‘Easter is a great journey’ - the Bishop of Bedford reaches out to all communities

The Bishop of Bedford, the  Rt Rev Richard Atkinson with pupils at St John's Special School in Kempston.
The Bishop of Bedford, the Rt Rev Richard Atkinson with pupils at St John's Special School in Kempston.

Steer clear of religion and politics, that’s the advice. Particularly good advice when meeting your prospective in-laws for the first time.

However, if you’re the Bishop of Bedford those subjects are firmly in the job description, writes Jim Stewart.

The Bishop of Bedford painting at Bedford Prison.

The Bishop of Bedford painting at Bedford Prison.

Not party politics mind, that’s a no-go area. But for Rt Rev Richard Atkinson it is important to highlight the issues facing our communities.

The big one concentrating the mind at the moment is growing levels of poverty right here in Bedfordshire.

He said: “I don’t preach party politics. but at the heart of Christianity is to love thy neighbour.

“We must ask questions about how our neighbour is, and if they are hurting, you should do something about it.

“People are hurting, some have access to no food for days or weeks, it is right to do something about it.

“I’m not encouraging welfare dependancy, but some of the welfare changes are causing real issues. People have interruptions in their benefits, often without good reason. Talking to some people you hear about a failure of systems.”

He said food banks - which he said were dealing with a growing number of people in Bedfordshire - did great work in alleviating the symptoms of poverty but it was vital to speak out in an effort to address the causes.

Rt Rev Atkinson may have the title of Bishop of Bedford but his role takes in the whole of the county, as part of the St Albans Diocese.

It’s a little under two years since he arrived from his previous posting as Archdeacon of Leicester. He admits before that Bedfordshire was ‘a place he passed through on the M1’ but he has settled in a county he describs as having a great mix - a large town, a county town, and rural areas each with their own character and identity.

It’s a wide-ranging position. He’s an ambassador for the church, a leader in mission, he speaks out on Christian issues and wants to reach out to people both in the Christian faith, and other faiths.

Since arriving in multi-cultural Bedfordshire he has reached out to many other communities. Last year he hosted a supper for faith leaders from Luton, and plans a similar gathering for Bedford leaders this year.

His busy diary takes in services, confirmations and dedications, numerous school visits, and supporting and encourage the many clergy he oversees. He enjoys connecting with the wider community too - visits taking him to a chilli farm, around the Vauxhall plant in Luton and on a refuse tour.

Whilst Church of England congregation numbers have declined over the past half century, and there are fewer clergy as a result, the Bishop was pleased to report things were looking good for the future.

He said: “Clergy numbers are being kept at the same levels they are now and there are no plans to change that. The church congregations provide the money to keep that position.

“Our financial giving went up last year, even in these challenging times.”

Indeed the church is expanding into new areas such as Wixams and the Great Denham developments near Bedford, and new housing in Leighton Buzzard.

He said: “The church has woken up to the fact the world has changed. It needs to be a community that positively invites others to share the gift of faith. When I was vicar of Rotherham I told the congregation: in the future we have to go to the people, rather than people come to us.”

Rt Rev Atkinson is spending Holy Week preaching at All Saints Church in Leighton Buzzard before heading to Woburn on Saturday for an Easter vigil.

He said: “For me Lent, Holy Week and Easter is a great journey through the depths of our humanity, how we put Jesus to death on the cross, through to a great positivity as seen in Jesus’s resurrection.

“I’ve worked in some demanding places but I always wake up feeling there is an opportunity to make something new. There is always hope.”

This year the centenary of the start of the First World War will dominate the calendar. However there is another 100th anniversary closer to home - of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire joining together to form a diocese. It will be celebrated at a festival at Keysoe Equestrian Centre in August.