PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 November 2018 | UPDATED: 12:00 15 November 2018
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James. Photo: Diocese of Norwich
Diocese of Norwich
With a heart for people and a head for action, the Lord Bishop of Norwich, the Right Reverend Graham James has won friends across his diocese. The man who once appeared in the Guinness Book of Records talks about rollercoasters, royals and religion ahead of his retirement
When Bishop Graham arrived in Norwich, he was expecting it would take time to feel at home.
“The thing that I kept hearing about Norfolk was that you need to be here for 180 years before anyone will speak to you!” he said. “We certainly didn’t find that at all. Of all the places I have been in ministry this is the place that has given the warmest welcome and was the easiest to feel at home in.”
He leaves, with farewell cathedral services on November 25, as the longest serving bishop in the entire Church of England. But as Bishop Graham and his wife Julie say their goodbyes after 20 years in Norfolk, their legacy could live on for decades.
Over the past 20 years Bishop Graham has visited every benefice, and almost every church, in a diocese stretching from King’s Lynn to Lowestoft and Cromer to Diss. He has preached in more than 500 different Norfolk churches, ordained more than 400 new deacons and priests and confirmed many thousands of people into the faith he has spent a lifetime preaching. “I try to write a new sermon each time I preach, but I can’t promise every anecdote will be new!” he said.
A gifted communicator he is a regular on BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s “Thought for the day” slot and in Norfolk has taken part in charity game shows, theatrical performances, and even played God – in a village play.
His very first visit to Norfolk was as a young curate, visiting a fellow curate in Sprowston, north Norwich. The pair of fledgling clergymen enjoyed a ride on the famous wooden rollercoaster at Great Yarmouth. His next trip to the Pleasure Beach was in disguise – for by now he had risen through the ranks, including six years as chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to become Bishop of Norwich. Wanting to take his teenage children, Rebecca and Dominic, to enjoy the fun without the ceremony of being there with the bishop, he went unannounced to enjoy some more white-knuckle rides.
Most of his trips around the county have been more sedate, although there is an annual ride on a Norfolk wherry to preach at an open-air service alongside the river Bure in his role as Abbot of St Benet’s.
He loves the beauty of his diocese – but is not blind to its problems.
“What I have watched over more than 40 years of ministry is a society where there have been ever greater divisions between people with stable lives and people with chaotic lives.” he said. “Don’t imagine that these are people who have not had a stable upbringing. Losing a job, or a relationship breaking down, or problems with children or sickness, can cause the whole of life to collapse.
“I do feel that these problems are more testing, and greater now then when I arrived in Norwich. They were around then, but a bit more hidden from our eyes.”
And he said easy access to illegal drugs meant people trying to temporarily block out problems ended up addicted and destitute.
“It is one of the reasons so many Christian groups are involved in ministering to people with drug and alcohol addictions,” he said. “We offer not to convert them but to connect as humans. In that cold weather last year, the people of Norwich’s St Peter Mancroft church were an amazing witness.
“The whole point of a God who becomes a human being and suffers death on the cross as a common criminal is that there is no degradation he hasn’t felt himself,” said Bishop Graham. “However terrible you feel about yourself, however bad things become, he’s been there.”
He has worked groups tackling drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, addiction, rural isolation and relationship breakdown, and has also been able to pass on the welcome given to him. He wanted Norfolk to be a place of sanctuary for families fleeing death and devastation in warzones including Congo and Syria. “There is that great tradition of welcoming strangers which goes so deep in our history that it still a place of hospitality,” said Bishop Graham.
He also helped create the Norfolk Community Fund which now has a £20 million endowment aimed at helping Norfolk people for years to come.
“Norfolk people love their county and want to support community life and what I wanted to do was create something that would last. I like to think that the community fund will be here for a very long time. Just as at the bottom of my garden one of my predecessors founded the Great Hospital in 1249, and it’s still going.”
Although the farewell services are on November 25, Bishop Graham does not actually retire, back to his home county of Cornwall, until February.
One of his last engagements will be with the Queen.
With Norfolk hosting the head of the Church of England every Christmas, the grandson of a Cornish tin miner has had an annual festive date with the Queen, staying with the Royals at Sandringham, preaching at church on the last Sunday of the year – and connecting with the Queen over corgis, which were his own family’s pet of choice during his childhood.
But he said his fondest memories are of events far from the national spotlight.
“Some of the occasions which have most touched me have been in small churches in the depths of the Norfolk countryside – dedicating a war memorial in Felmingham a century on from the First World War, playing God in the mystery plays at Bergh Apton, celebrating the renewal of the bells in Foxley, inaugurating the Friends at Salle – it’s sometimes in the smallest places that you get a sense of how transformative the life of the church can be for the local community around.
“Going to a church that’s so connected to the community around it reminds me why I love the Church of England. I like seeing Christian ministry reaching out to the wider community.
“Although there are not lots of people clamouring to get into church, the Christian faith is very much alive,” said the man who arrived in Norfolk saying he was here to ‘keep the rumour of God alive.’
“You long for some massive spiritual revival but you need to be reminded that it’s God’s church, not your church and you are there to help him.”
Bishop Graham, who once appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the country’s youngest bishop, said his faith has been strengthened rather than shaken over the years. “I’m more confident in God and his love now than I was when I was first ordained,” he said.
His successor will be announced next year. Bishop Graham’s advice to him, or her, is ‘Enjoy it.’
“I was told by a Roman Catholic bishop 25 years ago when I was newly consecrated that one of the most important roles of a bishop is to be cheerful. The people of God need a bishop who looks like he’s enjoying being a bishop. Do you have a leap of joy in the heart at the prospect of it? I had that when I was asked to come to Norwich. I did not have that when I was being talked about as a potential Archbishop.”
Bishop Graham will be leading and preaching at Norwich Cathedral at 10.30am on Sunday November 25 and attending a farewell evensong at 4pm. All are welcome.
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