Right Rev Richard Chartres has been the Bishop of London since 1995 and became the 132nd person to hold the position. He studied history at Trinity College Cambridge before going on to hold various positions of Chaplaincy. He is an author and is married with four children.
At the late Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in April, he gave a memorable sermon to a hall of her political allies and foes, in which he was praised for his words of calm, compassion and conviction.Chartres is an eloquent man, an intellectually formidable cleric who, when he speaks, demands your attention in a way that is rare. In his house just around the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral, I, along with an intimate group of fellow journalists, talk to him about the future of the Church, same-sex marriage, depression among young people and, err, the splendid newspaper that is the Daily Mail.
On the Daily Mail (this was not a question he decided to talk about this himself)…
The Daily Mail wanted to ramp up fear about what had happened in Woolwich and what is happening in faith relations. One of the things that [Karl] Marx wasn’t wrong about was when he said the nemesis of this civilisation is when everything is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold. And one of the worst things to be sold is news and information.
So what they [the Daily Mail] do is they have a mosque full of worshippers, two churches, very carefully selected, in the heart of the east end in which the population is largely Bangladeshi. They could have gone to any number of Churches that were full but they had a script they wanted to illustrate.
How do you sell anything? You hype, you dramatise, you have a punch up, violence, you privilege extreme voices, juxtapose two completely different things.
How does the Church of England plan to change or revitalise itself?
It is easy to become very complacent, very inward looking. You are most obstinate in defence of those customs which were invented the day before yesterday. Refreshment and revitalisation comes from going back to the sources and re-engaging with scripture and re-engaging with compassion. The Church of England has in its DNA a sense of care for the whole community. If you indefatigably love your neighbour, it is spiritually transforming.
Our approach is very much back to the sources and a deep openness to the movements of the Holy Spirit. One of the difficult things with all religions is how you fit what we really are in our inner lives into the categories of modern life. Prayer, for example, is not thinking. It is radical openness to the spirit of God, it is being radically present to God and [as a result] remarkable things happen.
How can the Church tackle the forces of secularism and religious diversification?
We haven’t recently looked at the amount of people attending our Churches. But in our diocese, which is not the whole of london, the diocese of London is only an area north of Thames, but 80,000 people are worshipping in our Churches every week and that is a slice of the 640,000 Christians who are worshipping in more than 4,000 Churches in Greater London generally.
We have experienced over the past 20 years a rebirth. 20 years ago the amount of people attending our Churches was half. This is not the picture presented by the media.
Some people are even talking about the persecution of Christians. That’s absolute nonsense.
Is social media a way for the Church to enter the 21st Century?
Yes, social media can be used for good, some clergy even use it. I will not be joining twitter. But I’m not too censorious. I think there is a considerable challenge spiritually from the digital age. I do think there are dangers if you are getting addicted to seeing your desires thrown up on the screen and you close the door to your parents and you get a feedback from your own fantasies, cravings and desires. That is not the way to flower spiritually. Flowering spiritually is encountering the other… and interdependence with others.
What can the Church do to counter the growing rates of depression among young people?
How we help, partly, is through [young people gaining] membership of a community which has a sense of mission and meaning, something that can help you take you out of yourself. I have known depression in my own life. I know you can feel extraordinarily isolated but you are totally preoccupied with yourself and one of the vital things is to emerge from that. The extent to which you can go beyond yourself, you can find yourself beyond yourself. You don’t find yourself through endless introspection and beating yourself up. Being a member of a community, finding a mission and a meaning [is what helps].
How do you rally people to a vision of a better future when they suspect that, actually, the better future is behind them? The problem is: nobody is profoundly listening to young people.
What do you make of the current situation regarding gay marriage?
We [the Church] are looking at it from the health of the whole of society. Marriage between a man and a woman is the optimal, but not infallible, way of bringing up a family. That is what this institution is about from its heart.
Is the central conviction of this civilisation that we should see the progressive removal of any constraints in any individual consumer choice in goods or morals? That is one vision in the way we should go. Or is it a much more communal vision?
Research shows that it is the faithfulness of two people living together that provides the kind of context in which you can give people a very good start to life. Marriage is not a Christian institution, it vastly antidates the Christian faith. It is part of the way that humans have organised themselves for thousands of years.
Is our country lacking a sense of spirituality?
This is why the 21st century has seen the re-emergence of faith worldwide as a major phenomenon. The editor of the Economist even wrote a book recently called God is Back. It’s because the secular religions have not delivered. The religions of the 20th century were secular messianic states: Communism, fascism, these were ersatz religions, political religions. They were born in an era when the Christian Churches were very decrepit.
There is no spiritual progress unless you commit yourself to a way. If you’re just picking from a bit of boom boosh here and there you get nowhere and unless you commit yourself to a discipline of a spiritual way, you get nowhere.