Published on 30 December 2023
University of Sunderland Chaplain, Reverend Chris Howson, has received a British Empire Medal (BEM) for Services to Higher Education in the King's New Year Honours list.
Here, he talks about his background, struggle, and ongoing commitment to supporting those going into Higher Education:
“For me, this honour is dedicated to my family, the University of Sunderland, the Diocese of Durham and all the people of this region who see Higher Education as a means to improve our communities and the lives of ordinary people from both near and far.
“Having devoted myself to chaplaincy here at the University of Sunderland for over a decade, I see the honour first and foremost belonging to a University which genuinely cares for its students and has enabled me to work with an amazing team of people committed to inclusion and compassion within the institution and the wider community.
“My own journey to higher education was a rocky one. I grew up on a council estate and left school with very few qualifications, expecting to follow my dad on his milk round.
“My conversion to Christianity at 17 came with it a desire to improve my education, and I went to a progressive college to do ‘O’ levels in Politics, Sociology, English, Law, Math and Geography – then ‘A’ levels in Politics, Sociology and Human Geography.
“I wanted to put my faith into practice, so I went to study for a Social Work degree at Bradford University. I dropped out after year one, suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and being told I was not able to write in an academic style.
“It was the time of the Poll Tax rebellion, and fed up with England, I headed off to Ireland to try my hand as an artist. After a year of poverty, homelessness and various scrapes, I returned to finish my course and eventually spend a year as President of University of Bradford Student Union.
“We fought rent strikes and won, we fought for free Higher Education, and lost. I personally saw Higher Education as the main way to improve community and encourage people to be the best they could be in life, so I supported the struggle for student rights long after qualifying as a social worker and doing Church-related jobs among homelessness, addiction and the prison system.
“I felt a calling to become a priest and after being accepted for training in 1999 went to study at Cranmer Hall, Durham, where I first fell in love with the north-east region.
“I then had 10 wonderful years working back in the Diocese of Bradford, ending up running a church full of exciting students who were actively engaged in their community and world affairs. I wrote a book about the experience which allowed me to give talks up and down the country about what it means to be a ‘liberation theologian’.
“When I went for the job as Chaplain to the University of Sunderland in 2012, I was very excited. The University prided itself on being a ‘civic university’, determined to serve the region and offer life changing courses for local people as well as bringing a diverse set of international students into the city.
“It was a melting pot for young people to develop their ideas and skills, and the University clearly wanted to provide for their spiritual growth as well, whatever faith background they came from. With this holistic approach from the University, and with a great team of Interfaith Chaplains to work with, it continues to be a privilege to serve the Diocese of Durham in this role.
“I have real pride in the way the University, City and Minster has also undertaken to welcome those seeking sanctuary in Sunderland, and I have seen the real benefits for students and refugees working together to help the local community. Mackems, Ukrainians, Syrians, Iranians, Sudanese – a formidable force for good when working in unity.
“I never thought a working-class lad from Staines would end up as a priest, let alone get a distinction whilst studying at the University of Sunderland for a Masters in Inequalities and Society, so I’m extremely grateful for all the opportunities that I am fortunate to have had. It has taught me to make the most of every God given day.”
Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Sunderland, commenting on the honour, said: “I am delighted that Chris Howson has been recognised in the New Year Honours and I want to offer him my warmest congratulations.
“I know that this award will be widely welcomed by the whole University of Sunderland community and, indeed, beyond given the outstanding contribution Chris has made to the welfare and wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community.
“Chris is the embodiment of someone who lives their faith and we are all enriched by the example of dedicated and committed service that he provides day in and day out.”