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Pastimes: Woodturning with Church of England bishop Martin Seeley

4 min read

In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, introduces her to woodturning

For the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, woodturning is a “spiritual” experience. Martin Seeley, who was introduced to the House of Lords in March, finds his brain clearing whenever he sits at the lathe.

“I have to concentrate hard – because if you don’t, you ruin the wood or you gouge yourself,” he says. “That pushes everything out of your mind. It makes me think of the early monks in the deserts who – to keep their minds attentive to continual prayer – needed a manual, repetitive activity, so they would weave baskets.”

Seeley, 67, began turning wood four years ago. He takes regular “walkabouts” through the villages of his diocese visiting local businesses and on one of these trips, stumbled upon a woodturner, who also taught the craft. Seeley’s wife, Jutta Brueck, a fellow priest, bought him a lesson as a Christmas present, which left him hooked.

“I’d always marvelled at how beautiful turned wood could be,” he says. “It’s creative; it’s therapy; it’s an opportunity for me to set aside the business of the day and concentrate on something productive. With a lot of things I do, you don’t get to see such a clear result.” It was the perfect lockdown activity too; Seeley set up a workshop at the end of the garage: “I didn’t need to leave the grounds.” 

Woodwork in general is a life-long passion. Seeley, who grew up in Fareham, Hampshire, was given toy carpentry tools as a child and built bird boxes and a train set. As a teenager, he took woodwork O-level, although he nearly dropped it when he felt called to ordination. “I asked my father if I should switch to RE [religious education],” Seeley remembers. “He very swiftly said ‘no’ – that woodwork would be more useful.” Although as an adult he would put up shelves, it had stopped being a creative outlet until he started woodturning.

“I thought I’d run out of wood, but everyone gives it to you... I’ve enough to make bowls for years”

He made a candlestick first. Then he progressed to bowls – learning to make them even, then thinner, then adding decorations such as grooves. The bowls become presents for friends or are donated to local churches for selling at Christmas bazaars and summer fetes. 

Woodturning is not without risks. “Bits of the wood break and fly off,” he says. “And with some woods, like laburnum, the sawdust is poisonous – you have to wear a heavy duty, air-extracting mask.” One initial worry has proved unfounded, though: “I thought I’d run out of wood, but everyone gives it to you: from my parishioners to my fellow clergy. I’ve enough to make bowls for years.” 

The Lords feels a long way from the safe haven of his workshop, with Seeley admitting he is still trying to get to grips with the “protocols” of the Chamber. “It’s intimidating,” he says. “It’s a world with its own rules – some of which will be explained to you and some you only discover when you stumble into them.” 

As well as raising issues affecting Suffolk residents, from rural isolation to broadband blackholes, Seeley wants to help improve the political discourse – repeating the message of the world’s most famous carpenter.

“Whether we’re talking about asylum seekers, or people on benefits, underneath all those questions is: do you start from the attitude that every person is a gift, or that every person is a problem?” he asks. “Loving your neighbour as yourself ought to run through every engagement with others.” 

And is his love of woodwork partly inspired by Jesus? He laughs: “I am occasionally conscious that the tradition that Jesus is a carpenter is not unconnected with what I’m doing.”

Rosamund Urwin is a journalist with The Sunday Times.

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Read the most recent article written by Rosamund Urwin - Pastimes: To the theatre with Margaret Hodge


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