The Right Reverend Martin Wharton CBE, the Bishop of Newcastle, has had seven farewell tea parties to squeeze in before he marks his retirement with a final service at St Nicholas’ Cathedral tomorrow.
With a laugh, he describes his last intense round of cucumber sandwiches and tea as a fitting way to see out his farewells across the diocese.
Yet the last 17 years as Bishop and a member of the House of Lords have been anything but a slumberous rota of tea and cake.
Labelled the ‘controversial’ bishop when he was enthroned in Newcastle in 1998 for his alleged views on homosexuality, he was placed by some at the more broad-minded end of the spectrum on same sex couples.
Fast forward to a sunny morning in a book-lined study at his home in Gosforth, he explains how it was actually his views on windfarms that filled his front door mat with the largest amount of post in his career.
Forget his significant work on the latest Criminal Justice Bill, assisted dying, the rights of asylum seekers, bringing to light poverty in the North East, promoting food banks - it was that ever present issue of wind turbines in the landscape that put his name in people’s minds.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had so much mail about anything!” said Bishop Martin, who is to move to Durham City to assist in taking services at the cathedral before retiring fully next year.
“All the letters on windfarms that supported me came from people in the North East and all the letters and emails that said I was ‘a disgrace’ came from elsewhere. I’m not repentant about it and I think it stirred up the debate and it’s led to some questions of previous policies. I wouldn’t want to claim a result or change though.
“I feel I was expressing what a lot of people were saying at the time to me and I could express it publicly because of my role.”
In 2013 he told The Journal that it was his Christian duty to speak out against turbines, which he felt were turning the rural North East into a “disfigured industrial landscape”.
He said at the time: “We are blessed to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Is now not the time to say “enough” to any further blots on our landscape?”
His views were picked up by national newspapers, their reporters tantalized by a member of the Church breaking ranks with its perceived unofficial consensus in favour of wind energy.
Yet running through his catalogue of achievements, making the fight against windfarms so public is low down on his own list of personal highlights - despite the ironic fact his very last trip to the House of Lords will again be for a debate on windfarms.
Laughing again, he said: “I’ve got to go back in October. So there we are, it looks as though windfarms may be my very last debate. The issue of women bishops also had streams of letters coming through the door and earlier it was asylum seekers.”
For the record, he voted in favour of women bishops at the General Synod decision in 2014 and in 2012, when it was rejected and, in his words, ‘scuppered’ by views of lay voters. He also voted in favour of introducing women priests into the church in 1992.
“I felt disappointed in 2012. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I think the proposals then were not as good for everyone in the Church of England as they ones that were agreed lately. It will initially feel like a new era.
“I think we need to take good care of the new women who are consecrated as bishops because they will be under considerable scrutiny,” he said. “In 2012 the world couldn’t understand why that decision had been made. It did considerable damage to the Church of England and wider society.’”
His other bursting mailbag moments have been whenever he has spoken out on the rights of asylum seekers.
In 2009 he told a conference that conditions some refugees were living in across Northumberland, Tyneside and Durham were worse than Victorian workhouses.
He has been passionate in his fight to let asylum seekers work while their cases are determined and he has spoken out publicly on the former Government’s strategy of deportation.
He said: “That was an issue that people really didn’t want to know about. I remember clearly a report that we produced about the realities of life for people who were destitute and we called a press conference and nobody came because the media didn’t want to run stories about people who are struggling in the North East.
“In the last quarter of the year there’s been an increase in the number of people sent to the North East from Syria and Iraq escaping from terrible things. As well as the Sudanese, Somalians and Ugandans.
“The church and Christians try to care for the most needy and dispossessed in our society.
“I would like to think I know what’s happening on the ground and we are aware of the needs and concerns that are affecting the lives of people who are struggling.”
He also takes pride in the success of the Hot Chocolate Project run by the diocese over a number of years in Newcastle and North Tyneside.
The premise was simple, he said. ‘Kids hang out around churches’ and giving out free hot chocolate is an easy and cheap way of giving them something to do while helping them socialise with an older generation of volunteers.
He is also delighted that there was a 2% increase in church attendance across the diocese between 2000 and 2010 and will always remember the teenage boy who turned up at his door with a £100 donation to say thank you to the diocese for its youth service that had helped him achieve so much.
There are now 15 salaried youth workers employed by the diocese and parish churches - more than the number provided by the local authority.
Bishop Martin was born in 1944 in Ulverston in what was then Lancashire, and after attending the local grammar school went to Van Mildert College, Durham, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, politics and sociology in 1969.
He then went to Linacre College, Oxford, where he received a bachelor’s degree in theology and a Master of Arts in 1971. A year later he became a curate in Birmingham, before moving to a church in Croydon. Between 1977 and 1983 he was Director of Pastoral Studies at Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, and between 1983 and 1992 he was the Director of Ministry and Training in the Diocese of Bradford and a residentiary canon of Bradford Cathedral.
In 1992, he became area Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames until he was appointed the 11th Bishop of Newcastle in 1997.
He moved to the North East with his wife Marlene, and now grown up sons Andrew and Mark and daughter Joanna.
He now has several grandchildren and spending more time with them, as well as reading and heading to more Newcastle United games are top of his list for his retirement.
He said: “When I came here there was no Sage, no Baltic art gallery, no Millenium Bridge. There’s been a huge change in the life of the city over the 17 years I’ve been here. My first impression when I came from London was first of all this generous welcome and then the space and skies and beauty of the North East.”
The poverty shocked him, however, and nothing upsets him more than the fact so many people are still living in poverty in the North East today.
“Sad isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I feel about how in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, 30% of children in the North East live officially ‘in poverty’ and food banks are increasing.
“I never expected when I came here in the 1990s that the Church would be leading the provision of food for people in society. Things have got worse in the last two or three years.”
On the ever pervading subject of gay marriage and same sex relationships in the Church of England he said there needs to be more openness in the future, but had no prediction if marriage would ever be accepted.
In 1998 he allegedly said same sex relations were not a sin, but said he had been misquoted and “it was at the height of difficulties” about gay people’s place in the life of the Church.
“I think I was being used as part of a political fight,” he said. “We need to be honest and real and accept that people are part of the life of our church, that they are welcomed, valued and loved.
“We are living through a difficult time in terms of same sex marriage. It’s possible for a parish priest to respond appropriately in terms of praying with gay people.”
He said if any blessings are given by the church, then it is a blessing with a ‘small b’ and at the discretion of individual priests within the diocese. He added he had no idea how many of these ‘small b’ blessing may have taken place in the diocese.
“Sometimes priests ask me for guidance, and sometimes they don’t,” he said.
“If I talk to the younger generation they simply can’t understand the reticence of the Church on some matters and if you are going to be seen to be forward in the eyes of the next generation to come then I think we will have to be seen to be more open and accepting than we are today.”