Mark Sowerby, the new Bishop of Horsham

The new Bishop of Horsham hails from Heartbeat country and enjoys a good detective drama. But before he starts saving Sussex souls, he has some work to do on a 'wicked'black Labrador a little closer to home, he tells Jenny Mark-Bell in his first i...

The new Bishop of Horsham hails from Heartbeat country and enjoys a good detective drama. But before he starts saving Sussex souls, he has some work to do on a 'wicked' black Labrador a little closer to home, he tells Jenny Mark-Bell in his first interview since taking office.

If you are familiar with the work of Anthony Trollope, and the manipulative machinations of his characters in Barchester Towers, you may imagine that the selection of a new bishop would be a painful process, full of pomp and politicking.

But for Bishop Mark Sowerby, the new Bishop of Horsham, the news came completely out of the blue: "I was sitting writing sermons for Easter when the phone rang and it was the Bishop of Chichester, John Hind.

"He broached the subject and asked if he could meet me to discuss the possibility," says Bishop Mark - remarkably matter-of-fact, given that the Bishop's invitation would change the Sowerbys' family life forever. Bishop Mark and wife Ruth have three teenage daughters: the eldest, Bethan, is very nearly 19 and will go to Manchester University to read French and Spanish in September; the next, Pippa, is nearly 17 and will be staying in Harrogate with friends to finish her A-levels. The youngest, Anna, is coming with her parents to live in Horsham and will attend Tanbridge House School.

It is the clergyman's lot to move frequently, but the younger Sowerby girls are fortunate in that they don't remember it very much. They have reacted in different ways to the news of their father's promotion - Anna is very excited about the move, while Pippa is anxious about being left behind, "as you might imagine," says the Bishop, rather sadly.

The family's black Labradors, Connor and Tyler, are reserving judgment for now. Connor is an ex-show dog, while 'wicked' Tyler is a sacked guide dog - he went through all his training only to be told he was too dangerous, and expelled. "His soul is as black as his coat," says Bishop Mark drily.

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So what does a bishop do to relax? "I enjoy cooking, and sea fishing ... a lot has been made in the press of my enjoyment of opera - which is partly true, but I am by no means an expert! At the end of the day I like sitting in front of the telly with my wife and watching soap operas and detective dramas - I'm boringly normal that way."

This 'boringly normal' couple met, as so many do, at university.

Rather less commonplace, though, is the fact that they disliked each other on sight: "It took a long time from meeting at university to getting married," says the Bishop, swallowing a laugh. The lady in question, Ruth, hopes to continue her career in education in Sussex - she is a religious studies teacher who has also held some pastoral roles and done some special needs teaching. Until this year the family has always enjoyed holidaying together in France and Italy (and Spain, last year, as language practice for Bethan), although "we're at that stage where the children do their own thing quite a lot, so we don't do an awful lot all together," adds Bishop Mark.

The onwards and upwards move to Sussex will challenge the new Bishop to work on a much broader canvas, he says, meeting and working with far more clergy than as a parish priest.

He looks forward to learning to understand the important issues not just for a parish community but for society in a broader sense, and to working across the spectrums of different opinions within the church: "There is such variety of opinion within the church and it's important to respect that variety."

A county with such a large gay population as Sussex is already well aware of the importance of respecting difference; what are the Bishop's thoughts on the blessing of same-sex partnerships?

"The Christian Church understands marriage to be between a man and a woman. I do not wish to denigrate the close friendship between same-sex couples, but I do not wish to solemnise the union in church - I believe that the Christian Church recognises marriage between a man and a woman, and

only then."

It's important for the Church not to be too hidebound, however. "The Church changes with every generation because it's a different group of people. The fundamental things will never change, though, and that's good," says Bishop Mark, apologising for what he calls a stereotypically Church of England answer.

One of the greatest challenges the Church has faced this century is dwindling attendance and a more secular society, and it is part of Bishop Mark's new role to address that: "My job is to support and encourage the clergy and laity in whatever methods they are using to encourage people to participate in the life of the church.

Trust and hope

"I don't think that there is a single panacea - my job is to encourage and support parish clergy on the ground and in differing communities."

And what of the current vogue for selective spirituality - can my God be different from yours? "I believe in one God, but our perceptions of God can be different. When I'm asked about my idea of God, I quote Archbishop Michael Ramsay, who said God is Christlike, and in Him there is no un-Christlikeness at all.

"Faith is about trust, hope, and an appropriate measure of uncertainty - it's not about knowing what's going to happen all the time."

On a more down-to-earth level, what did he feel about the General Synod banning BNP members from the clergy? "I voted for it because I felt I had to but I doubt that it was necessary," he says. "I find it highly unlikely that a member of the clergy BNP."

Bishop Mark, who has two adopted Anglo-Pakistani brothers, is concerned, too, about the poor representation of ethnic minorities among the clergy and has been involved in efforts to encourage more ministry in ethnic communities.

This is a time of transition for the new Bishop and he could be forgiven for feeling a bit swept off his feet. After all, the parish he has left in Harrogate is home with a capital H - he was brought up in North Yorkshire.

"There are things I will miss - the ordinary, everyday business of being a parish priest: preparing people for weddings and marrying people; baptisms; preparing people for confirmation; visiting; even taking funerals. Of course I will also miss being in my native territory. I don't know Sussex well yet, though, and I'm really looking forward to exploring it."

Bishop's road to Horsham

1982 - 1985 Reads theology at King's College London

1985 - 1987 Trains at College of

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