Birmingham has got a brand new bishop. The Rt Rev Andrew Watson talked to Special Correspondent Jo Ind.
There was a time when The Rt Rev Andrew Watson did not really believe in bishops. He does now, which is probably a good thing as the 47-year-old has just become one of the youngest in the Church of England.
On Saturday the Bishop of Aston, as he is known, was welcomed to the city in a special service at Birmingham Cathedral to which more than 500 people came ranging from civic dignitaries to school children at St Mary’s Primary School, Moseley.
As Bishop of Aston, Bishop Andrew’s role is to work in a supportive role to the Bishop of Birmingham, The Rt Rev David Urquhart, doing the things that only a bishop can do like ordinations and confirmations as well as taking particular responsibility for encouraging more people to come to church.
His quip about not believing in bishops gives a clue to the kind of man, and hence leader, that Bishop Andrew is. He believes the key to a church’s growth is for the ideas and vision to come from the congregation rather than the vicar, which by extension means he is perhaps less impressed by bishops than some might be.
“I didn’t really believe in bishops until I worked in London,” says Bishop Andrew.
“But then I worked for a diocese that was very well lead and that enabled things to happen.
“Some of the initiatives that I was involved with just wouldn’t have happened at one time, so I was able to see what influence a Bishop can have. I think a bishop can help to raise the temperature of a diocese.”
Bishop Andrew, who was educated at Winchester College, is of the kind of social class that does not brag about achievements so he looks away awkwardly when asked directly if he has seen numbers grow in every church he has lead. The fact is that he has – in Redditch, in Notting Hill and in Twickenham.
Bishop David, who shares with Bishop Andrew an optimistic and missionary outlook, is very keen his new bishop should work in Birmingham at helping to get more people into the pews.
So what it the secret of Bishop Andrew’s success?
Bishop Andrew says it is to do with leadership from the “bottom up”, namely where the priest fosters the ideas that come from within the congregation rather than ruling from above.
For example, in his church in Twickenham a team of people were trained as counsellors to set up a service for women trying to decide whether to continue with a pregnancy. This developed into offering counselling for women who had had abortions. He has also had success in what he calls “church plantin.”. This is where from his large congregation of 750 at his church in Twickenham, around 50 people would volunteer to leave and set up a church somewhere else where there was a need. This happened in three different places and each time it happened, the new church flourished and other people joined the existing church taking the places of those who had left.
In Birmingham the number of people attending church has plateaued in the past decade but the hope is that with Bishop Andrew at the helm it will increase.
“That’s not just because I want more people to come to church, it’s because I think the Christian church is a vibrant and nurturing community,” says Bishop Andrew.
Bishop Andrew was brought up in a nominally Christian family. His father was in charge of music at Winchester College where he went to school but it was when he was a teenager that the Christian faith came alive for him.
So what attracted him to Christianity?
“First and foremost it was the person of Jesus himself,” says Bishop Andrew.
“He just was incredibly unexpected. You read the Gospels and you see what Jesus is like but so often he confounds your expectations by being extremely compassionate and yet very straight talking. He was more than just a man.”
From school, Bishop Andrew went to Cambridge to study law. The bishop thought he either wanted to be a lawyer or a musician but instead decided to put himself forward for ordination. He was accepted and studied theology at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.
It was while in Cambridge that Bishop Andrew met Beverley, who was to become his wife and who was ordained herself in June. They have four children, two girls and two boys, aged between 18 and ten, as well as a dog and six chickens.
The removal men would not touch the chickens, so Bishop Andrew had to put them in the car and strap a seatbelt round them when they moved from Twickenham to their new home in Sutton Coldfield.
“It’s really exciting to see how Birmingham has changed, particularly the city centre,” says Bishop Andrew.
“It manages its multiculturalism and huge diversity extremely well. I want to be part of encouraging partnerships between religions and also between churches in the suburbs with those in tougher places. Birmingham is a great city, much greater than it is sometimes perceived from the outside. I would want it to trumpet itself more.”