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General Synod Farewell to the Bishop of Newcastle

Bishop Martin and Marlene

Tuesday 18th November 2014

The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu gave a Farewell Address to the Rt Revd Martin Wharton, Bishop of Newcastle at General Synod. His address follows in full...


Bishop Martin is from Lancashire - hence his love of cricket. (Though I have to point out that Yorkshire won the County Championship this year, with Lancashire second from the bottom!)

After school in Ulverston then university at Durham and Oxford, Bishop Martin began his ordained ministry at St Peter’s Spring Hill, Birmingham and then St John the Baptist, Croydon.

Next he took on ministerial training roles at Cuddesdon, then in Bradford, and in 1992, he became area Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames: he was my Area Bishop for five years. In1997 Martin was appointed 11th Bishop of Newcastle.

The last 17 years are arguably the best innings as 11th man since John Snow’s  59 against the West Indies in 1966!

Bishop Martin is loved in Newcastle Diocese as a pastor, visitor, and friend to clergy and laity alike. And the feeling is reciprocated. ‘It is’, says Bishop Martin, ‘the most beautiful diocese in the Church of England’.

Typical of the shared ministry in the diocese is the fact that his wife Marlene has always visited clergy and families on moving in.  Marlene has so often offered wonderful hospitality at Bishop’s House – the bishop's head would pop round the door to tell her - ‘I’ve just told them they’re staying for lunch'.

Bishop’s House is inevitably on the circuit for gentlemen of the road. A familiar visitor came one day in some distress having been told by social services that day that his mother had died. Bishop Martin sat with him for a very long time. Everything else could wait. 

It is clear that he recognises the value of cups of tea and coffee as an essential part of his episcopal ministry – with his team in the office at the start of the day, or out and about in the Dioceses, or with a bacon and egg butty at his favourite transport caff on the A1 down to Bishopthorpe.  

In public life, Bishop Martin's contribution has been very significant, both nationally and within the diocese. It was he who was instrumental in the founding of the Northumberland Church of England Academy from the conceptual phase in 2005 to fruition in 2009. He has served as a Vice President of the Newcastle Community Foundation. He has been a strong advocate for Newcastle and for Northumberland.  

He was rightly honoured in 2011 with the award of CBE for services to the Church of England and the North East community.

Bishop Martin is a team-player, developing a highly collaborative and non-hierarchical culture within the Diocese. He has led a programme called ‘Generous, Engaged, and Open,’ deploying short term task groups to get jobs done. I have visited his Diocese at least five times and I can see that all this works! 

There was a 2% increase in church attendance across the diocese between 2000 and 2010. 

A teenager turned up at Bishop’s House one day with £100 to say thank you to the diocese for its youth service that had helped him achieve so much. There are 15 salaried youth workers employed by Newcastle Diocese and its parishes.

Bishop Martin knows about how to reach people. Preaching once about Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, Bishop Martin finished with the phrase, “If you want to be heard, lower your voice”. This axiommight be a good summary of his own philosophy and practice of ministry. Always speaks in a lowered voice.

He also likes to quote Bishop John Robinson: “We can have as high a doctrine of ministry as we want as long as our doctrine of the Church is higher. And we can have as high a doctrine of the Church as we want, as long as our doctrine of the Kingdom is higher. Ministry serves Church serves Kingdom.”

Bishop Martin is so self-aware. He has unassuming, but marvellously effective, ways of working. Always ready to give people a long lead (knowing that if they take it too far they will tie themselves in knots without any assistance from him.)

He has an incredible gift of discerning what is about the Kingdom, and what is merely ‘churchy’. But he never shows impatience. If he disagrees with anyone, his dissent is not the noise of a resounding gong, but is grounded in what it is to be human.  Those who look for ‘churchmanship’ allies in arguments will not find an ally in him, because Bishop Martin is a disciple of Jesus Christ, and has no ‘churchianity’ in his bones whatsoever. I knew that in five years in Kingston. For him it is Jesus and his gospel which take priority over everything.

Don’t be misled by appearances when you see Bishop Martin in his unique sitting posture – he is neither asleep nor zoned out – any moment he will interject a comment which hits the nail on the head – witty, compassionate, sharp, to the point. Colleagues have learned not to be taken in by his relaxed attitude. Beware also– he reads everything! After all he is a Myers-Briggs personality type-expert.

But he has the kind of expressive face that gives everything away. I recall his look of horror when I deliberately broke a clay pot as an illustration when I spoke at the Cathedral for their 125th Anniversary in 2007. It was all over his face: “What on earth is Sentamu doing?” his face said it all! 

When I arrived in Newcastle earlier for this service Anniversary, the traffic was horrendous, so I abandoned my car and took a taxi, which had right of way in the city.  The taxi driver recognised me, and said, “You were in Birmingham, weren’t you?” ‘I was.’ I said. “Why has everything got to be in London?” he complained.  “Well, I don’t know.” I said. “Take the Millennium Eye, they now call it the London Eye, he said. Listen – London Eye – it’s got no ring to it. If it had been in Birmingham it would have been a ‘Brummie Eye’. That would sound better.  But if it had been put in Newcastle, it would be best. It would be the “Way Aye Eye!”

Arriving at the Cathedral, and telling them this story, I knew I was at home in Geordie Land – a land which has now been home to Bishop Martin and Marlene for 17 years. That taxi driver said "He's the best lad we've ever had".

And then there’s football. Newcastle United has been high priority, sitting in the stands next to his St James Park friend Peter. Peter returned the favour, finally coming to church for Bishop Martin’s farewell at the Cathedral, where he presented Martin with a Newcastle shirt signed by the players.  ‘Haway the lads!’

Not just the lads. Bishop Martin has been very supportive of women in ministry – and salutes the women clergy in the diocese, many of whom serve, he says, in ‘parishes most people wouldn’t want to park their car in’

Bishop Martin is the third longest serving bishop in the House of Lords. From the bishops' bench he has highlighted a wide range of matters – often from a North East perspective.  He has spoken out on wind farms, on unemployment; on education as a tool for social mobility; on the need for research into asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma (a big concern on Tyneside); on discrimination by landlords following new Immigration laws; and on probation reform.

Ahead of the pack, in 2008, Bishop Martin was speaking about credit unions, loan sharks and debt. In one debate he described the need to give people the means to meet their potential as ‘liberating the Billy Elliott factor’.

And I ought really to switch off this microphone, because in January this year Bishop Martin co-sponsored an amendment to a Government Bill, to restrict “the use of amplified noise equipment in vicinity of the Palace of Westminster”.

He could be very direct when it came to the situations of those most in need. In June 2010 he asked “Does the Minister really believe that the deportation of unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Afghanistan is in each child's best interests? If she does, perhaps she could tell us why?” The Minister could not respond. He has been passionate in his fight to let asylum seekers work while their cases are being determined.

Bishop Martin is the last of the smoking Bishops. It is widely known in the House of Lords that if you need to talk to Bishop Martin, if he isn’t in the robing room, he can nearly always be found in the smoking shed in Black Rod’s garden.  Taking one of his ‘fresh air’ breaks once Bishop Martin was accidentally locked out from his own Diocesan Synod.

Sadly, the scent of Rum and Maple tobacco is already fading in the Bishop’s House. Bishop Martin, and Marlene, you are going to be very much missed.

I thank you on behalf of Synod for all you have done so far in the service of Christ, and pray for great happiness as you move on into retirement. You have been looking forward to watching more cricket and seeing more of your children and grandchildren.

I pray that the next steps will bring you great blessing, as you head over the Tyne to Durham. May God bless you both.

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