Exclusive: The Bishop of Peterborough on chats with the Queen, muslims and Merseybeat

Bishop Donald Allister at Peterborough Cathedral
Bishop Donald Allister at Peterborough Cathedral
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I suspect the Rt Rev Donald Allister has been asked that question before and perhaps it was a little impertinent of me to ask.

The Bishop of Peterborough Donald Allister during a visit to King's School

The Bishop of Peterborough Donald Allister during a visit to King's School

If he thought so, he doesn’t show it and gives me a full and detailed answer – and one that holds a few surprises.

I never knew, for example, that part of his job, would involve attending a barbecue where the man with the tongs was none other than Prince Philip... but more of that later.

The Rt Rev Allister has been Bishop of Peterborough for five years, and as such is one of the most important and influential people in the city. I was intrigued, despite this his PT cuttings file (it’s a virtual one on computer these days) is relatively thin.

I did think it might be difficult to secure an interview with him, but he was happy to oblige and so one sunny summer’s Monday morning I strolled down from the PT office to the diocesan office – which nestles within the cathedral grounds but is tucked away from the more public areas.

Bishop Donald with his wife, Janice

Bishop Donald with his wife, Janice

It is also next door to his home the Bishop’s Lodging in The Palace.

The building was never designed to be a 21st century office, and it’s replete with nooks and crannies on split levels. The Bishop greeted me, held out his hand and introduced himself: “Hi, Nigel. Donald.’’

The lack of formality suggested someone skilled at putting people at ease.

He led me to an unremarkable office which I guess is used as a meeting room. Unremarkable, that is except for the view out of the large window which was of the city’s wonderful cathedral.

Dressed in a suit, he could have been mistaken for a middle -aged businessman were it not for his dog collar and purple shirt front.

Bishop Donald is one of the senior bishops in the Church of England and has a seat in the House of Lords. It is a long way from his childhood which was mostly spent in Birkenhead and where his first involvement in the church proved a good way to earn some pocket money.

His was a happy childhood.His father was a supervisor working on the docks, and his mum was a nurse.

He recalls: “My dad worked six days a week. It was quite hard. In the sixties in Liverpool there were a lot of dock strikes.

“There was lots of life and vibrancy but at the same time lots of poverty and slums.’’

A keen sportsman, he played cricket and, after winning a scholarship to one of the better academic schools in the area, enjoyed playing rugby.

It was of course the Swinging Sixties and Liverpool was at the epicentre of it all.

Bishop Donald said: “Everyone on Merseyside listened to music with all the local bands like The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers.

He remembers seeing the bands playing in youth clubs before they hit the big time - although he didn’t venture into the Cavern Club or the like, adding “they were pretty desperate places’’.

But it was music, although not Merseybeat, that got a young Donald Allister involved in the church.

“The local church were looking for people. My mum encouraged me, ‘‘he explained.

“My big brother had been in the choir at Liverpool Cathedral – he’s a really good singer,’’ adding with a smile, “Paul McCartney was refused a place because he wasn’t a good enough singer!

“We didn’t go to church every week but I joined the choir.It was sort of a hobby and I enjoyed it and we got paid for singing at weddings.

Donald did well academically – he was the first in his family to earn a place at university, but not just any university, he studied medicine at Cambridge.

“I wasn’t really sure about being a doctor. I liked science at school and I was more thinking about medical research.’’

He completed the science study part of his degree but instead of heading to a London hospital for on-the-job training he began a theology degree.

“It had been in my head to be a vicar, but not my game plan, but it became clear to me that I’d rather be a vicar than a doctor.”

After university he went for Ministry training in Bristol and that’s where he met his future wife Janice, who is now a GP in Peterborough.The couple have three grown-up children scattered across the country in Edinburgh, Nottingham and Ipswich.

His career took him to several parishes – including a return to Merseyside and he rose to the position of Archdeacon of Chester before in 2010 he was enthroned as the Bishop of Peterborough.

As Bishop he is responsible for 360 churches across the Peterborough area, Northamptonshire and Rutland.

He said: “I have care of, and am responsible for, about 200 vicars.I make sure they get paid, look after their training, offer general encouragement and to some extent set policy.’’

He spends a lot of time on the road visiting clergy– he drives himself around his patch, which measures 1,200 square miles. He spends one day a week dealing with national church issues –he is the chair of the Council for Christian Unity.

He also has, since 2014, a seat in the Lords. “I try to go there once a week. It’s an odd place – it’s an enormous privilege to be there.I’ve spoken in a few debates and asked questions sometimes about local Peterborough stuff. They quite like that because most of the people in the House of Lords don’t represent a region. The bishops are the only ones with a geographical representation.’’

He also spends a day in his office in Northampton.His weekends (especially Sundays!) normally find him working but he does get a day off, usually Friday.In what little spare time he has he likes to visit his family or go hill walking and he is an avid reader of science fiction.

If he had more weekends off he’d watch more sport, but for now there is little prospect of that because working weekends is what a bishop does.

Chatting with the Queen

His job brings Bishop Donald into contact with the great and the good, including Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer whose estate is in the diocese.

The bishop’s predecessor Ian Cundy officiated at Diana’s private funeral on the Althorp estate.

The bishop has also met the Queen several times and has even been a house guest.

He says: “All the bishops have the privilege of meeting the Queen from time to time. When you are first appointed you get a one-to-one with her and senior bishops take it in turn to do chaplaincy work when she is in Sandringham.

He revealed: ‘‘She usually goes to Sandringham after Christmas and stays for most of January. She likes a bishop to be there as chaplain for each long weekend. I’ve stayed there for a long weekend.

“The Queen’s a very good hostess and puts you at your ease very quickly.Prince Philip likes to cook the barbecue himself - it’s quite a nice barbecue - and you just chat about all sorts of things.’’

What do you talk about, are you allowed to say? I ask.

“Not the bit that might be secret,’’ he laughs. “A lot of the conversation is just about families. It’s just ordinary stuff, it’s not about big issues of state or whether we should bomb this country. It’s just like being part of a family for a long weekend albeit a quite unusual and well known family. It’s quite nerve-wracking and scary when you’re told you’ve got to do it. You have to preach a sermon – in front of the Queen – someone like me a lad from Liverpool having to do that. It feels completely unreal.’’

If that answer gives the impression he is daunted by it, his manner says otherwise, a conclusion confirmed by the comment that follows.“It’s 39 years since I was ordained, you get used to doing it and ultimately it doesn’t matter if it’s the Queen or whether you are in a homeless shelter, it’s still people.”

Terror acts left city Muslims frightened

When Donald Allister was installed as the 38th Bishop of Peterborough on April 17,2010 he took the opportunity in his first sermon to stress the importance of working with other faiths in the city.

That is something still high on his agenda, but have recent world events where atrocities have been committed in the name of religion made achieving harmony more difficult?

He says: “A little bit.I talk to a number of Muslim leaders regularly and we now have regular meetings between church leaders and Muslim leaders in the city and that’s really important.

“The Muslim leaders are as shocked and horrified at stuff that goes on like the murders on the beach in Tunisia and they think it is just as bad as we do.

“But they also feel a little bit threatened and frightened. Are they going to be hated?Are they going to be blamed because of it?

“They do feel threatened –not by Peterborough folk, not by locals – but they feelfrightened they will be blamed or that Islam will be blamed.’’

The Bishop points out that in the past atrocities have been carried out by Christians. ‘‘I don’t want to gloss over that,’’ he adds.

“I disagree with Muslims on some things about religion but I want the city we live in to be a happy harmonious place and we need to make friends with them as far as possible.

“It’s not always easy when there’s different food, customs, days of worship and dress.’’

He would like to see more integration within the community but pointed out it would take a few generations to achieve adding wryly: “When the British Empire took over India, the British people behaved like British people and they never actually integrated.’’

He has admiration for the devotion Muslims show for their religion.

“The devotion to their religion is powerful and they mean it. It’s not just a one-hour hobby on a Sunday – they get it, that it affects their whole life.”

He points out that Christians are often shy about their religion but Muslims are prepared to stand up for theirs.

Recent global events though have made attempts at harmony more difficult.

“Soon after I came here we had the English Defence League march.

“It was quite difficult. We from the cathedral took the lead in encouraging the Muslim leaders and Christians to deal with it in a peaceful way - we are not even going out on the streets, stay indoors and not confront them at all.

“That was the beginning of something important in the way the churches and mosques work together.’’

Immigration into the city recently has mainly come from eastern Europe and that has put pressure on the city’s infrastructure.

The Bishop though is full of praise for the way the city council in particular and the city in general has coped with this new influx.

He said: “I think Peterborough City Council has been brilliant at welcoming the groups that have come in.

“They have had a really tough job on all sorts of issues – homelessness, school places and so on and with cuts in the budget at the same time. It’s been hugely impressive.

“It’s still a city where I don’t think there are major problems with integration and conflict.

“The city has a long history of welcoming immigrants. Fortunately, Peterborough hasn’t had any of the really nasty stuff, like race riots.’’

“I never banned Jerusalem”

A polished and polite interviewee , Bishop Donald has some experience on the other side of the fence having worked in church journalism.

He als o made front page news when he “banned’’ Jerusalem from a wedding.

These days his policy towards the media is simple – he does not shy away from it, but neither does he go looking for it.

He explained: “Some bishops put out press releases every week to say what they are doing. I’d rather just get on with it. I think there is a danger that everything you do is broadcast, but the door’s open.

“I went very public over the English Defence League, but generally if there’s an issue it’s far more useful to talk privately.’’

The bishop was once embroiled in a very public row that led to him hitting the headlines after it was claimed he had banned Jerusalem at weddings.

Had he had his fingers burned by that experience?

“The media was shocking then,’’ he admits, “it surprised me it was the broadsheets rather than the tabloids.

“The Telegraph and The Guardian were the worst plus Sky News who camped on our lawn for a fortnight.

“The story was completely made up. We did a lot of weddings and all of us who were doing them – myself, other clergy, director of music, singers, were a bit fed up because we had Jerusalem at every single wedding – sometimes three times on a Saturday every week!

“And we would say there are other hymns that go to the tune or would you like something different.

“The couple involved had actually moved away and hadn’t told us and we were trying to chase them to plan the details of the wedding.

“They came along three or four days before and said this is what we want.

“I was on holiday and the director of music saw them and said “oh no not Jerusalem again’’ and he just lost it with them and told them they couldn’t have it which wasn’t our policy.

“And when I got back from holiday the press were on the lawn.

“It’s a nationalist song, it’s not a hymn in the conventional way and I don’t think it’s the most suitable thing for a wedding but if people choose it I’d let them have it.

“My bishop phoned me up, he was on holiday in Italy and he picked up a newspaper and there was me on the front page. It wasn’t ideal.’’

Bishop facts

Bishop Donald Allister was born in Liverpool on August 27, 1952. He is 63 today.

His middle name his Spargo – it’s his mother’s maiden name. It’s rare although the Bishop says there are some Spargos in Cornwall. It is derived from a Spanish word.

For historical reasons, the southern part of Peterborough is actually in the Diocese of Ely but in November 2011 Bishop Donald was given authority to speak on behalf of all Anglican Christians in the city.

Almost 20,000 people attend the 360 churches in the diocese – an area which is home to 800,000 people.

Nationally there are 44 dioceses in the Church Of England.

Bishop Donald was awarded an honorary doctorate of theology by the University Of Chester “in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the promotion of christian education. “

Cricket and rugby are his main sporting interests but when it comes to football he’s a Red and supports Liverpool.