“There’s a real spirit of generosity out there. “
Bishop Mark on Churches and North East Foodbanks
I’m trying to understand what being generous actually means, and to identify the “marks of a generous church”? Are there certain things that generous people and generous churches hold dear? What’s the approach? So I’m interviewing people called Mark about generosity and church.
My first Mark of Generosity is called Mark Bryant. He’s the Bishop of Jarrow. I think he’s been looking forward to this interview since I first suggested it a mere 10 weeks ago. Yes, that’s how long it takes to secure a meeting with the Bishop of Jarrow. He’s a very busy man. But what does a busy bishop do and think and how did he get there in the first place? Before delving into generosity, I want to get to know Mark the person, priest and bishop.
Bishop, how did you end up as a priest? I grew up in a vicarage, my Dad was a vicar and he was doing pioneer ministry and church planting in the very early 1960s on a post-war housing estate. My Dad clearly enjoyed being a vicar. It gave him fulfilment. He clearly made a difference to people’s lives and I grew up thinking “Hey, I think I’d quite like to do that.” I’ve been ordained for 41 years and I can honestly say I’ve never regretted it.
And have you always wanted to wear purple and funny hats? No. No absolutely not. When I signed up what I really wanted to do was to be a parish priest, working in the community and the whole bishop thing, in a way, comes as a bit of a surprise. Suddenly you discover you’re going to be one.
Was it quite daunting? I remember that +Tom Wright phoned me up and he said, “I want you to come and work with me and be Bishop of Jarrow.” I clearly remember that my final words were “I think I need to go away and get my head around this!”
It’s very strange because when you’re training to be a vicar, you train for 3 years. You go through a big selection process with the diocese. But when you become a bishop, somebody rings you up, and in 3 or 4 months you’re a bishop. So it’s quite strange.
Bishop, I’ve never seen you outside of a work context. What do you wear at home? Are you a onesie and slippers man or do you always wear your collar, just in case? I absolutely do not always wear my dog collar. It depends what I’m doing. If I’m doing nothing I just wear a hoodie and jeans.
I can’t imagine that bishop! I’m often in my hoodie. I was recently given a new one from the Children’s Council. I have a very old threadbare hoodie that I’ve had forever and it’s much loved and makes me feel very warm and secure. I always wear it when I’m on retreat.
What’s the best thing about being a bishop? Every day is different and you get to meet the most extraordinary people. Both people who have big responsibilities, and also people for whom life is just rather complicated. You never know who you’re going to meet each day. I could be talking on the same day to the Lord Lieutenant- the Queen’s representative in the area- then talking to somebody who’s in recovery from drink and drugs.
You’re about to be marooned on a desert island and you can pack 3 books, what are they? (The Bible is a given) Would I need anything else? I might take the diaries of an American monk called Thomas Merton who’s been quite a big influence on me. It would be good to get to know more about him.
You can take three characters from the Bible. Who would you take with you and why? Does that include Jesus? Yes. Yes, ok it’d be quite good to take Jesus! I’d like to take Mary. The more I think about Mary the more intrigued I am. What she goes through, first of all a) you’re going to have a baby and it isn’t through the man you’re going to marry. Then b) like all mums, having to let go of him, and let him do his stuff, which she might not always be quite sure is very wise. Then c) just that complete desolating moment at the end when she meets him on the journey to Calvary… No mother ought to have to go through that. And yet we know many, many mothers in all sorts of different countries and contexts go through something very similar.
There’s a pause and the weight of what Bishop Mark has just said seems to hang in the room. Being a priest, I suppose he has had to comfort many parents who have lost their children. After a time his face lights up. He’s thought of a third.
Zacchaeus. Because I really want to know what the conversation was when Jesus went to have tea with him. It was clearly an extraordinary conversation for it to change Zacchaeus’ life, but the Bible doesn’t tell us what happened. I want to ask “What did you say to him? What happened?”
Generosity then Bishop. When you were growing up, what was your family’s approach to charitable giving? I know they took it seriously but they didn’t talk about it. My father was one of the first people to talk from the pulpit about Christian stewardship as we understand it today. Meaning, what you put on the plate needs to be generous and realistic. Not just sort of a nominal coin. He was ahead of his time. He took charitable giving very seriously and I suspect most of what they gave went to the church.
Where do you see generosity in our churches? We’ve had foodbanks right across the North East now for about 4 or 5 years and I understand last Christmas in Gateshead, we had the most generous collections ever, and I think this is extraordinary. Because people will tell you they get compassion fatigue, but there is no evidence of this here. This is just extraordinary generosity right across the community. In fact Gateshead had to call in extra volunteers just to sort out all the stuff that came into the warehouse over Christmas. There’s a real spirit of generosity out there.
Have any other stories really touched you? One woman I knew was a lone parent with 3 kids and was on benefits. She talked to me about becoming a Christian and about giving. The way she did it might not have been entirely conventional, but she went to the post office, as you did in those days to get your benefits, and she took a tenth of her benefits income, and she put it to the back of her purse and she said to God “If that’s still there on Sunday, you get it.” And every Sunday it was still there and God got it. And I thought, you know, here’s a woman for whom life’s really, really complicated and with really limited money and she believes her faith requires her to do that. And God honoured and blessed that.
Why do you think clergy dislike preaching about giving generously? I think in our culture we’re embarrassed of talking about money. I think we know we may be making some people in the congregation feel uncomfortable. And most vicars don’t like making people feel uncomfortable because, like most humans, we want to be loved. We know people may not always receive it very positively. Whatever you say can be interpreted very differently.
I think what we have to do when we talk about money is to give people a vision, and to say “we want you to support this”.
In my last job in Coventry there were two Archdeaconries; one which was inner city and tough, and the other that was more affluent. The richer one was heavily subsidising the one in the north. From time to time I’d go and tell stories of the challenging things happening in some of the other communities. Once people heard these stories they understood the need better and they gave more.
In our diocese, we have to talk about the way in which we enable there to be clergy in all communities. We are the only profession who are living and working 24 hours a day in the most challenging areas in our country. And I think that’s something we should be really, really proud of, and should want to support. We need to give a vision and tell stories and share what’s really exciting and ask “Don’t you want to be part of this?”
Do you have an example of how they work in communities? Some months back I was in a place and I had a man in tears after a confirmation telling me how the confirmation classes had completely changed and transformed his life. And that happened because we had a really good parish priest in that community, which couldn’t begin to imagine paying for a vicar’s stipend. People for whom life is really difficult are being supported and that can only happen when other people are generous with what they give. This was in East Durham.
What do you find easiest to give? Your time, your skills or your money? I find that question really difficult. Looking back there are times in my life when I’ve found it difficult to give up my money. I’ve always been committed to giving generously but I know that my money, if I’m not careful, provides me with a security, and I feel I need to hold on to that security. Talents are easy to give generously of because you enjoy what you’re doing. Time is pressured, I’d love to be able to give more of it. I think I’m getting better at it.
A generosity of time if you’re a priest may be about giving somebody a lot of your time because they need it. Being present, being with them, not worrying about all the other pressures. Recently in the papers they said in our country half a million people over the age of 60 spend each day alone with absolutely no contact with anyone. And they say half a million more don’t see or speak to anyone for five days in a row each week. There’s clearly a real call to be generous with our time for those who need it most. For clergy that may be about giving time to people who need it.
What would you do if you won the lottery? I really hope I don’t because it would be a complete and utter nightmare. I can think of one or two charities I’d be very pleased to write cheques out to. I’m really interested in the area of youth homelessness. I’m quite involved with Depaul UK youth homeless charity. (Bishop Mark is wearing the charity’s pin on his jacket) They do incredible work. They have incredible staff. If I won the lottery they could expect a decent cheque from me. I know and trust them and I know they’d make the best use of it.
What’s your favourite Bible passage relating to generosity? Probably the story of the prodigal son. I think it’s really the story of the generous father. I think that it is just lovely. The dad has been so hurt and so messed around and it’s not just that he welcomes the lad back but he is outrageous in his generosity. Giving him the clothes, the jewels, the party. The significant thing about it is that it symbolises a real welcome. An extraordinary story of generosity.
OK finally let’s do a Quick Fire round. Just go with your gut instinct.
- Hands in the air or Book of Common Prayer? Book of Common Prayer
- Who suits a mitre best, you or +Paul? Bishop Paul
- Beer or wine? Wine
- Flowers or chocolate? Flowers
- Spring or Autumn? Autumn
- Radio 4 or Radio 2? Radio 4
- Strictly Come Dancing or Bake Off? Bake Off
- 4 days in Ikea or 4 hours with Donald Trump? 4 Days in Ikea
- Batman or Spiderman? Batman
- Twitter or Facebook? Twitter
- Camping or glamping? Camping
- The Magpies or the Black Cats? Pass
It’s time for me to leave and head back to Durham. Bishop Mark’s perspective has given me much food for thought and I’m grateful for his openness and candid answers (apart from the football question). He’s clearly a person who gives generosity a lot of thought. As I’m gathering my bits and bobs and he’s helping me on with my coat, I have one final question:
Bishop, how do we become more generous human beings? For me this is not simply about how much money I put on the plate or how much time I give. It’s about seeing the world with the eyes of God. Because God, like the father in The Prodigal Son, always looks at the world with generous eye. For me it’s a spiritual challenge. How do I become more of the sort of human being God wants me to be? That’s my Christian perspective. When Jesus talks about us being born again, being a new creature, a new creation it’s how I become the sort of person for whom generosity is part of my DNA.
And what better way to end the interview?
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