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Norwich Bishop reveals a decade of hope

BishopGrahamGarden2010 AUDIO: As the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Graham James, celebrates ten years in the Diocese, he spoke exclusively to Network Norfolk giving his views on the past ten years for the church in Norfolk, the challenges and successes and also his hopes and prayers for the next ten. Keith Morris asked the questions.
Q What is the best thing about being Bishop of Norwich?
A It’s the people to whom one ministers, the welcome you get all over the Diocese. It’s sharing those moments when people are making very significant changes in their faith journey. It never ceases to inspire me. I have probably ordained over 120 new priests in the ten years
In Norfolk many of our communities still cherish the church in their midst. The boundaries between the church and the wider community are quite blurred here which is what I love about it. The church is deeply embedded in its life. I am privileged to be in a part of the country where despite the voices of secularism, God’s voice is still heard and honoured.
Q Has your role developed as you thought it might over last ten years?
A I believe that I am not just here for the church of England and to manage a religious organisation. I am here for the wider community as well, which is why I was instrumental in starting the Norfolk Community Foundation for example. It is why I am prepared to take risks and be a sponsor of the first Academy. It is why I am willing to work across the boundaries of the churches in partnership.
I suppose your role also changes as people get to know you and trust you. In the Diocese, of the 300 active clergy at least 200 of them have been ordained by me or have come into the Diocese in my time here.
Q What is the biggest change in the structure and shape of the church over the past ten years?
A My sense of our churches is that there is a recognition always of the fragility that comes with - if you don’t convert the next generation there will not be a living church on earth.
There is an increasing passion for youth work. The number of youth workers is now around 20 to 30 employed in the parishes compared to just two or three, ten years ago. There is a commitment to growth in discipleship, service and numbers.
Q How do you react to the apparent decline in church attendances?
A I am not sure that the church has declined in size. The decline in even Sunday congregations is modest. What has changed is the pattern of people’s attendance at services which has changed enormously. Not as many people are there every week, but more people come at certain festival such as Christmas and they will come when they are responding to a need, such as services for people who are bereaved.
The strength of the church does not simply lie in Sunday congregations. Just remember that there are far more communicants in just the Church of England on a wet Sunday in February than there are members of the three main political parties in total.
Q What most excites you about the church in Norfolk today?
A It is the fact that our tradition has been around for hundreds of years, yet most of our parishes are prepared to rethink their mission for the present day. Fresh Expressions of church and renewed ways of our congregations reaching out to their communities suggest that now is a rather exciting time to be in the Church of England, despite what you might read in the national press. Because people are rethinking how their Christian commitment is going to be lived both in their churches and in their daily lives.
Q What is the biggest challenge facing the church?
A One of the challenges which has not been met very well is that of militant and vigorous atheism which has been renewed through the writings of Richard Dawkins and others. It is an incredibly unsophisticated attack on religion in general. It brands all faith as irrational, fanatical, narrow and bigoted.
The cathedral behind us is not the product of a bigoted mind but one of an expansive faith, one which cherishes beauty and subtlety and a vigorous intellectual life. We must not let Christianity simply become a sentimental and emotional religion - it has got to have intellectual content.
How do you speak of God intelligently to those who have dismissed God as not even worth thinking about? They will of course discover that they have needs which are deeply spiritual at some stage but they won’t then have the resources to deal with them.
Q Do you think we will see a woman bishop in the Church of England in the next ten years?
A No. But my suspicion is that in ten to 20 years time we will, partly because the legislation will take that long to get into place. I want to see women bishops, but what I don’t want to see are people in different traditions within our church being unchurched. It is how we can live in the same church with two quite different opinions on this.
Q How do you view calls for greater unity between different parts of the Christian church?
A I think we have all sorts of good examples of co-operation between different churches and church leaders in this Diocese. I think, however, that the impetus for union schemes between different churches is gone. But what I do sense is that, in terms of service to the community and trust and respect of one another, the communion between different churches is greater than it has ever been.
Q What do the think the church will look like in another ten years time?
A From the outside I am not sure it will look hugely different. What I pray is that it will be a body which is more vigorous, more loving, more mission-centred and which has grown in depth of discipleship, faithfulness to Christ, in service to the wider community and in numbers. The sort of growth which can begin to transform society.

The full transcript of the interview is in the audio clip below.
., 04/02/2010

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