SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: After 10 years, Jonathan Clark is hanging up his mitre as Bishop of Croydon and swapping the Cronx for the Falklands.
EXCLUSIVE interview by DAVID MORGAN
“I can say with certainty,” says Jonathan Clark in the thoughtful manner of his that has become familiar to those connected with the Anglican church in Croydon, “that in my 10 years here, there has never been a dull moment.”
“I have really enjoyed my time here. It is such a diverse and vibrant borough and I am much encouraged by the strength and dynamism of the people.
“We have one of the youngest age profiles of the London boroughs and despite the political and economic difficulties, there is much for which we should be encouraged.”
The theme of change is never far from Clark’s narrative during the course of this interview.
One of the lines in the Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me” begins, “Change and decay in all around I see.” A pessimist might see Croydon in those terms, but Bishop Clark certainly does not. He is firmly about seeing new beginnings and green shoots of growth.
“There has been a big turnover in Anglican clergy in Croydon over the last 10 years,” he says, “about 90per cent of them or so. Each one of these people brings new skills and talents to their churches.
“Changes in worship seen during the pandemic will continue, I think. The digital presence will be maintained and explored to see how this meets spiritual needs. Online services are not just for folk who are shut-in or who still need to shelter. A whole range of people who, for whatever reason, didn’t go into a church before the pandemic now engage regularly.”
Having been the chair of the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education in the early years of his post, Bishop Clark is keenly aware of the vital task to educate and nurture the next generation. His optimism in this area comes from seeing a huge change in the attitude of young people about the issues around climate and climate change.
“It is wonderful to see how schools have encompassed the Green agenda and I hope that through this, we will see a seismic change in the attitude to global warming coming from the younger generation.”
He is also aware of the difficulties facing some schools at the moment in relation to how they are financed as their attendance rolls continue to fall. In the past three years, two church secondaries in Croydon have closed permanently.
“This is an issue for schools all over the diocese and not just in Croydon,” he says.
The area that the bishop oversees is much bigger than just Croydon. It includes the whole of the borough of Sutton, as well as extending down into east Surrey to include Horley and Limpsfield.
His views on Croydon, itself, are clear.
“In my travels round the borough I hear people identify with their own community rather than Croydon as a whole. People say they are from Addington, or Addiscombe, or Purley, or Thornton Heath, smaller and closer-knit communities.”
The bishop has his offices on George Street, not far from East Croydon Station, and like many, he has been frustrated by the delays in the renewal and regeneration of the town centre.
“It is sad that the redevelopment projects are stalled,” he says.
“Whatever happens, we can’t just build back just to make the centre a replica of what we once had, like it was in its heyday. Shopping habits are not what they were.”
Bishop Clark talked of the boldness of Croydon Council back in the 1960s and ’70s, creating an innovative concrete landscape. It wasn’t necessarily to everyone’s cup of tea but it was certainly a bold statement about the future of Croydon. Together with all the current residents of the borough, Bishop Clark is keen to see just how the future of the town centre will be managed and developed. Something creative and innovative is needed, he says.
Another area of Croydon life where Bishop Clark has been closely involved is working with refugees. His optimism in this area, though, is tempered “by the government’s unashamedly hostile stance towards refugees”.
Croydon has many unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, all of whom have shown great courage and determination in their own lives. They all have their own story to tell. Playing games of table tennis with these young people provided just the opportunity for the bishop to hear them. “If the stories don’t fit with the main agenda, though, then sadly they don’t get heard.
“These young people can be such a collective gift to our community, they want to become productive members of society.”
The bishop praises two of the projects helping young people: the Legacy Youth Zone in Selhurst and Croydon Voluntary Action, based on London Road. He recognises that investment in the young is key to a successful future. Despite funding pressures and cuts he hopes that there are green shoots for the future here.
Early on in his time in Croydon, he was invited by the council to chair something called the Fairness Commission. The work there gave him the opportunity to see how a local authority could work best with everyone pulling together in the same direction. As diplomatic as ever, he says now that he rues that the Commission was not able to give more of a jolt to those responsible for decision-making.
Croydon is a borough where there are many people of faith. Christians, Muslims and Hindus are the main three religious groups and the bishop says he is pleased with the relationships and dialogue between them all.
“We must be prepared for a different future,” he says, considering his own Anglican church.
“People who haven’t been inside a church building for a long time have joined in with digital platform services during the pandemic, streamed from within the town and from further afield, and want to continue their involvement. Society as a whole will change and the church will be a part of that.”
Change is certainly on the horizon for Bishop Clark.
As well as moving home to the Orkney Islands, he is to continue working for the church as Bishop for the Falkland Islands. He has made contact with the church officials in Port Stanley through Skype and Zoom and is looking forward to his first visit there in June, in the middle of the South Atlantic winter, and around the time of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War.
Bishop Clark retires next month with his last service being at Croydon Minster on February 24.
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours for groups or to provide illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
- To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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