Interview with the future Bishop of Warrington

As the Venerable Richard Blackburn is announced as the new Bishop of Warrington we thought we would catch up with him and find out a little more about the man and his aspirations

Firstly, congratulations on your appointment – how are you feeling? How does it feel to become a Bishop?

I feel very excited, if somewhat daunted. I am ready for a new challenge and I look forward to serving the church in this new role.

I feel humbled and in need to be open to God as I embark on my new ministry. I shall be going on retreat in September to prepare myself in prayer and scripture, asking God to equip me for the task ahead.

What are your initial impressions of the Diocese of Liverpool?

Definitely a Diocese worth joining! I get the sense that Liverpool is a Diocese which is comfortable with itself. In Bishop James it has an inspirational and entrepreneurial Bishop who is prepared to take risks and has developed a sense of shared vision.

I get the impression that there is a good sense of direction with purpose, realism and creativity. Liverpool leads the way in integrating the mixed economy and there is some really excellent work going on to equip laity and clergy to minister effectively in the 21st century. It is excellent that there is such a strong tradition within the Diocese of active engagement with social issues that concern the wider community.

What are you most looking forward to when you start?

Working with outstanding colleagues. I already know the Archdeacons, having enjoyed Peter and Ricky’s company at Northern Archdeacons’ Conferences (which are not quite the “sad” events some might suppose!) So I look forward to laughter. I believe that humour, especially the self-deprecating sort, is a healthy sign of being human and helps to keep a sense of proportion.

I look forward to getting to know a whole range of new colleagues. Having my office in St. James’ House, located as it is on the Liverpool Cathedral Campus, is a real attraction because it means being an active part of a team. In my particular role I shall need to have my finger on the pulse of the Diocese; developing good working relationships is important to me.

I look forward to fostering friendships among you as we work together in making disciples and transforming communities. I shall endeavour to be a faithful servant, trusting in “the One who calls”.

What do you feel are some of the challenges you will face/the diocese faces at the moment?

My first priority will be to meet people across the Diocese and to listen to what they have to say. I expect to hear of the challenges and opportunities of living in a Diocese with its rich and diverse mix of parishes and communities. I know that the Diocese has a high proportion of socially and economically deprived parishes but I am excited by the commitment of our clergy and congregations in these areas. I know God’s spirit is alive and working to deliver healthy churches in healthy communities.

A Bishop is required at his Consecration to care for the poor and needy. Jesus was particularly concerned for those who were on the margins of society. I intend to do my best to support those living and ministering in designated priority areas. I know, myself, something of the challenge of being faithful in such places. It can be exciting and dynamic but there is also a blunting of energy that can come from the unending attrition that is part of the continual fight against deprivation. Just one statistic: only 62% of school leavers in Liverpool have basic qualifications which is lower than anywhere outside South Yorkshire.

We’d like to know a little bit about our new Bishop – where have you served before coming to Liverpool?

Before ordination I worked (and rowed) for the Nat West Bank in various city and West End branches in London. After 2 years at Westcott House, Cambridge I returned to serve my curacy at St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney known as the “Mother Church of the East End”. It was also called the “Church of the High Seas” because all Baptisms at sea are recorded in the parish registers and the “Red Duster” was flown from the church tower. I served under the legendary inner city priest, Fr Norry McCurry, whose wife Ruth was one of the authors of the seminal report “Faith in the City” which was produced when I was in Stepney.

It was a considerable contrast moving to become priest-in-charge of St John the Baptist in Isleworth, a 19th century suburb. By the time we arrived it lay directly underneath the flight path into Heathrow – always a spectacular sight watching the aeroplanes stack up in the early evening as they queued to come in to land. Part of the parish contained a large tower block estate and we used the community centre for Sunday worship. I remember sticking to the floor as the beer never got mopped up from the evening before. People used to complain it was not a fit and proper place for church – until I came up with a plan to move into the disused mortuary next door.

With a growing family, the pull of returning north grew irresistible. I became Vicar of Mosborough, an old Derbyshire farming and pit community that was taken into Sheffield. during the 70s. New “townships” were built to accommodate those who had been living on inner city tower block estates which were being demolished at the time. It was decided to build a new church which was shared jointly by Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and the URC. By the time I arrived the first flush of this ecumenical endeavour had passed and it was interesting planning a new way forward which was unencumbered by structures that seemed to demand endless meetings.

When I became Area Dean, the parish were proud but surprised by how much of my time this role took up. I greatly enjoyed working closely with clergy colleagues. After 7 years in Mosborough, the new Bishop of Sheffield, Bishop Jack Nicholls, invited me to become Archdeacon. I hope it doesn’t sound menacing to say how much I have enjoyed my work!

We see you grew up in Yorkshire and have served most of your ministry there – how well do you know the North West and are you looking forward to crossing the Pennines?

Despite my surname, I have very little personal experience about what lies on the west side of the hill, apart from the beauty of the Lake District where I enjoyed childhood holidays. I hope to discover some good walks in what I am told is countryside as good as a Yorkshireman could wish.

The Diocese has a rich mixture of places to visit. I am looking forward to exploring its many delights from Southport across to Wigan Pier. I imagine I could spend a good while on the towpaths of the Leeds/Liverpool Canal and I understand that Crosby Sands and the Gormley Statues are well worth a visit. And I am sure that as I go round I will be introduced to many more fascinating places in this wonderful part of the world.

I look forward to exploring the 2008 “Capital of Culture” which I am told has the biggest collection of museums in a European non-capital city – so lots of art to enjoy. Especially I look forward to attending concerts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Britain’s second oldest) which has a well deserved reputation. With top flight football (how it pains me to admit it!) and rugby league, as well as the Grand National there is plenty for my son to nag me to take him to see.

Apart from what appears to be a good quality of life, I get the impression that the economy of the Liverpool City region is picking up with big maritime and logistics businesses doing well. It is interesting to learn that the ports are handling more traffic than ever and the chemical factories along the Mersey continue to churn out the world’s leading products (as well as bellows of smoke). I get the feeling that this is Liverpool’s time so what better moment to be moving.

You are currently Vice Chairman of the Pensions Board – will you continue in this role? Do you think it is important to be involved in national roles such as this?

I have served on the Pensions Board for nearly 5 years so I have to decide whether to offer myself for re-election at the end of the year. It has been a challenging time with most pension schemes being ravaged by the falling stock market and increased regulation, making many (if not most) defined benefit schemes impossible to sustain. I wouldn’t want to duck a difficult challenge.

I am impressed by the way people are prepared to serve the church in many different capacities, so, yes, I do feel it is important to play my part. With a very London-centred operation in Church House Westminster, I believe it is particularly important for the Northern Province to be well represented. Sometimes our national bodies need to be advised about how life is actually lived north of the Watford Gap.

What about family life?

Always busy but enriched by our 4 children. Our youngest, Isobel (21) and Robert (22) graduated in the summer and are staying in Sheffield. Emma (24) works for the BBC in Leeds on their regional news programme “Look North”. Charlotte (26) lives in London and is with the Foreign Office.

It will be strange moving without them all. I wonder how we shall cope with all those computer glitches. However, it’s probably about time I grew up and learnt myself. It’s funny how early role reversal with our children starts to happen.

Your wife Helen is also ordained, does this mean Liverpool is getting two clergy for the price of one?

Yes, Helen is ordained having worked for many years as a music teacher. Over the last decade, she has enjoyed a varied ministry from a curacy at Sheffield Cathedral to Chaplaincy with Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. She is presently priest-in-charge of St. John’s Abbeydale in south west Sheffield.

Our ministries are separate but we are very supportive of each other. We look forward to finding out what it is that God is calling Helen to do once we have settled in.

How do you relax?

Walking has become a great relaxation since we discovered the Peak District. Just 20 minutes from Sheffield City Centre lies some of the most beautiful countryside. We try to get out 2 or 3 times a week even if it is just for an hour or so. I find it a great way of de-stressing and having time to talk with Helen without the usual distractions. In the last couple of years we have started cycling despite the challenging terrain: Sheffield is built on 7 hills (just like Rome!) I occasionally play squash and wish I could do some rowing but not being available on a Sunday means it is difficult to be a part of a crew.

Our more urban pursuits are theatre and concert going, as well as visiting art galleries and museums. I find we have to be quite disciplined in our planning, especially with both of us having so many evening commitments. It’s frightening how the chances can just slip by, even when living in a city where cultural opportunities are so abundant.

And finally, do you have any message for the clergy and laity in the Diocese of Liverpool?

It seems clear to me that the Diocese of Liverpool is finding ways to respond positively to God’s call in mission. Speaking as someone new to the diocese I want to encourage you all in your efforts and state how much I am looking forward to working with Bishop James to support you all in your mission and ministry. We have many challenges ahead of us but we clearly have the gifted ministries in place to face those challenges and work in the power of the holy Spirit to make Christ known to the people in our wonderful region. 

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The Bishop's Profile

About Richard Blackburn

Richard was born in Denmark and grew up in Yorkshire

Richard served his curacy at St Dunstan’s Stepney, followed by five and a half years as Priest in Charge of St John’s, Isleworth. He became Vicar of St Mark’s, Mosborough in the Diocese of Sheffield from 1992-1999.

He served as Area Dean of Attercliffe from 1996-1999 and was made an honorary Canon of Sheffield Cathedral in 1998. In 1999 he was appointed Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham. He served on General Synod for five years from 2000. 

He was a Residentiary Canon of Sheffield Cathedral until 2005 when he was elected Chair of the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber.

He is currently Vice Chairman of the Church of England Pensions Board. 

Watch the announcement