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Celebrating our incredible Churchwardens

A group photo of the Churchwardens inside Norwich Cathedral

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On Saturday 8 June, a special evensong was held at Norwich Cathedral to celebrate Churchwardens. There are nearly 700 Churchwardens across Norfolk and Waveney. All of them volunteer their time to support their parish through looking after their local church community and building.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher preached from Job 18 and Romans 8 v 31. If you were not able to make it, you can read Bishop Graham’s sermon further on in this article.

People travelled into the city from across the Diocese, including Levi, a Churchwarden in Loddon, and Sue and Sheila, Churchwardens in Sprowston.

Bishop Graham’s sermon

‘Friends, we are gathered this afternoon to thank God for the ministry of churchwardens across this diocese; the unsung heroes of the Church of England.

You polish old brasses of long forgotten worthies, some with haloes tarnished in life, but gleaming now. You sort hymn books so that the pew sheets don’t stay in them from 1886; hand out hymnbooks – tatty Ancient and Modern in their red hardbacks and Mission Praise with its happy cover; or sometimes operate complex technology trying to keep the words on the screen aligned with the musicians.

You complete forms, oh all those forms that keep coming; sit with those not online so they can do their safeguarding training; smooth ruffled feathers and ask ever so nicely if Mrs Peacock will stand in to do the flowers next week as the usual person has a better offer – you are discretion personified and don’t say she’s on a coach trip to Bognor with a man she swiped right for – it was all an accident she told you, her granddaughter had given her an old phone and she pressed something called an app, and it all happened from there.

You unblock gutters; put up flags; collapse Gopac tables without severing your hand; stack Beryl cups and saucers – light green, of course – until they nearly reach their tipping point (6 is the record); tidy the children’s corner because God likes order; mow the churchyard; catapult pine cones at seagulls thinking of nesting on the porch gable; let in Dave, the plumber, who is quick to say he is an atheist, but you can’t help but notice that pause when the silence envelopes him.

You kneel beside a nonagenarian for whom this is the church they were baptised in at three days old, the midwife advising to get the baby done quickly because she didn’t look that well, and you know that soon she’ll come again laid out flat for a farewell of tears and memories and Crimond, and there will be vol-au-vents and milky tea in the hall afterwards.

You take the tickets for the pie and pies supper to the newsagents; visit Mr Caruthers who’s not been for a few Sundays, to check how he is; show an excited six-year-old and his dad up the tower so that he (the six-year-old that is) can throw his teddy bear over the parapet wall complete with homemade parachute. And you’re sympathetic about the tears when Ted gets stuck in the yew tree just out of reach, and chuckle to yourself on the way home.

All of this you do, hoping to inspire a new generation to take over, because you know deep down this is the call you responded to, even though your arm had that feeling of a gentle twist at the time, years ago.

You do it because you love this community, this church, this treasure trove of stories, but most of all because of the Lord and Saviour who speaks to people here through the scriptures being read, and folk feel him close to them as they sing songs of praise and the Wesley blockbusters, and when they hold out their open hands to receive him in bread and wine. And on those days when you’re feeling life is a bit ‘on the huh’, you meet him too and he brings you home, and sets you off again to go in peace to love and serve.

Thank God for churchwardens!

Be glad that you do not have to do the things of your forebears. Sir Roy Strong in his book “A Little History of the English Country Church” writes that amongst churchwardens’ many responsibilities in the fourteenth and fifteenth century was “the maintenance of the churchyard, including seeing that anyone whose animals grazed on it was prosecuted” and the running of the brew house and organising “at certain festive periods of the year . . . a church-ale sale, in effect a parish drinking party, the proceeds of which helped maintain the church.”

After the Reformation, Strong continues, Elizabethan churchwardens needed to control their congregations who, “could spit, tell jokes, knit or humiliate the preacher with taunts and jibes during the sermon… A Cambridgeshire man in 1598 was charged for indecent behaviour in church, for his ‘most loathsome farting, striking and scoffing speeches’”.

The current role of churchwardens is described rather more sombrely in Canon E1 where the watchwords are representing, using best endeavours, promoting, maintaining.

This year I’ve been undertaking a number of deanery pilgrimages and they have been truly joyous days meeting folk and visiting some of our 658 churches in the diocese. The warmth of welcome has been wonderful, and I have witnessed all kinds of activities being undertaken by our churches as they continue to be the warp and weft of their communities and makers of salt and generators of light. There are so many opportunities to serve.

However, some of the challenges you face are also very evident. Some will only reveal themselves in time. Some can leave us worried and concerned about today and tomorrow. Some might even give us the feeling that life would be a whole lot easier if only we did not have this role as churchwarden.

I hope they will never be of the magnitude of those that Job’s supposed comforters speak: caught in nets, pits, traps, trip wires, hunger, diseased skin, scattered sulphur.

Job’s friends have become his tormentors offering no answer to his desperate questions. Our reading from Romans also speaks of things that can overwhelm the human soul – 17 kinds – fear, or nightmare, hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, anything else in all creation.

This is a list of all the things that Jesus himself was exposed to. He faced hardship, in the desert was famine, and on the cross he was naked and faced the sword and death. Paul is saying that there is nothing we could go through that Jesus hasn’t first gone through already.

In some parts of the world to be a churchwarden is to daily face many of these challenges, including in our partnership dioceses in Papua New Guinea. Around the Anglican Communion the average Anglican is a young woman under the age of 30, living on a dollar or so a day, often in a place of conflict or emerging from conflict, or in cultures where persecution thrives, and most likely in a place adversely impacted by climate change.

Paul wants us to know – drawn from his own story – that God isn’t against us. Any of us. God is for us. All of us. Nothing we can possibly imagine in heaven or earth can separate us from God’s love in Jesus. God is with us at every step, and Jesus has faced everything we’re facing.

Nothing, not one jot of a thing, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. It is God who grows the church. God who equips the saints. God who gives us so much. God who has ensured that we are a church of abundance, even when we convince ourselves that we are a church of scarcity. God will never ever let go of you. The Lord of the Church entrusts to churchwardens the wellbeing of the parish churches of this Diocese.

Know that each one you are held in prayer and love, that advice and help is available from the bishops, archdeacons and parish support team, and that God will equip you for the task to which God has called you. As we give thanks for, and say thank you to, our churchwardens, so we give thanks for our life together in this diocese, praising God from whom all blessings flow.