We’re very proud to have The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler as Action Foundation’s Patron.
We caught up with him to find out how he came to be a Bishop, why he decided to get involved with our charity and what it is about Refugee issues that he connects so strongly with.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I have been Bishop of Durham now for just over seven years. I was new to the North East. I grew up in Chessington, Surrey (near what is now World of Adventures). After school I had six great years in Nottingham; three at the University studying English and History then then working variously as a Freightforwarder (brief); Social Work Assistant and as a ‘Travelling Secretary’ with UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship). The latter was my first introduction to the North East as it included visiting Durham, Newcastle and what was then Sunderland Polytechnic.
I came to faith in Jesus Christ through a Covenanter and Youth Group attached to an Open Brethren Assembly and the Christian Union at my school (Kingston Grammar) as a teenager. From the very outset I had some sense that following Jesus meant caring for the poorest and engaging in issues of social justice. My understanding of this has obviously developed ever since.
I moved into worshipping in the C of E whilst in Nottingham and my call to ordination developed there. I then trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. During that time I met and married Rosemary, a nurse who trained at St Thomas’ London. A curacy in Wandsworth was followed by seven years on Scripture Union staff living in Forest Gate, East London. Then to Walthamstow for 10 years as Team Rector of Walthamstow Team Ministry.
To my shock in 2004 I was called to become Bishop of Southampton. Served there for five and a bit years then back to Nottingham as Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham in 2010. We expected to be there until retirement but again another surprise calling to move to be Bishop of Durham. We live in Bishop Auckland and my office remains in Auckland Castle, the historic home of the bishops for around 900 years.
I have always engaged in ministry with children and young people –as a Sunday School teacher from 16 and with the school Christian Union. I started volunteering with Scripture Union in 1974 and have been involved specifically in Longbarn Camps and Longbarn East End especially ever since.
A friendship with Enoch Kayeeye from Kabale, SW Uganda introduced me to that part of Africa and visits to Uganda, Rwanda & Burundi (particularly the latter two) have been very much part of my life since 1997. My friendship with Christians there has been deeply shaping.
What made you want to become a patron of Action Foundation?
Involvement with refugees and asylum seekers goes back a long way although came more to the fore when we were in Walthamstow. We supported someone from Iran a great deal while she was in the country. She became a Christian and returned to Iran all of us knowing this would be very difficult for her.
Moving to Southampton there was good work going on which we supported as we could. Then in 2008 our Iranian friend had to flee Iran quickly. We helped her get leave to remain, and over a long period arranged for her children to join her here. It highlighted all the processes for us more sharply.
In Nottingham again we had contact with those working in the sector. Moving to Durham we found again a number of churches supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Some parts of the Diocese were key dispersal areas. The growth of Iranian asylum seekers connected strongly with our own friend’s experience.
But the involvement became much greater when the Syrian crisis broke in 2015. I became co-chair of the Refugees Welcome Board nationally, promoted Community Sponsorship and a whole lot more. It has become a major part of my work in the House of Lords over the past six years. Action Foundation does great work in our region so I wanted to express support for what is happening locally alongside the national work. I was asked, talked about it with Julian and agreed it was a role I would be very happy to take on.
What is it about refugee issues that particularly resonates with you?
The people of God in the Old Testament were specifically called upon to care for the orphan, the widow, the poor and the refugee. They were to be a people of welcome because of their own experience of slavery and release from Egypt.
Jesus himself was a refugee as an infant fleeing Herod’s persecution. So it is for more an imperative of how we love God through loving our neighbour.
I visited an internally displaced persons camp in Burundi and a Congolese refugee camp in Rwanda a few years back. The plight of the people; their resilience; the work of UNHCR; the support from the local church and community all struck me.
Here in the UK with our wealth and international influence we must play our full part in what needs to be a global response to people who have to flee because of persecution, war, natural disaster, climate change. It is all part of expressing the good news of God’s love and welcome.
What would you like to see change for refugees and people seeking asylum in the region in the future?
Clearly we are entering a new period with the new UK Resettlement scheme beginning and lots of proposed changes to the asylum system from the Government. What I long for is much better systems of welcome and support for asylum seekers that always treat them as fellow human beings who are valuable people made and loved by God. So even if their claim proved to not warrant refugee status their experience of this country will have been one of welcome and support to help them return well; or if refugee status is agreed that the asylum phase will have been really supportive in helping them settle well into being part of this region and country.
For refugees I long to see more community sponsorship happening; speedier help with English language, community support, settling into work etc.
Action Foundation is really well placed to be a key regional provider for both asylum seekers and refugees arriving directly from different parts of the world through a growing number of defined safe and legal routes.