THE new Bishop of Durham’s handshake is as firm as his faith and his beliefs.
He is clearly delighted to be back in the North East and thrilled to be taking up his new role – the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England.
He has very fond memories of the region and its people. As plain old Mr Justin Welby, the Bishop studied theology and trained for the priesthood at St John’s College, Durham.
“This is a fantastic part of the country. It is very beautiful and the people are incredibly warm. When we came up here for my training, neither my wife nor I had been anywhere in the North.
“We thought we were moving beyond civilisation, but what we found was that we were moving to civilisation.
“The welcome we had was so warm and so generous.
“I’d left a high-powered job in the oil industry to become a student. It was quite difficult, I was seen as a competent executive and then I was a student. But the place compensated for the struggle.”
Although the 55-year-old has moved to a home in Bishop Auckland, his wife and two of his five children – aged 15 to 26 – remain for the moment on Merseyside, where he was Dean of Liverpool Cathedral.
“It’s a difficult feeling not having them here full-time, but my wife really loves it up here. People here – and in Liverpool – are so much more friendly than down south.”
The Bishop was enthroned in an impressive ceremony in Durham Cathedral on Saturday and has two main priorities as he starts his new ministry.
“I’m sure these may change as I get settled into the role, but I currently have two priorities.
“The first concerns foundations. I believe unity between Christians is essential.”
He talked of collaborations with Methodists, Catholics, and all Christians, and said one of the first things in his diary is a meeting of North East church leaders .
“When Christians work together, God blesses that work,” he said.
His second priority is perhaps a lot less predictable: “The Church needs to be risk-taking. We need to take more risks.”
For an example, he referred to Wearside’s successful Street Pastor scheme, which works out of Sunderland Minster.
“This is work through the grace of God. It’s the right thing to do. There is no ulterior motive, and the work reflects the true nature of God. The pastors provide an important service to young people out late on the streets. The pastor’s work is sacrificial, it’s a real service to others.
“It’s edgy stuff, but it’s brilliant and we need to be doing more of it. Real God stuff. If we’re too comfortable, we’re probably not doing what we should be,” he concluded.
He admitted he didn’t know enough about the region to say what role the Church currently played in the North East, but was clear as to the mission he saw for the Church in the future: “The Church should be a servant to the community, but with a clear message to the community.
“We’re here to serve, but we come with immense treasure – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Having just become a bishop, he’s eager to see women follow in his footsteps.
“I’m in favour of women bishops without a doubt, but there is a need to provide support for those who aren’t.
“There is a great need to support those who don’t believe it’s a good idea. There are some wonderful priests who are very against it.”
He fears it is an issue that could cause a schism in the Church of England.
“A number will leave because of the issue. It shouldn’t cause a split, but because we’re human, it might.”