Our Vision

Hearts on Fire with a Vision for growth

A brief history of the Diocese

For more than 1000 years the area covered by the present Diocese of Southwark was countryside and the churches which towered over the little houses belonged to the vast Diocese of Winchester.

But many of the villages planted in Anglo-Saxon times and the Middle Ages were swollen by the new population of the world's first industrial revolution and sucked into orbit around the capital. Workers now went not into the fields but to the city and port of London or to South London's innumerable workshops.

In 1877 the area was added to the Diocese of Rochester - which fortunately had a bishop of strong Evangelical faith, Anthony Thorold, who became determined that the religious life of South London should have its own firm identity.

Thanks to his vision, a Suffragran Bishop of Southwark was appointed in 1891 and an ancient parish church in Southwark was restored to become a pro-Cathedral in 1897.

In 1905, the Diocese of Southwark was created to include the whole of the county of London south of the Thames and the Parliamentary divisions of East and Mid Surrey.

Assisted by the Suffragan Bishops of Woolwich and Kingston, the Bishop of Southwark was confronted by the challenge of building up the Church through parishes which ranged from the prosperous villages such as Reigate or Kew and highly respectable Edwardian suburbs to appallingly overcrowded and insanitary tenements. Charles Booth's survey of the life and labour of the people of London described much of the new diocese as 'the largest area of unbroken poverty in any city in the world'.

Edward Talbot

Edward Talbot

The first Bishop of Southwark had been the 100th Bishop of Rochester: Edward Stuart Talbot.

Earlier in his life, he had made a similar move, for he had resigned as the first warden of Keble College, Oxford, to become Vicar of Leeds. His faith expressed all that was best in that Anglo-Catholic or "High Church" revival which had originated around Oxford priests such as John Keble. The worship offered in the parish churches - themselves in most cases newly built or newly restored - was often full of dignity and beauty in the use of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. From it spread much pastoral and social work.

The next outstandingly creative Bishop (for twelve and a half years) was Cyril Garbett, appointed in 1919.

A masterful man of great energy, he concentrated on rescuing his priests from their own poverty and gathering them in synods, on building 25 churches in the new housing areas, on beginning the proper staffing and adornment of the cathedral and on campaigning for better housing for the people.

The hard work which he led could not arrest the decline in churchgoing. Social work among the poor was increasingly being taken over by the State and thus a visit to the parish church became optional for the respectable. In addition, the spread of education raised challenges to traditional beliefs.

Nevertheless, during the stewardship of three more Bishops of Southwark, the history of many a parish shows that it remained a symbol of faith and mutual help.

Bishops of Southwark

1905 Edward Stuart Talbot

1911 Hubert Murray Burge

1919 Cyril Foster Garbett

1932 Richard Godfrey Parsons

1942 Bertram Fitzgerald Simpson

1959 Arthur Mervyn Stockwood

1980 Ronald Oliver Bowlby

1991 Robert Kerr Williamson

1998 Thomas Frederick Butler

Christopher Thomas James Chessun

Such church life was tested when another world war came, this time devastating much of South London. When peace slowly brought large programmes of rehousing and at least a whiff of affluence, many of the churches and their schools were repaired and again witnessed vigorously to England's traditional faith despite all the difficulties.

Mervyn Stockwood

Bishop, Mervyn Stockwood

The sixth Bishop, Mervyn Stockwood (1959-1980), threw himself with a resounding splash into these difficulties.

He encouraged both those who worked hard in the old patterns of the Church and the new blood who wanted experiments. Radically adventurous theologians, priests in jeans out on the streets, processions against racism, the charismatic movement, ecumenical co-operation, the Southwark Ordination Course to train "worker-priests", a large and lively Diocesan staff: all these were signs of new life. The Diocese now presented a spectacle of pioneering courage in its mission to a largely secularised population. Although some dismissed this as "South Bank religion", it was inspired mainly by the spread of the Parish Communion movement, which culminated in the Alternative Service Book (1980). And Southwark came top of the league in the Church of England when it came to giving by its laity.

Ronnie Bowlby

Ronnie Bowlby

The seventh Bishop, Ronald Bowlby (1980-1991) had at one time been Vicar of Croydon and it was during his episcopate that the 32 parishes of the Croydon area were added to the Diocese.

Part of the Diocese of Canterbury since 1845, the 1985 amalgamation with Southwark placed the Croydon parishes within the Diocese to which they logically belong.

Roy Williamson

Roy Williamson

The Diocese was then under the leadership of Roy Williamson from 1991 until his retirement at the end of January 1998.

Bishop Roy came to the Diocese from the Diocese of Bradford where he had been Bishop since 1984.  During his episcopacy he led the Diocese through what might be described as the most radical change in its organisational structure since the Diocese was formed.  The changes were designed to help the Diocese to remain true to its history as a radical, innovative, surprising and vibrant Diocese.


Tom Butler

Tom Butler

The Rt Revd Dr Tom Butler was the ninth Bishop of Southwark. He led the Diocese from 1998 until March 2010 when he retired at the statutory retirement age of 70.

During his Episcopacy he led the clergy and people of the Diocese through its centenary and the celebrations at Lambeth Palace. His focus on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns and the establishment of the Committee that considered this matter and the staff post which took the work forward underpinned much of the work he did. He also helped to transform Continuing Ministerial Education and to promote women’s ministry at all levels in the Diocese.

Christopher Chessun

Christopher Chessun

The tenth (and current) Bishop is the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, who was enthroned in March 2011.

Bishop Christopher was already well known in the Diocesan as he had been the Bishop of Woolwich since 2005. He is a strong advocate for the parish system as the most effective means of church presence and engagement in the life of local communities including the need to proclaim the Gospel afresh amid the rapid changes in church and community life.

He has driven forward the process of renewing the governance structures of the Diocese, ensuring that they were fit for purpose.  He has also taken forward matters related to the charge which was given to him when he became the Bishop of Southwark, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  As such he has committed the Diocese to valuing and empowering the laity, vocational renewal and breathing new life into the Deaneries.  This has lead to the Hearts on Fire initiative which is shaping the Diocesan strategy.

 In 2015 Bishop Christopher entered the Lords and has used this as an opportunity to speak out on matters concerning refugees and those who are suffering because of their faith as well as matters related to poverty and injustice.