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Bishop Graham reflects on the past year

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Transcript of Bishop Graham’s segment:

So, a year ago, it felt as if there were these dark clouds coming in and we didn’t know quite where they were coming from. In fact, the senior staff of the diocese, the 10 of us, were due to have our annual residential and we were going to East London to have that time together for planning and prayer and also to have some joy together as a team; and I pulled the plug on that on the previous Saturday, much to the annoyance of some who thought, “what the heck’s he doing, he’s making a big fuss out of nothing.” But by the Tuesday of that week, we were having our first COVID response meeting.

The mood of the country was changing very, very fast. There was a final choral Evensong in the Cathedral, with the girls choir and there were a lot of people there. I was asked to give the blessing at the end, which I did and I remember in that blessing, I said, “until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.” I really struggled to get to the end of the blessing because tears were coming down my face. I was a bit embarrassed so I turned and went out in the procession at the end. I just knelt with the Bishop of Lynn, before the high altar in the Cathedral in streams of tears, because the kind of enormity of this decision that we should close for public worship. We didn’t know for how long, though there was the optimistic view that it would only be for three or four weeks, but in my heart of hearts, I knew this would be for a lot longer than that and the world would somehow change.

What we knew of what it was to live together was going to change and we didn’t know quite what that would entail or be. In fact, I haven’t hugged my mum for over a year, only seen her once this year – socially distanced, my parents live in Scotland. I just love to give her a big hug, so many people would. Then, my son was on his gap year in the Gambia and we needed to get him home and the organisation he was there with were being a bit slow. Actually, we got him out before the rest of the team got out because they were determined to stay. We got him out on a repatriation flight that was quite anxious-making. Our daughter started homeschooling. My wife, who’s a GP, was looking at what she could do.

There was a sense for many of us, who could this impact? I was sent very confidential instructions about the mass-burial of the dead in open pits, we were talking and planning for what then became the the temporary mortuary for Norfolk. There was a real sense of foreboding in the air as to what this was going to look like. It’s easy now to look back in hindsight and say, “Oh, why did we make those decisions?” And, yes, we made mistakes, of course, we made mistakes; but actually, the mood music was very, very serious. That might not have been known by the wider public, but that’s what I was dealing with at the time.

I was absolutely clear about a few things though, right from day one. I was absolutely clear that the Church needs to talk of living hope that we need to be hopeful in this situation. I was very, very clear that we had to follow national advice as a Church; that we needed to continue to pray; that we needed to prioritise our pastoral care – and, goodness, we saw a fantastic mobilisation of the care of the isolated and the lonely and feeding hungry people that the church has done across Norfolk and Waveney. Finally, I really felt that priority needed to be around keeping each other safe and being kind to each other. I think those different areas that I wrote about and spoke about a year ago, have really lasted the course. None of them are irrelevant now, they are all important, being about: living hope; following guidance; continuing to pray; keeping each other safe; being kind and prioritising pastoral care. Each of those five areas have continued to be watchwords in the diocese.

Where I’ve seen churches do well has been where they’ve kept around those areas and, goodness, you know what a revolution that was in digital worship, online worship. Within just a few weeks, people transformed so much of what they were doing.

It was also great loss – huge sense of loss – of churches or places where people come with the stuff they don’t know what to do with and our churches being closed, which was probably a mistake. People didn’t know where to take the stuff they don’t know what to do with. If I had that time again I would say that our churches should have remained open for private prayer and for clergy to say their prayers in. But at the time, we were following government advice: stay at home, protect the NHS. That’s why that decision was made. Indeed, the government said that church buildings had to close.

The church in Norfolk, goodness me, they stepped up to the plate. They really, really did. I’ve been very defensive of clergy when people have said that hasn’t happened. I suppose in some places that might not have done but overall, our clergy and lay leaders have been incredible in this last year. They’re exhausted now, they’re tired. We’ve all lived through this collective trauma together but they’ve kept on going, kept on worshipping God and loving their neighbours. I’m daily inspired by that.

So the different examples that I hear of from around the county; from Heacham, where there’s a whole programme of delivering medicine from the pharmacy – and this continues for a year now – out to vulnerable people, run by the church, offering support. Our most isolated rural communities partnering with their church schools, in providing weekly groceries and food for struggling families. In Gorleston, the vicar there, stepping up to the plate with a whole group of people in providing for the need of people who live in poverty there. Projects all over the diocese: people loving their neighbours, reaching out to the isolated, phoning people, going and knocking on doors and just checking on people, that they’re okay, and standing at a distance. So that actually some of our most isolated people have somebody to talk to in their week.

I’d only been Bishop of Norwich for nine months when all this kicked off. So I had a sense of mourning and loss and not being able to get out and about in our parishes and see the work we do and support people in a physically present way – that I found immensely hard. I think I’ve had to face issues of death and my own mortality and the mortality of those I love more than I probably had done in the past. And to ask questions of what would it be like? If so and so was no longer here? How do I protect myself and those I love.

There’s been various things around leadership during a pandemic of trying to keep a sense of proportion. When it’s so easy to either do one of two things: either you become terribly optimistic and say, “oh, doesn’t really matter”, or you become terribly pessimistic and think the world’s going to end and we can’t do anything. So it’s trying to keep a steady motion when sometimes, within oneself, you can feel very different emotions and try to live and lead from a place of hopeful realism. Because ultimately, my hope is found in Jesus Christ and I believe that God has been in the darkest moments of this pandemic. We as Christians are not bringing light into situations, that God is already there in the darkest of places and the deepest of struggles.

My role, however badly I do it as a Christian leader and as bishop to this area, is to hold that candle of hopeful realism. By that, I mean being honest about where we are and the things that we face as a society, but being hope-filled and for me, hope is love stretched into the future. I’m really interested in the conversations that I’m having about what that future could look like and, I know it’s becoming a bit of a cliché of a saying, but how we build back better. Because the old way of doing things was not good for us. It was not good for our bodies and our souls or for the planet. I’m fascinated in this question of how can we create a society as a community; live as individuals in a way that is actually better for us and better for the planet and better for our relationships one with another; how we hold those we love tighter, but also let them go.

Audio file courtesy of BBC Radio Norfolk.