huge privilege and a huge delight. It was hard to leave Cranmer because that’s a rich and wonderful community. I was there for 5 years. My concern was, and is always, am I doing this or that particular thing out of obedience to Christ?

I would often say to the students at Cranmer Hall, when we are praying, there are four key words we need to say to God out of our obedience: ‘anyone, anywhere, anything, and anytime’.

And I really don’t care whether God calls you to the most prestigious place in the world to be with the nicest people you could possibly imagine with all the resources you need, or whether God calls you to be in the back streets and worst place you could imagine. Your task is to be obedient to Christ because Christ is building his church. Our task is to be obedient.

When I was a kid at Sunday school, a hymn that stuck with me that had a catchy tune and goes “trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” It’s a simple children’s song but actually there’s such wisdom in it. The truth is, if we trust Jesus with what we’ve got, fruit comes from that which, actually isn’t surprising as He’s the one who made it to start with.

And obedience isn’t tradition-dependant. It’s not ordination-dependant. It’s for all of us. It doesn’t matter whether somebody became a Christian 10 minutes ago or they’ve been a Christian for 100 years. It doesn’t matter whether they’re the Archbishop of Canterbury, or they’re the person who turns the tea urn on in the morning.

We’re all called to that common task of reaching out to the least, the lowest and the lost. Those who can’t begin to imagine that God could love them. That’s why we’re here.

Who’s your favourite disciple and why? I think you’re the very first person to ever ask me that question. I haven’t really thought about it. My initial reaction is Luke because at the beginning of his Gospel and at the beginning of Acts he basically says, “Others have written about this but I’ve made a really careful investigation so that you might know the truth”. It’s that sense of, “My heart’s already there, but I’m applying my brain because, if this is a fairy-tale I’m not interested. I want to dig down into the truth and now I’ve found the truth I want to share it”.

You’re stranded on a desert island. You get to take three Bible characters with you. Who do you choose? Can I have Jesus? Yes. Well it’s a toss-up between people who would be good for me, and people I’d actually like to spend time with! So maybe one of each. Very very long pause. I think probably Esther because she had that extraordinary balance between basically thinking she wasn’t up for the job and honouring God.

Like Esther, so often I think I can’t do this. Who am I to do this? And so Mordecai says no you are, you’ve been put in this place and this time for this task. So Esther and Jesus and then I’d probably want Paul. He’d be quite interesting. He travelled and had all those experiences. I don’t think I’d like Paul as a person much, but what I love about Paul is that he’s thought and wrestled with tough stuff. He’s not afraid to come out with the really hard stuff.

And finally Mark, when you’re not bishoping, do you have any hobbies? Well when I have time, I’m out riding blood bikes. Mark volunteers for a charity called Northumbria Blood Bikes, which delivers blood and urgent medical supplies, out of hours, between hospitals and healthcare sites and laboratories in North East England. It’s a pretty cool thing for a bishop (or anyone) to do.

There can’t be many bishops who can put this on their CV. No, I’m probably the only blood biking bishop. There are a couple of others who ride motorbikes, but I think I’m the only blood biker.

This seems like a suitable place to end. We can all sleep a little sounder, knowing that if ever we’re critically injured in hospital and it’s a bank holiday, somewhere in the north east, there’ll be a bishop on a motorbike, cassock and mitre flailing in the wind, making his way to our bedside. Or something like that.

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