Simon Walsh interviews the new Bishop of Lewes
Bishop Will Hazlewood is waiting patiently when I dial in to our scheduled Zoom call, as if for a liturgy about to start. His natural energy brings an immediate rapport. As seems to be the custom now, we comment on each other’s backgrounds. I have a wall of books behind me; he has the interior of a working bishop: files, directories, fireplace-bookcase, crosier in one corner, alb hanging on the back of a door.
The house is newly acquired, he explains, and some building work will soon begin to adapt it for family and episcopal use. The Hazlewoods made a day trip from Devon to Sussex last May as soon as lockdown restrictions were eased to view two properties and begin the process of their new life in the Diocese of Chichester. This was not the only aspect of his new role to be affected by the pandemic. Coronavirus restrictions also meant that his consecration, in the chapel of Lambeth Palace last July, had to be Covid-compliant. He was allowed ten guests in a return to the smaller, more private style of some decades ago before the modern cathedral scrum became commonplace. A further innovation was the new approach to traditionalist consecrations, announced shortly before the service, and in line with the Five Guiding Principles. The Bishop of Richborough served as chief consecrator with the Bishops of Ebbsfleet and Fulham as co-consecrators. A similar ‘rule of three’ had been deployed earlier the same day for the other new Chichester bishop, Ruth Bushyager to Horsham, and a firm example of mutual flourishing in action not just in one day but in one diocese. “It was very intimate and I remain immensely grateful for the care and sensitivity taken over all the planning,” he says. “It’s an emotional subject in many ways for people, and it works when there’s generosity on all sides.”
He’s had little time to give this further thought. Within weeks in the new diocese he was ordaining. In addition to the parishes on his patch he’s responsible for the traditionalist parishes and retired clergy (“Chichester has the second highest number in the country”) amongst other diocesan initiatives and responsibilities. He identifies strongly with the parish model and has devoted himself to meeting his clergy and understanding their context. “It’s about building a relationship of trust. Clergy are the greatest resource we have and it’s essential to invest in and care for them, because it can be a lonely and difficult role,” he explains. The Covid-19 situation has seen him be a busy parish priest during lockdown, going through the application process for the new job, getting it, moving, and starting work in a new place and in a new position – all under the shadow of restrictions. “The pandemic has made many things harder,” he adds. “As a parish priest, having to find space in your home for livestreaming services, that was a challenge for all of us as a family. And not being open was hard for the community. 80% of funerals in Dartmouth take place in church, which is only part of its meaning in the lives of local people. Of course, we did everything we could to be church in a new way and there wonderful moments. The outpouring of social care, speaking outside of the building, finding different ways for things. We know this will only be for a limited time but I think much innovation will remain. Having an online presence in various forms will stay, but should not be relied upon. We all know that Zoom has helped us to get through but it’s not the same as being in a room with people. We are physical human beings, which after all is what the Incarnation is about.”
If ministry is difficult, it can be doubly difficult through pandemic and his humanity is evident even when he speaks about regrets. “It wasn’t possible to have a big farewell when we left Dartmouth. In some ways that’s good because it avoids fuss, but in other ways these things need to be marked for everyone. It was a wrench to move the children from their schools where they were happy and settled. I couldn’t go on retreat in the way I wanted to in order to prepare for my consecration. And it’s meant a bit of a solitary start in some ways: I’m no longer saying the Offices in the same place each day with the same people. It’s different to parish life.” He’s enjoyed becoming part of +Martin Warner’s team, and setting new disciplines in his prayer life and spirituality. The Walsingham Priests’ Retreat this year, though online, was helpful for a sense of solidarity and connectedness.
It was a placement with +Philip North that helped him see how the episcopate is not all remoteness and administration. That experience of working with one of our most dynamic, missional bishops revealed the parish priest side of the role, and this came as a relief. “I hadn’t seen my calling as an episcopal one but some years back I was invited to join the so-called ‘Talent Pool’ process. It involved a number of pre-interviews, including going to Lambeth Palace for the first time in my life. I confess I was sceptical about it. What I can say is that the wide cross-section of people on the course showed common areas and interests we have in the Church of England, such as mission and reversing decline. Spending time with Bishop Philip during that discernment really helped to demonstrate those priorities in action as values we can live out together and hold each other to.”
Hazlewood comes from a long line of clergy, and through both parents. “I’m the 13th generation in holy orders, and to be at Lambeth Palace with my mother was very special.” His maternal grandfather, Basil Guy, was the Bishop of Gloucester (1962-75) and died when he was young. Although his crosier was bequeathed to the cathedral treasury there, the family has retrieved it for +Will to have back on loan, along with Bishop Guy’s episcopal ring. Another influence was his uncle, John Hazlewood, who became the lively and popular Bishop of Ballarat in Australia. “He was a character. As the Dean of Perth he installed a hydraulic altar and had rock masses. His hippy image even had the police following him to check he wasn’t involved with drugs. From him I have a chasuble and some mitres.” He’s clearly inherited a bit more in terms of family apostolic succession, revealing how his first incumbency at St Margaret’s, Iver Heath, on the outskirts of Slough was close to Pinewood Studios. “We had snow machines inside church at Christmas, and one Easter I arranged for silent fireworks to be rigged up in all the windows to go off at the right moment. It was great fun!”
Finding the enjoyment in things is a recurrent theme. “When I was a teenager I rebelled against attending my dad’s church but as most of my friends worshipped there, I soon came around. I sang in the choir, did drama, got involved.” Childhood dyslexia meant educational struggle, and he left school to become a YTS apprentice mechanic with the Ministry of Defence. After five years he went to Leicester for university, initially to study engineering but then switched to the more personable marketing and personnel management. He attended the Parish of the Resurrection where one Fr Martin Warner was leaving to become the new Administrator of the Shrine in Walsingham. The vocation was now taking hold and in 1998 he arrived at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, getting married during his time there to Sophie (they have two children), and secured a title post at Holy Nativity, Knowle, in Bristol. You sense that in spite of hard work and effort, he was always finding the fun. From Bristol to Buckinghamshire, and then to Dartmouth as vicar of a busy, multi-church benefice. The joy of activities like Family Fest (with over 250 camping in a Dartmoor campsite) and upbeat courses for the Diocese of Exeter on growth and mission all played to his strengths. And they offset the struggles of parishes. “The rural church has its own challenges: poverty, poor transport links, local tourism, the burden of maintaining and restoring our sacred buildings.”
He has his eyes wide open and is not immune to difficulties. The parish model and its clergy are at the heart of his vision. “We can be excited about the future. Once the pandemic passes, we shall see how it’s produced a big desire for the ‘local’. Many of the big companies are seeing this and don’t all have a community presence. Our buildings are obvious and focal so it’s vital we play that card. And we can emphasise what we do well: relationship, environment, vocation, making sense of the world. A lot of people are seeking the tangible and secure although they may not look for it naturally in the church. How do we seek to be accessible and proclaim openly in the marketplace? That’s one thought for us. And Catholics are tactile. We are about sign and symbol; the sacramental life is there for all. We can proclaim this with confidence and joy.”
Refreshingly, there is no double-speak or jargon with him; no sense of the bandwagon sloganeer. Pragmatism, yes, and a practical approach to discipleship. In the fashionable description of today, he is ‘authentic’ – the kind of pastor who brings people to Christ through kindness, patience, and stability. There can be no doubt he holds the people of God on his heart in prayer. It’s easy to see how he’s enabled growth wherever he’s been, making mission both creative and shared. If the managerial Talent Pool process brings on enthusiastic, inspiring bishops such as +Will then there is hope after all. Earlier in the conversation he had spoken humbly of “the terrifying words of the Ordinal”. It was St Augustine who said ‘What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace.’ We pray for him, as surely as he prays for us.
Fr Simon Walsh is a member of the Editorial Board of New Directions