As the Lord Bishop of Norwich, the Right Reverend Graham James, or Bishop Graham to his flock and many friends, prepares to retire, he bids a fond farewell to Norfolk
We talk to Norwich’s popular retiring bishop
Thousands of services and sermons, an abundance of anecdotes and charisma, a heart for the dispossessed and head for action, a way with words and a call to spread the word – plus a sure faith and a few corgi facts – have won the Bishop of Norwich friends across his diocese and far beyond. Norfolk has been his home for almost 20 years and he leaves behind a legacy of faith, fun and funds.
Bishop Graham is the longest-serving bishop in the Church of England, becoming a bishop in his native Cornwall 25 years ago.
He and his wife, Julie, arrived in Norfolk in 1999 and fell in love with the county almost immediately.
“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.”
Since the turn of the millennium 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 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’s Thought for the day slot and in Norfolk has taken part in charity game shows and even played God – in a village pageant. He is also a member of the House of Lords and patron or president of more than 30 organisations. Twelve years ago he helped create the Norfolk Community Foundation 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,” he said. “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, I would love to think that the Community Foundation will outlast me.”
Alongside the Cathedral Close house that he and Julie will soon leave for a home in Truro, are beautiful gardens – which have brought local charities thousands of pounds ever since they began regular open days. “I will miss sharing the garden with people,” he said.
He will also miss the people and places of Norfolk. His very first visit was to see a friend from priest-training college, and the pair of fledgling clergymen enjoyed a rollercoaster ride. His next trip to Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach was in disguise – for by now he had risen through the ranks, including six years as chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a place in the Guiness Book of Records as the youngest bishop of the time. But the new Bishop of Norwich was keen to enjoy the fun with his family without any ceremony.
He was a curate on a Peterborough council estate when he met Julie. This
‘There is that great tradition of welcoming strangers which goes so deep in our history ’
year they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. She was a nurse, and then a midwife, but felt unable to return to midwifery after losing their middle baby to cot death. “I had tried to resuscitate my own child, and failed,” she said, the desolation of that day still sharp after more than 30 years.
For the past 16 years she has nursed at Norwich’s Priscilla Bacon Lodge hospice. Next month she too will retire. “I’ve loved it,” she said. “It’s a huge privilege to look after people.”
She has also loved her time in Norfolk – and being able to create her own life. “I only ever wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “I was never going to be a full-time bishop’s wife.”
But she has been a vital part of her husband’s ministry. Together they have shared their faith across the county. Some of their favourite
Norfolk places featured in Bishop Graham’s book A Place for God. Walsingham, Beeston Priory and Norwich Cathedral all appear – alongside Galilee and Bethlehem.
During his reign, Norwich’s new hostry and refectory became the largest extension of an English cathedral since the Reformation. But Bishop Graham said: “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.
“I love 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.”
Bishop Graham has worked with organisations tackling homelessness, addiction, rural isolation and family breakdown, and 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 Norfolk is still a place of hospitality,” he said.
With Norfolk hosting the head of the Church of England every Christmas, he gets to experience royal hospitality too.
The grandson of a tin miner preaches at the Sandringham Sunday service – and connects with the Queen over corgis, which were his own family’s pet of choice during his childhood.
As his time as Bishop of Norwich comes to an end, there is a chance to say goodbye at the cathedral on November 25. Bishop Graham will preach at the 10.30am morning service and attend a farewell evensong at 4pm. All are welcome.
His successor will be announced next year and Bishop Graham’s advice to him, or her, is; ‘enjoy it.’ “I have enjoyed it enormously,” he said. “I was told by a Roman Catholic bishop 25 years ago 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.” N
BELOW AND OPPOSITE:The Bishop of Norwich the Rt Rev Graham James processing into the service celebrating Wymondham Abbey 900th anniversary (Photo: Steve Adams); Bishop Graham and Julie James (Photo: Bishop’s House)