Britain must reset its compass, from housing to wages, says archbishop of York

By Harriet Sherwood

Britain needs to reset its compass in a political climate in which “we’ve learned to accommodate things that we know are wrong”, the archbishop of York has said.

Stephen Cottrell, who was enthroned in October, told the Observer: “Our compass has slipped; we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that things can’t change, that this is just the way the world is. Politics has, I think, shrunk. There’s a loss of vision about what the world could be like.”

As the number two in the Church of England, he said that he wanted the church to have a louder political voice. “I simply don’t accept a separation between the church and politics, faith and politics or, for that matter, anything and politics. It’s about how we inhabit the world – and everybody and every organisation and every community has a voice and a stake.”

The archbishop said he couldn’t be part of a church which didn’t have a political voice because “it’s so much at the heart of what I believe to be the calling of the church. Loving your neighbour is a profoundly political statement.”

Cottrell, 62, was speaking to mark the publication this week of his new book, Dear England: Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World. It was written partly in response to a question from a barista at Paddington station about why he became a priest, and partly as a letter to a divided and uncertain country that no longer sees the relevance of Christianity.

The book was “not written for Christians but for people who care about the world we live in”. However, he acknowledged that “some of the more conservative Christians will be critical of some of the things in it”.

He said: “We constantly need to reset our compass, which isn’t quite the same thing as losing it.” For example: “Is there anybody who doesn’t think that it’s a scandal that there are so many homeless people on our streets? But we’ve learned to live with it. We’ve learned to accommodate things that we know are wrong, which it would be possible to do something about.

“In cheering the NHS, we were actually cheering a set of ideas that mattered to us… If we think it’s right that everyone should have health as a matter of right, regardless of ability to pay, shouldn’t it be the same for housing and possibly for a basic wage?”

The C of E last week published a major report on Britain’s housing crisis; other commissions on social issues would follow, Cottrell said. “The church is working with other interested parties to begin to develop a narrative of hope – to say we could inhabit the world in a better way.”

Cottrell grew up in a family that did not attend church, “in a world that vaguely thought science had disproved all that, that the human race had come of age, we’ve left all that behind. And then I found myself taking a direction I didn’t expect.”

Becoming part of the establishment – archbishop, member of the House of Lords, privy councillor – had not been “terribly easy, because we’re all shaped by our upbringing”. Cottrell attended a secondary modern school in Essex, and took his degree at a polytechnic, before training for the priesthood.

“It would be unfair to say all the leadership of the church are public school and Oxbridge educated. Nevertheless, there is a disproportionate number of people from those backgrounds in positions of influence and power, and that would also be true of the church.

“So, to begin with, as a bishop, I did suffer from what is commonly known as imposter syndrome. But it keeps you humble, keeps you on your toes – so it’s quite healthy to remember where I’m from and what my roots are.

“But there is something far more ugly than imposter syndrome, and I’ve given it a name: entitlement syndrome. You find it in all sorts of places. It’s something I hope I never suffer from.”

Within the C of E, there was also a culture of deference. “The overuse of titles can create distance and unapproachability, and dehumanise the person in the role.” He prefers to be known as Stephen by his colleagues, rather than by the customary honorific “Your Grace”, he said. “I want to inhabit the role [of archbishop] a bit differently.”

Cottrell is leading a review of “vision and strategy” for the C of E for the 2020s, which he said had been complicated by the “financial hit of Covid”. He would like to see a simpler church, with less duplication, and “every penny that possibly can going to frontline ministry”.

Along with “simpler”, his other key words are “humbler” and “bolder”. “We have in the past appeared a bit aloof, a bit pompous. To be a church which recognises we’ve made mistakes would be a good thing.”

He said: “It’s so obvious, but the vision is of a church that is much more centred on following Jesus Christ, loving your neighbour and breathing fresh life into that tradition… Perhaps in the past we’ve been a bit reticent about actually sharing what we’re really about.”

Stephen Cottrell will be in conversation with Adrian Chiles on Wednesday 3 March at 7pm. To access this free online event: