A vision of Jesus on the cross changed everything for Bishop of Selby Martin Wallace, who was just 17 at the time. Until then he was a troubled teenager, following his parents to regular worship services. But now he was sure that Christ was alive, and he has since dedicated his life to helping others experience the reality of personal faith.
And he is optimistic about the future of the Church. “Many people are very interested in spirituality but can sometimes find it difficult to connect that with the formal church. People want something that will touch their heart and soul, but they will not put up with boring, formal religion that has no content. Where there is spirituality that’s real, people are interested and will respond, but they have no time for dead religion. And the churches which have woken up to that are the ones that are growing.”
Born in West Ham in London’s East End and later brought up on a council estate in Brighton, Bishop Martin described himself as a fairly regular churchgoer as a youngster (his parents were regular attenders) who got into “a huge amount of trouble” at school where he constantly played truant and got in with the wrong crowd. “If you didn’t belong to a gang you simply did not survive,” he said.
But all this changed through the influence of his religious studies teacher whose infectious enthusiasm brought the whole subject alive for him.
“When I was 17 I had a vision of Jesus on the cross which changed me from being a casual churchgoer into a committed Christian who realised that Jesus loved me to bits. For the last 45 years he has simply been my best friend and my greatest desire is that other people would find the same truth for themselves. So my becoming a Christian was a very big turnaround.”
He later returned to West Ham where he spent 16 years leading a congregation representing 21 nationalities, which grew from 30 to 200 and “where just about every social issue imaginable was thrown at you every day: we fed 200 homeless every week and had a pastoral care team of 30 who responded each year to 800 calls of help passed on from social services and the caring professions. “I wish the government would understand that. In many ways the church is the glue that holds the community together and I think we are under-valued. A huge number of voluntary organisations are staffed by Christians.”
The bishop has also worked in Surrey, on the Essex coast, in Colchester and in the London borough of Newham, the country’s second most deprived community. But he and his wife Diana have fallen in love with Yorkshire , and are planning to retire in Bridlington. “We’ve been won over by Yorkshire,” enthused the bishop. “We love York , we love the moors, we love the coast, the quality of life is so good and the people are so friendly.”
Bishop Martin is one of three bishops who deputised for Archbishop John Sentamu in the York diocese. “My area encompasses a 30-mile radius around York. With a population of one-third of a million (half of whom live in York), it has 200 churches and, apart from York, is otherwise very rural and is why I drive 20,000 miles a year.” There are 70 paid clergy in the diocese with another 50 who are self-supporting. There are also 80 licensed readers (lay preachers) and 400 churchwardens (those responsible for the fabric of individual churches). The diocese has some 40 confirmations a year, confirming about 400 people, and the bishop is also responsible for the pastoral care of clergy – stepping in when things go wrong.
“What I really enjoy are the many visits to offices, factories, schools and colleges as well as speaking at after-dinner functions where I am able to offer some humour alongside perspectives from the Christian gospel.” An indication of his sense of fun was the sign ‘Hippies use the back door’ at his home in the exquisite village of Barton-le-Street on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.
Asked about the strident atheism reflected in today’s culture, he said: “I think the voice of atheism has become very loud but I do not believe the country has become any more atheistic than it was 50 years ago,” adding that Christianity was very much in the market place and the challenge for Christians was to demonstrate the positive effect of faith in Christ both on individuals and society as a whole. “I know that because of Jesus I am uniquely loved and he has a purpose for me in this life and I am secure in his hands for eternity.”
Bishop Martin and his wife Diana have two children – Caroline, a model-maker for film and television who created Bob the Builder and Fantastic Mr Fox, and Matthew who is a Christian minister.
Story by Charles Gardner
photo: Bishop Martin Wallace photo by courtesy of David Webb