Christmas at home with Bishop Rachel
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
So where does a Bishop do her shopping and what will she have for Christmas dinner? The Right Revd Rachel Treweek tells all to Katie Jarvis
These are dark times. For young people; for the disabled; for the lonely; for people in poor housing; for those in prison; for families struggling to pay the mortgage. For so many of us.
And Christmas, while celebrating joy, can be a time when problems become magnified.
The Right Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, often spends Christmas Day visiting people facing extreme challenges. Indeed, she and her husband – the Revd Guy Treweek – rarely have time to sit down and relax over their own Christmas dinner. Instead, their aim – on December 25 and throughout the year – is to let people know they’re valued.
“You might be a woman in prison; you might be a refugee; you might be homeless, a drug addict, an alcoholic. But, do you know what? In other circumstances, so could I be,” she says.
Bishop Rachel’s original career was as a speech and language therapist. And it was during another Christmas, in 1990, that she heard God calling her into the Church. In 2015, she became the first female diocesan bishop in the House of Lords. Today, as Bishop for Her Majesty’s Prisons across England and Wales, and as president of charity the Nelson Trust, she is a vociferous campaigner – particularly for women serving short sentences.
But whatever she is doing this Christmas Day, you can be sure lighting a candle will be involved. As Bishop Rachel explains, “Lighting that tiny flame says: However great the darkness, whatever happens in our lives – and that’s so poignant at the moment – the love and the hope of Jesus Christ will always be stronger.”
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Where do you live and why?
I live in Bishopscourt, Gloucester, because it’s the house of the Bishop of Gloucester. The original Bishop’s Palace is now King’s School – whereas the house I’m in was built in the 50s. I suspect the first bishop who lived here might have been quite cross they weren’t living in the Palace. I walked round the school myself and thought: This would have been nice! …But that lasted for about a nanosecond. Then I realised how cold and draughty it would have been for all those bishops before me.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
Since I started as Bishop in September 2015.
I began my ministry living in a one-bedroom flat in a council block in Islington, where a lot of residents had mental health issues; abuse issues. We moved to Gloucester from the City of London, from a very lovely house just down the hill from St Paul’s Cathedral, but where we couldn’t see any sky from the windows. At another point, I was vicar in Bethnal Green. Each of those contexts has been very different – but people are people wherever you go.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
It would begin with a cooked breakfast – no bacon but I love Gloucestershire Old Spot sausages – somewhere independent. We’re recently been to the Cotswold Food Store in Longborough, and the Thistledown Café in Nympsfield. A community café in Gloucester would be the Hungry Bean, Roots, or the Monk’s Kitchen at the cathedral. Afterwards, my husband and I would enjoy a walk, probably in the country. (If I had my way, it would always involve afternoon tea, too.) In the good old days, we’d have gone to the Everyman Theatre [Cheltenham] or the cinema.
And then we would worship, either at the cathedral or in one of our little village churches.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I don’t have any great dream of living in a mansion. But I would invest my mansion money in housing for when people come out of prison. I’m president of the Nelson Trust in Gloucester, which does amazing work with vulnerable women – but this is about men as well. There’s a revolving door: people go into prison for a short sentence; their children are taken away; they lose their house or flat; they come out and – if they’re even fortunate enough to be given housing (and that’s a big ‘if’) – it’s as a single person. They’re not allowed to have their children with them. Two years ago, I visited women in rehab on Christmas Day. The most painful thing was not being with their children; the thing they were most concerned about was being able to phone them.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
When we came to Gloucester, one or two people said, ‘Oh! Sorry you’re not living in Chipping Campden!’ But we immediately felt really at home here. Gloucester is quite gritty. We do have issues of homelessness, and people with drug problems outside our gate. Not that I want to applaud that; but it’s about saying: Here in Gloucester there’s something very authentic. A real diversity of people. Of course, we love the fact that we live in a diocese with the very rural, too.
Where’s the best pub in the area?
There are lots – but two I really enjoy: the Fountain in Gloucester is a good old-fashioned town pub – whether it’s full of the rugby crew or the cathedral choir. I also like the Village Pub in Barnsley.
And the best place to eat?
I could give you loads. The Bistro at [National] Star College is wonderful. And somewhere we’ve been to very recently is Memsahib in Cheltenham. It’s a G&T bar that focuses on Anglo-Indian history – and particularly celebrates women who settled in Cheltenham. One of them, Cornelia Sorabji, was the first female graduate of Bombay University and the first female to study law at Somerville College, Oxford. It’s an aspect of Cotswold history people wouldn’t necessarily think about.
What would you do for a special occasion?
Light a candle. For a young person at their confirmation service; on the anniversary of someone who has died; at an ordination.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
Entrepreneurial spirit. The way cafés, pubs and restaurants have switched to takeaways. The way communities have pulled together to take care of one another. Back in March, until the end of May, we as a diocese were involved with a wonderful organisation called the Long Table [thelongtableonline.com], in an initiative called Feeding the 5,000. We produced over 30,000 meals using our community kitchens: for people who were shielding, who could contribute towards the meal financially; for families who couldn’t afford nutritious food; for people who were caring. And we put freezers in every hospital across the diocese. It was done unashamedly as Christians, but drawing in all sorts of people across our communities, whether of faith or not. We are doing something similar this Christmas with the Long Table and others, called the Comfort and Joy community meal project.
... and the worst?
The disparity. (And not just in the Cotswolds.) There’s a lot of talk about how ‘We’re all in this together’ during the current crisis. Well, actually, that’s not true. It has had a much bigger effect on those who are poor; on those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities; and for disabled people. Even now, I’m aware of how wearing masks affects people who are deaf, for example.
Which shop could you not live without?
Sainsbury’s – next door to me - which is closing. It’s devastating.
And, not so much a shop, but Cotteswold Dairy. It’s a joy to have local milk delivered, and in glass bottles.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
I get frustrated when people don’t recognise the ethnic and social diversity. I’ve been to little villages where people say, ‘We’re not very diverse here’, and I point out there is diversity! How are we working together? How are we using that great community spirit to learn from one another and listen to each other? We all have different stories to tell.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
What would be a three-course Christmas meal?
Our Christmas meal tends to come from Marks & Spencer because we don’t have chance to cook it. But my ideal meal would involve something from the Severn & Wye Smokery (I don’t know if you can count it as the Cotswolds but I so love the Forest of Dean). It would undoubtedly include Stinking Bishop cheese – I had a real joke with Charles Martell [the maker], learning how it got its name. My husband would add Charles Martell’s pear brandy.
And I have to mention Bish Chocolates, designed for my inauguration by husband-and-wife team Lick the Spoon. Salted caramel pralines, which you can buy at Gloucester Services – another of my favourite places.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
A farmer on a tractor. Or a well-trimmed hedge and dry-stone wall. I don’t think people realise how our farming community looks after our land for us. At Christmas, my favourite view would be a snow-covered field, with birds flying overhead, reminding me of God’s creation. And there would be sheep – animals that were around at Christ’s birth.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
I’m going to be shot because there are many! But an illustration of a place with a bit of everything is Northleach. Beautiful Cotswold stone; village shop; village pub. And the wonderful Black Cat Café, now run by the church.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…
Village churches; Sheep; Water.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
You won’t be surprised when I say Gloucester Cathedral. It has seen war, famine and plague; it has seen celebrations and tragedy. I’m sitting here, looking at it from my window – it speaks to me of the constancy of God’s love and faithfulness. In all that’s changing, love and hope and light are unchanged.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Anything involving heights: bungee jumping, high wires, paragliding.
Starter homes or executive properties?
Starter homes every time. If nurses and teachers and carers and shopkeepers and street-cleaners haven’t got housing, then everything we really value - that underpins our communities - will no longer be here.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
(I’ve just realised how appalling my geography is.) The diocese is bigger than the Cotswolds, which forms part of it. So, in terms of the diocese, it’s: Weston [-sub-Edge] in the north; Chipping Sodbury in the south; Newland in the west; and Adlestrop in the east.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
Cotswold Lavender handcream. I have it in every bag I own.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Go to your local church. The vicar will tell you about everything going on in the community. And it’s a good place of pastoral support.
And which book should they read?
Like Desert Island Discs, I want to say the Bible! But also: a really good walk book; a Gloucester Cathedral guidebook with lots of wonderful history. And there’s a lovely little book called The Spice of Wisdom: Praying with Katherine Parr, compiled by John Partington and published by Kenelm Press. Katherine Parr is buried at Sudeley Castle, where she lived, and her prayers are beautiful.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
Many. Around Hailes Abbey; on Coaley and Uley Peaks; through Dymock and Kempley; Haresfield Beacon. One we did recently was around the valleys of Brimpsfield, with all those sheep.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
A few years ago, I enjoyed a wonderful evening of singing carols at the Woolpack in Slad. It’s really poignant that people won’t be able to celebrate in the same way this year, so I want to encourage everyone to find new ways of being together. I refused to use the term ‘socially distanced’ right from the beginning. We are physically distanced but socially connected.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I’m rarely invisible. Even when we’ve been out on walks in villages, someone will wind down the window and say, ‘Hello, Bishop!’ (And when I’m buying all my chocolate in Sainsbury’s, I do wonder if someone is looking over my shoulder!)
But I’d love to go to GCHQ. I’ve been before and I had the most amazing day – we don’t always recognise what they do for us, for our country, for our world. To be invisible and sneak around would be marvellous.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
I’d build a living memorial to all our fabulous children and young people across the Cotswolds. The current crisis is huge for them, and yet they’ve been doing amazing things. They’re so full of hope.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
Neither. We need to use this opportunity to ask: How do we shape the future for children and young people? It grieves me that we were doing so well with the environment; now, everywhere we go, people are being given plastic cups and plastic sachets of tomato sauce; using disposable masks. We have to go back to asking how we can best care for our planet.
Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
With whom would you most like to have a mulled Christmas cider?
The Music Works [themusicworks.org.uk] is a charity in Gloucester that transforms young lives through music. Their wonderful creative director is a Gloucestershire lad called Malaki Patterson. I find him utterly inspiring.
• Bishop Rachel will be leading a live-streamed Christmas service in Gloucester Cathedral at 10.15am on Christmas morning. To find out more about this and other Christmas worship in the cathedral, visit gloucestercathedral.org.uk
• For more on the work of the Diocese of Gloucester – including the Christmas Comfort and Joy community meal project – visit gloucester.anglican.org