Bishop-Elect of Plymouth shares thoughts after appointment announcement

His Holiness Pope Francis has appointed Canon Christopher Whitehead as the Tenth Bishop of the Diocese of Plymouth.

He replaces the former Bishop of Plymouth, the Most Reverend Mark O’Toole who moved to Wales in June 2022 when he was appointed Archbishop of Cardiff and Bishop of Menevia.

On hearing the news of his appointment yesterday, 15th December 2023, Bishop-elect Christopher said:

“With complete trust in the gentle, guiding hands of the Lord, I take up the appointment that our Holy Father Pope Francis has entrusted to me. This is not something I could have ever imagined and willingly give myself to where the Lord has called me to serve and with all I have to offer.

“Like my own diocese of Clifton, Plymouth is such a beautiful part of this country and I am truly happy to have the opportunity to make my home among its great people. Clifton has been my home for the 54 years of my life, and it is where I learned to walk in the ways of faith and where my priestly vocation was born and nurtured. For that I will be eternally thankful. So too for the teachers and guides who have shown me the way, the priests and religious who have inspired me, and all who have supported me with their love and prayers. I am where I am because of their love, their witness, their example and their kindness.

“As I begin this challenging and exciting journey in the service of God’s Church and the people of the Diocese of Plymouth, I ask for the prayers of the children, women and men of my new diocese. I need these and the prayers of my brother priests, and the religious communities, and all people of good will. Please pray that I may have the gifts of courage, wisdom, prudence and discernment, as your servant.

“Naturally I feel apprehensive about the ministry now entrusted to me, and so I place myself in the loving hands of our God, knowing he is always faithful. I thank God for his merciful love and pray that God’s most Holy Spirit may enable me to be faithful in all I do, remaining ever attentive to the Gospel and his love. I pray that I be a gentle shepherd to God’s people and a loving father to those I have been called to serve – wanting to ensure that the Church in the Diocese of Plymouth continues to be a safe and welcoming space for all.”

The Diocesan Administrator of Plymouth Diocese, Canon Paul Cummins, who has been looking after the diocese since Archbishop Mark O’Toole’s appointment to Cardiff and Menevia in June 2022 said:

“I offer my heartfelt congratulations to Bishop-elect Christopher Whitehead as the news of his nomination by the Holy Father as the Bishop of Plymouth is announced. We welcome him with open arms to this beautiful diocese in the south-west of England. May St Boniface and St Cuthbert Mayne and all the saints and martyrs of the Diocese of Plymouth pray for him. I assure him of my full support and prayers as he prepares to join us here.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said on the news of Bishop-elect Christopher’s appointment:

“I am delighted at the appointment of Canon Christopher Whitehead as the next Bishop of Plymouth Diocese. He brings a wide pastoral experience from his years in Clifton Diocese, together with a dedication to the work of evangelisation and education.

“I welcome him to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and assure him of lasting friendships and support from his fellow bishops.

“I assure him of my own prayers, and ask you to keep him in your prayers as he prepares to take up these new steps in his service of the Church.”

The Metropolitan Archbishop, the Most Reverend John Wilson of Southwark, added:

“I was so pleased to hear the good news of the appointment by Pope Francis of Canon Christopher Whitehead as the new Bishop of Plymouth. I know there will great gratitude for his ministry as a priest in his home diocese of Clifton.

“The Lord has now called him to be a shepherd in new pastures. In the Advent time, when we think of Our Lady’s generous response to God’s call, I thank God for Bishop-elect Christopher’s generosity in saying ‘yes’ to the Lord. He will receive a warm welcome in the Diocese of Plymouth where Canon Paul Cummins has served so effectively as Diocesan Administrator following the translation of Bishop Mark O’Toole to be Archbishop of Cardiff and Bishop of Menevia.

“I can assure Bishop-elect Christopher of a warm welcome too to the Metropolitan Province of Southwark. As his fellow bishops, and together with the clergy, laity and religious of the Diocese of Plymouth, we will hold him in our hearts before the Lord and as he prepares to take up the example of the Good Shepherd in a new and beautiful way.”

The Right Reverend Declan Lang, Bishop of Canon Whitehead’s home diocese of Clifton, said:

“My congratulations to Bishop-elect Christopher Whitehead as he prepares to take up his episcopal ministry in the Diocese of Plymouth. He has many talents arising from his experiences as a parish priest and one time director of our Adult Education and Evangelisation Department. He is also the Director of Formation for the Permanent Diaconate. His singing voice is noteworthy as is his cooking!

“Our prayers and thanks go with him as he leaves the Diocese of Clifton to commence a new journey in the Diocese of Plymouth.”

Biography of Bishop-elect Christopher Whitehead

Born in Gloucester in August 1969 to parents Leslie and Christine, Bishop-elect Christopher Whitehead is the oldest of three siblings, with brothers Craig and Anthony. His youngest brother, Anthony, lives in the Diocese of Plymouth.

His local parish, St Peter’s, was to lie at the heart of his education and formation. He was baptised, made his first Holy Communion, was confirmed and ordained in St Peter’s Church.

Bishop-elect Christopher attended St Peter’s Catholic Infant, Primary and Secondary School before studying for the priesthood at St Mary’s, Oscott, after leaving school in 1987.

On 30 November 1993, he was ordained deacon at St Peter’s Catholic Church, and then seven months later on 1 July 1994, was ordained priest by Bishop Mervyn Alexander.

The Bishop-elect has never forgotten the guiding hand of Bishop Alexander, who he says offered him the opportunity to grow as a man of faith. It was his inspiration, encouragement, and example of gentleness, patience, and love that drew him towards the priesthood.

He was to serve the Diocese of Clifton as a priest for almost three decades, his first post as a curate at St Mary’s, Bath, from 1994-1996. His next appointment was to Holy Family parish in Swindon, before serving at St Mary-on-the-Quay in Bristol from 1996–1998. During this time, he was also chaplain to University Hospital Bristol.

Having served at the Cathedral as an assistant priest for two years until 2000, he was appointed to his first parish St George’s in Warminster.

In 2006, Bishop-elect Christopher moved to Whitchurch in Bristol to be parish priest of St Bernadette’s, a post he was to hold for almost ten years. A very happy time, this coincided with his appointment to a number of important roles serving the diocesan curia:

Director of Adult Education (to 2018), Director of Ongoing Formation of Priests (until 2020), Director of Formation for the Permanent Diaconate (to present).

In 2018, he returned to parish ministry at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Stroud, before moving to his present post as parish priest of St John the Evangelist in Bath, a year later in 2019.

He was appointed a member of the Cathedral Chapter in 2020.

Bishop-elect Christopher has a great love and appreciation for art, and in his spare time enjoys going to the cinema and sharing food with friends and family.

He will be ordained and installed the tenth Bishop of Plymouth in the Cathedral Church of Saint Mary and Saint Boniface in the city.

The Diocese of Plymouth

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth was erected as the Diocese of Plymouth in 1850 by Pope Pius IX, from the Apostolic Vicariate of the Western District, the diocese has remained jurisdictionally constant since. The diocese is currently a suffragan see of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Southwark.

The episcopal see is in the city of Plymouth, Devon, where the bishop’s seat (cathedra) is located at the Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Boniface. The diocese covers the counties of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, stretching from Penzance and the Isles of Scilly in the west, to parts of Bournemouth in the east.

It is divided into five deaneries: Cornwall, Dorset, Exeter, Plymouth, and Torbay.