Interview with Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff

He's worked in some of the toughest areas in the UK, so taking on a Diocese as diverse as Rochester couldn't have fallen to a more suitable candidate. Bishop James reflects on his first year in office

He’s worked in some of the toughest areas in the UK, so taking on a Diocese as diverse as Rochester couldn’t have fallen to a more suitable candidate. Bishop James reflects on his first year in office

The 107th Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff celebrates his first year in the role this month and his second Kent Christmas after succeeding Michael Nazir-Ali last December.

He came to Rochester from the role of Suffragan Bishop of Norfolk, but for the previous 18 years had been a parish priest in Birmingham and before that was curate at St Peter’s in Farnborough.

His training for ordained ministry took place at St John’s College in Nottingham and he took a first degree in Philosophy, Politics and economics at Oxford.

Speaking at his official residence, the elegant Bishopscourt, just up the hill from ancient Rochester Cathedral,  Bishop James, a youthful and very smiley 55, tells me he is particularly interested in urban regeneration initiatives and social and affordable housing.

And this in no token interest, either – he is Chair of Housing Justice, the national voice of the churches on housing and homelessness. And following the coldest December on record in England for the last 100 years, he has launched a ‘Coats for Christmas’ campaign, to provide coats and other winter clothing for children and young people in the Diocese of Rochester who might otherwise have to go without.

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His background and interests are already standing him in good stead in a Diocese that encompasses areas in Kent with pockets of great wealth and also areas of social deprivation – and everything in between.

And having spent 11 years of his life as a parish priest in some of the toughest areas of Birmingham, Bishop James has real experience and understanding of what pressures both people and priests face in challenging communities.

He also has international experience to draw upon from his time as Bishop of Lynn, when a real source of joy for him was the link with the Province of Papua New Guinea and of which time he says: “It has been a huge privilege to develop friendships with Christians in a very different culture, from whom I have learnt so much.”

Married to Bridget, who is regional development manager with the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, working especially in prisons, the couple are apart for much of the week as Bridget – who was a lay member of the General Synod for the Diocese of Birmingham for 14 years – is based in eastern England at present to continue her work there.

They have two grown-up children, Alasdair, a married chef living in Birmingham and Helen, who is studying Forensic Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

Bishop James, a keen choral singer who enjoys going to the theatre, walking, reading travelling and entertaining, is looking forward to really getting to know his new county and is already fascinated by its varied landscapes and rich heritage.

I ask if Rochester is starting to feel like home yet. “Although I live in this house, it’s not like being a vicar of a parish, as I am on the go all the time. The whole role is to be slightly wandering in a way, that’s the nature of it. So ‘feeling at home’ is an interesting concept,” he says.

“But I have visited every part of the Diocese now – between January and July I visited every Deanery and I have met almost all my clergy one to one.”

He adds: “The Diocese as a whole is unlike most other Dioceses in that it’s not a shire county or a big city, it’s not a Birmingham or a Manchester and it’s not a Gloucester or a Norwich either, it’s got two London boroughs – Bexley and Bromley that were once Kent and in some respects still think of themselves as Kent.

“Then we have the Medway Towns, plus Gravesend and Dartford – the Thameside bit – and then south-west Kent with Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding places. So it’s very mixed.

“We have pockets of deprivation and social need which are probably as severe as anything in our big urban centres, but they are smaller, and more isolated in a way. A recent report said Medway and Thanet are among the worst places to live from the point of view of male life expectancy, by a difference of nine years, so there are real pockets of need, and certainly in our outer London areas, places like Slade Green and Erith, there are some real challenges.”

Clearly used to being very ‘hands on’, how different is his role now? “It’s more about putting the right people in the right places with the right projects.

“Inevitably my role is ‘dotting about’, which is great in a way, however, there are some particular areas of engagement in which I have a track record  such as the criminal justice system, housing and homelessness, so those are areas where I shall continue to show an interest.”

Bishop James “hugely appreciates” the work of chaplains and their chaplaincy teams in prisons and made early visits to Rochester Youth Offender Institute and HM Prison Cookham Wood. For the last two years in his former role he made a point of going to visit one of the prisons in Norfolk on Christmas Day.

So what will Christmas in Rochester bring this year? “Christmas is strange as a Bishop, because when you’re in a parish you’re very much rooted in your community and there’s a whole kind of flow and build up of the whole community, whereas for me in my role now, it’s less like that,” he says.

“So although, for example, I will do one of the Christmas services at the cathedral, I also want to go to a parish where they haven’t got a vicar at the moment. Last Christmas I took the midnight service at Swanscombe because they were vicar-less at the time and it was really nice to be able to do that.

“So over the Christmas period there will be the big occasions at the cathedral, but equally if I can get into a parish and be their ‘stand-in bishop’, that’s just as important.”

I ask Bishop James if having been a vicar enriches his current role, and does he miss it? “I do miss it,” he admits.

“I don’t want to say you have to do it, because there are plenty of bishops who haven’t had that sort of background (including my predecessor), but for me it’s what my core calling has been, as a parish priest.

“Hopefully the clergy therefore recognise that I know what they are about.

“And there’s a bit of me that will miss it every day, because there’s something quite special about that rootedness in a community and all the networks that you build up over a period of time – and not just those who are in your congregation, but more widely and through the various institutions within that community, such as the schools.

“It’s a real privilege to be in that position and there’s a bit of that still here beside me. I visit parishes and there’s more than one occasion when I’ve come away thinking ‘gosh, I’d love to be vicar of that parish!’

“Our parish ministry and our chaplaincies are the core of the Church of England’s ministry.”

So if you worship in the Diocese of Rochester, don’t be surprised if you find a ‘wandering bishop’ in your midst this Christmas...

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