‘I didn’t know what to expect before I came to Portsmouth’

15/2/2012 (SM)''The Bishop of Portsmouth Christopher Foster.''Picture: Sarah Standing (120532-6585)
15/2/2012 (SM)''The Bishop of Portsmouth Christopher Foster.''Picture: Sarah Standing (120532-6585)

From broken bones to new beginnings

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Sitting in the office at his Bishopswood residence in Fareham, surrounded by books and looking out of the bay window on to a neatly-trimmed garden, the Bishop of Portsmouth reflects.

After a pause to find the right words, the Right Reverend Christopher Foster says: ‘Faith was always part of my background. I was brought up in a Christian family.

15/2/2012 (SM)''The Bishop of Portsmouth Christopher Foster outside the vicarage.''Picture: Sarah Standing (120532-6479)

15/2/2012 (SM)''The Bishop of Portsmouth Christopher Foster outside the vicarage.''Picture: Sarah Standing (120532-6479)

‘But even at the time when I was a regular church-goer, I would’ve laughed if you’d said I would one day be ordained. And similarly when I was ordained, I never thought I would be a bishop.’

Reaching such a high-ranking position in the Anglican church was not an ambition he ever held.

He reveals: ‘That was never the reason I got into it. I felt a calling from God, and that was why I wanted to be ordained.

‘For some people a calling can be described as a one-off, a moment of clarity, but for me it was very much an ongoing process that niggled away inside me. It was a feeling that just wouldn’t go away, and as the years went on it just seemed to make more and more sense.’

Today he is the bishop he never thought he would become. And 18 months after he took on the role in Portsmouth (following a spell as Bishop of Hertford), he has no regrets.

Bishop Christopher, 58, says: ‘I didn’t know what to expect from Portsmouth before I came here.

‘All those feelings I had when I started at Southgate (when he was a vicar for the first time with his own parish in London) came flooding back to me.

‘I was excited, but it was nerve-racking too.’

He adds: ‘At the time, I didn’t know anything about the city, except that it had a famous football club and a strong identity, and all of a sudden I was going to have to represent it.

‘There was an expectation that I would be an ambassador for the area, a spokesperson even, and that was very daunting.

‘But now I know so much more about it and I have quickly grown strongly attached to the area.’

Bishop Christopher says he learned a lot from being a vicar.

‘When I started in Southgate it was very exciting to have my own parish, but it was also very challenging because I was on my own all of a sudden and had lots of responsibilities that I didn’t have before.

‘I learned so much from that parish. Mostly, just how important being a priest is, and how important it is to serve and support the wider community, not just churchgoers.’

He says he has learned that there are three important aspects to being a bishop.

‘The first is being a vicar to the vicars by providing them with pastoral and professional support. The second is the public role that you take on as a bishop by attending significant events in the history of the parishes in your diocese.

‘And finally, the third aspect of being a bishop is engaging with the wider community, which is a hugely privileged aspect of the role.

‘It is demanding in the sense that you have to be the voice of the people, and that is exactly why you have to engage with the community and get to know them the best you possibly can.’

To mark his 18 months in the post, Bishop Christopher made a speech to the Diocesan Synod in Portsmouth at the weekend. The meeting, as reported in The News on Saturday, was held to decide policy and discuss issues.

Bishop Christopher also used it to set out his vision of how wants the diocese to move forward.

He says: ‘There is a stronger sense of identity in this diocese than people sometimes suggest. It holds an extraordinary variety of places and people, from city to rural countryside. There is an astonishing range of circumstance, employment, countryside and coast all within a very small geographical area.

‘But the common identity of people here is far stronger than the other four dioceses in which I have served.’

He adds: ‘More than once people have said that this diocese can punch beyond its weight. Although I am not wholly at ease with the boxing metaphor, I know what they mean. But our calling is not to outdo or beat anyone else.

‘We are to play our part in the work of all the people of God, the whole church, in proclaiming the kingdom and living its emerging reality.’

To do this, Bishop Christopher has urged worshippers to give more money and time to the church.

He also criticises competitive consumerism that can become selfish. But he praises the good work of Christians, asking them to go and speak about their beliefs to others.

Bishop Christopher says he’s proud to be Bishop of Portsmouth and looks forward to working with the whole community.

He says: ‘Every time I make a speech as a bishop, or am asked to act as a bishop, I am reminded of how I never imagined I could be here.

‘It’s a great feeling.’