Rowan Mantell writes:
He lives in a palace, sits in the Lords and gets an invite to Sandringham every Christmas.
But the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, who this week celebrates 25 years as a bishop and is the longest serving bishop in the Church of England, is especially loved for his connection with the people he serves.
This is a man who reaches heart and souls, whether he is chatting to the Queen about corgis or to a factory worker about football. When Bishop Graham arrived in Norwich 18 years ago he described his job as “Keeping the rumour of God alive.” Now 67, and heading towards retirement (bishops must retire by 70) he is particularly pleased to have ordained more than 200 people as priests, and baptised and confirmed many more in parishes across the diocese.
“To see the next generation is a huge privilege which gives you a sense that you are part of a great flow of God’s grace from the past into the future. I am just a small cog in a work of centuries but I have seen some of our churches grow, and more young people come into them.”
That many Norfolk churches are alive with people serving their communities is partly a testament to his leadership, humour, down-to-earth can-do attitude and a charisma which is much more than skin-deep.
Bishop Graham and his wife, Julie, fell in love with Norfolk almost as soon as they arrived.
“It’s a distinct city and distinct county. I love the mix of the urban and the very rural. Above all it’s the people. You are told that you have to be here for about 120 years before you are accepted, but people were hoping we liked it here. There is a sort of humility about people in Norfolk, which is why I love them. They are not swanky; they are not boastful. Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.’ And they will.”
Can he pick a favourite church in a diocese blessed with some of the most remarkable churches in the world?
“There are some buildings that I love, the obvious ones like the cathedral and also the coastal churches in Blakeney, Cley, Happisburgh, standing like lighthouses, representing the light of Christ at the edge of the land.”
Two places he feels particularly close to God are by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived and worked, and at St Benet’s Abbey in the heart of the Broads. As Abbot of St Benet’s he arrives by boat every August to lead an open-air service beside the scattered ruins.
“I’m not really a sea-going person but there is something about where land and water meet, and an atmosphere hallowed by prayer,” he said.
When he first became a Bishop there was no Google, Facebook, or women priests. Today 35pc of priests in the diocese are female – and one of the first to be ordained, the Rt Rev Jan MacFarlane, now Bishop of Repton, will be back to preach at his celebration service.
In 2012 Bishop Graham was tipped as the next Archbishop of Canterbury – and admitted to praying that he would not be appointed. “I love being Bishop of Norwich and having a community, and churches, over which to minister and getting to know a lot of people.”
One of the many families he has got to know in Norfolk is the royal family. Just after Christmas he stays at Sandringham as their guest, preaching at church and joining family activities from chatting to the Queen to playing with Prince George and Princess Charlotte.
“I think the royal family’s fondness for Norfolk is very considerable because on the whole they are left to themselves and they can be themselves in a place which doesn’t feel official. The Queen loves being here,” he said.
Bishop Graham’s grandfather was a tin miner. “He would have been a bit surprised to see me with the royal family!” he said.
He joined the House of Lords in 2004, attending weekly for many years, and has just been appointed chair of the government inquiry into a disgraced doctor. He is the Church of England’s spokesman on media issues, a writer himself and, in Norfolk, patron and supporter of many charities. He also helped spearhead a focus on education in church schools and an academy trust.
He might have trained as a teacher but said:
“By my early 20s the Christian faith was so important to me that I knew that if I didn’t offer myself for ordination there would always be this niggle at the back of my mind that I hadn’t at least offered.”
That offer eventually took him, to be chaplain to two archbishops of Canterbury, and then back to his native Cornwall as bishop. Quite soon he and Julie will retire to Cornwall, but first he will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his consecration, at Norwich Cathedral on Friday, February 23. All are welcome to the 5.30pm service.
The man beneath the mitre:
Family: Bishop Graham is married to Julie, a nurse, and the couple have a grown-up daughter who is a teacher and a son who is a merchandiser. They lost their middle child, six-month-old Victoria, to cot death.
Pets: No pets currently reside in the Bishop’s Palace but Bishop Graham might have a dog after retirement. As a child his family had a corgi, and he has been able to wow the Queen with his corgi knowledge.
Sport: Cricket is a favourite and Bishop Graham particularly enjoys spending a day at a test match with his son. “There is something about a day at a cricket ground that helps you forget the rest of your responsibilities,” he said.
Hobby: Both Bishop Graham and Julie love the theatre and might return to amateur acting in retirement. The bishop has been known to take on roles in charity and community productions – including playing God. “Some people see what I’m like when I’m all dressed up in the cathedral say it’s just like the theatre!” he said.
Television: An occasional drama series but the Bishop admitted: “I fall asleep in front of the telly!”
Radio: “I’m a bit of a Radio 4 addict. I get up at the moment to the Today Programme. And shout at it,” said the man who regularly appears on its Thought for the Day slot.
The article originally featured on the EDP and Evening News website.