Meet Sean Doherty
As our new principal and his family relocate to Bristol, it’s not the first time God has called them down unexpected paths.
Sean Doherty’s earliest childhood memories of church are of the struggle to sit still, under the sometimes exasperated gaze of his mother. And of colouring pictures of Jesus.
‘It didn’t mean a whole lot. I accepted it—I believed God existed—but at that stage it wasn’t a big deal. It was what we did on Sundays.’ And so, around twelve or thirteen, Sean began staying home from church to watch television.
A few years later, a friend invited Sean to attend a nearby church, which offered what was a pioneering outreach in the early 90s—a youth service. The leaders were in their teens and early 20s, including the preacher that night, who stood in front of the group of gathered teenagers and told them that lots of people believe in God, and yet it doesn’t make any difference to their lives. ‘If you believe in God,’ he said, ‘then he should be at the centre of your life.’ When a call was made to stand to respond, Sean stood, with the desire to own his faith.
Delving into the Bible
Sean began to attend a cell group offered through the church. ‘I could see these people leading the group,’ he says. ‘They had something I didn’t have—they understood so much more than I did. That gave me a hunger and interest. They talked about the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts. It was my first time learning about the charismatic movement.’
At the same time, Sean began to drop by a Christian bookshop near his school. The first book he bought was Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. From there he began to read all he could find. ‘I was asking myself, What is this whole thing I’ve started to own for myself? I was combining my experiences in the charismatic church and this teaching together, making connections between my upbringing and my current experiences. I would be the annoying one in a cell group, because I’d be the person asking questions, questions that might have seemed doubting or aggressive, but it was because I really wanted to understand it all.’
“One of my favourite verses is Romans 12:2—Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. So many people, both Christian and non-Christian, are hungry to be transformed but they don’t know how. It’s something we neglect in a more experience-based culture. But as our minds encounter God’s truth, we will be transformed at every level.”
The next shift in direction God brought to Sean’s life came as he began as a first-year English student at Oxford University. This had been his dream for a long time. And yet, as he went through the first year of the programme, he wasn’t as engaged with his studies as he’d expected. As he and his tutor spent a week on the sermons of John Donne, ‘I loved it,’ Sean remembers. ‘His preaching was amazing—very poetic and powerful. I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me: You could have this all the time if you were studying theology. It just hit me—why did I never think of that before?’
Although Sean had already completed a year and a term of his English programme, his tutor consented to the change, and the theology department helped him catch up with one-to-one Greek sessions. ‘I was studying what I was most passionate about,’ he says. ‘God so kindly opened that door—studying the Bible, Christian doctrine, church history—I loved it.’
Learning about multicultural ministry
Sean had been considering ordination since he was 18, and after spending a year working for the Anglican Mission Agency USPG, he completed his BAP, which identified him as a potential theological educator. At 24, he embarked upon his training programme at Wycliffe Hall, during which he and his wife Gaby were married. The couple met several years earlier whilst both serving as part of a Soul Survivor host team, and when Gaby happened to move to the town where Sean was living to start her new job as a Christian worker for schools, an enduring friendship began between the two.
As the Dohertys prepared for Sean’s curacy, they found God leading them to a church in Cricklewood, London. Neither of them had lived in London previously—Gaby had grown up on a farm in Somerset, and Sean in Berkshire—and their time in a multicultural church impacted them both deeply. The congregation brought together people from all over the world; they found a unity in Jesus Christ, but still with cultural differences. ‘It left me with a heart for multicultural ministry,’ Sean reflects now, ‘for the church as a gathering of people from all different cultures and backgrounds. We had to think: what’s the gospel? How can our church have a culture that’s a gospel culture, and not have one culture dominate? We could also see that the leadership of the church did not necessarily reflect the diversity of the congregation. I learned how much you have to proactively work to address that—it’s an ongoing journey. That was a joy for me, to see people we encouraged from within the church go on to training.’
Meanwhile, Sean had completed his PhD and in 2009 began to teach ethics at St Mellitus in London, bringing with him into the job all of the excitement he’d felt as a teenager, connecting his Christian reading with his Christian experience. ‘One of my favourite verses is Romans 12:2—Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. So many people, both Christian and non-Christian, are hungry to be transformed but they don’t know how. It’s something we neglect in a more experience-based culture. But as our minds encounter God’s truth, we will be transformed at every level.’ While working at St Mellitus, Sean continued to think about, research, and write on ethical issues, particularly sexuality, issues of life and death, and economic ethics. He began an ethics series entitled The Only Way is Ethics, and more recently began contributing to the Living in Love and Faith process in the Church of England.
“A church grows when people come to faith, or because they’ve been warmly welcomed, or because of lives helped. It grows because you do kingdom things—as a by-product of that, but not as a goal in itself.”
Moving to a council estate
When Sean began at St Mellitus, he and Gaby felt God calling them to join a church plant on a council estate in Kensington. For Sean, the seeds for this move were planted back when he attended Soul Survivor as a teenager, hearing the challenge not to stay comfortable as Christians, and to serve the poor. By that time, Gaby had already been in estate ministry for several years.
So the Dohertys and their two young children packed up their four-bedroom semi-detached house with an apple tree in the garden, and moved to a three-bedroom flat on the third floor of an overcrowded council estate with no lift. They joined an HTB team at a faithful but small church. This experience caused Sean to think more deeply about church growth. ‘I wanted to see change, to see grace happen there,’ he remembers. ‘I wanted to keep praying and seeking more for this church. The experience certainly cured me of the idea that we believe in church growth as a goal in itself. But there are reasons why church growth is important. A church grows when people come to faith, or because they’ve been warmly welcomed, or because of lives helped. It grows because you do kingdom things—as a by-product of that, but not as a goal in itself.’ There were relatively few church members with the confidence to lead, so a key need was to develop leaders from within the community. ‘We had to learn how to find God in weakness, and to persevere and stick it through—not reducing our vision to what we were at that moment, but believing that there is more that God must want to do.’
On 14 June 2017, Sean woke in the middle of the night to the sound of sirens. As he opened the bedroom curtains he was shocked to see Grenfell Tower, just 250 yards opposite the window, engulfed in flames. ‘The most horrifying thing was that I could see so many people at their windows looking out of the Tower. Many were calling out of the windows for help and using the lights on their phones to attract attention. I could hear people calling up to them as well. It was clear the fire brigade was already present and doing what they could, but it started to sink in that a huge tragedy was unfolding.’
Sean prayed and got dressed, putting on his clerical shirt and collar, then woke his wife to tell her what was happening before going out. He woke Fr Alan Everett, the Church of England vicar in whose parish the Tower stood. Together they opened St Clements Church, just a few yards from the Tower, and as they lit candles to show that they were there, people began to come in for hot drinks and to use the toilets. ‘One of the first to arrive was a firefighter. He came in very briefly, knelt to pray for a minute, and then went back out again into the fray. I found that incredibly moving. If he had just found a moment of peace and strength in the midst of what he was doing and the terrible things he must have seen, then what we were doing was worth it for that alone.’ Those at the church continued to pray through the night, everyone unsure what the casualty toll would be, unsure about the safety of friends. By the early morning the church had become a focal point for people who wanted to help, including medical professionals, and for those needing a place to take refuge—parents with small children, babies needing nappies and formula, people who’d left home without their medications.
‘I can rarely think about it without tears. At the same time, there has been such a strong sense of God’s presence in the pain. Knowing God is there doesn’t necessarily diminish the loss or anger, nor should it. But it enables you to see beyond the sadness and anger, to see that even though they are so serious and overwhelming, that there is more and that they are not the whole story. In particular, the thing that will stay with me, and which gives me hope is the way in which the community and people from further afield united so rapidly and with simple compassion, to respond to the need they saw, and the way in which this meant so much to those who had been affected.’
A call to Bristol
After eight years at the church plant, God has called the Dohertys—now Sean, Gaby, and their four children—to move to Bristol. Sean had received unexpected encouragement from friends to apply for the role as Trinity’s new principal, and the more he considered it, the more he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Gaby joined Sean in praying about the idea, and felt God calling them to a willingness to let go of the work they’d been doing in their neighbourhood in the aftermath of the fire, reminding them that this work was not dependent upon them. As Sean began to learn more about Trinity, he thought, ‘Wow, this is a really special place, where God is working. You get that sense within the community of students, and as you see the special group of staff God has brought together to form the students.’ So, as he often advises his ordinands as they consider their curacy options, ‘I decided to push the door, and see what would happen.’
Now, this spring, as the Dohertys pack up their home in London and begin this next season of their journey, Sean says, ‘I’m so excited to be joining in with what God is doing at Trinity. I’m coming with a sense of expectation and prayer that God may do the things he wants to do, through everyone at Trinity.’