The Bishop of Norwich reveals his inspiring people
- Credit: Matthew Usher
We all have people who have inspired and encouraged us on our journey through life. Some are living and have become friends while others are from a time long ago and lived in a very different world to the one we inhabit.
You may have met some of the men and women the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, writes about in his book out this week The Lent Factor, others will be new to you but they all have one thing in common... the 'X Factor' and in the 21st century would receive our vote.
The Bishop, a popular speaker, lecturer and broadcaster, has chosen 40 companions to join him on his journey through Lent...and this book introduces us to some memorable and inspirational people, from Eva Peron to Edith Cavell.
He writes: 'The media trades in human interest stories because most of us are fascinated by other people, even those we have never met. The old-fashioned talent show has been transformed into a glamorous contest, such as in Britain's Got Talent and a host of other series. New stars have been born though sometimes they make only a fleeting appearance in the celebrity sky.
'The X Factor proved the biggest of such contests. X represents star quality and hidden gifts, a mysterious attribute which is a seam of pure gold. It only needs exposure and everyone sees how it gleams,' he says in his introduction to this fascinating new book.
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'The use of X in this context is no accident. X has been traditionally used as a mark of identity. It is deeply personal. Those unable to read or write, marked documents with an X. X became the mark we use on ballot papers, itself a consequence of a hitherto largely illiterate nation. For Christians, X has another dimension. It is a symbol of salvation. X is a potent and many layered symbol,' writes the Bishop.
The book describes 40 people whose human identity he has found compelling. They are not flawless. Those who inspire faith in others, or lead us to want to imitate their best qualities, are not without blemish.
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'Some of the people included in this book led astonishingly active lives and achieved great fame. Others are much less well known. Some are hardly known to anyone except in my family. With some I have a deep personal connection. Others were dead long before I was born,' he says.
So let's discover a little more about some of his companions.
Enid Ralphs died just after her 99th birthday in January 2014. She came originally from Cornwall. In 1938 she married Lincoln Ralphs. Her husband was to become a very notable Chief Education Officer in Norfolk and was knighted for his services to education in 1973. He died in 1978. Enid's widowhood was almost as long as her marriage.
They must have been a formidable couple. One of Lincoln's great schemes was to develop a state boarding school just after the Second World War, initially using Nissen huts near Wymondham.
Wymondham College is now one of the jewels in the state boarding system, a feature of state education which might have passed away had it not been for champions like Lincoln and Enid Ralphs. She maintained a passionate interest in the well being of the college to the very end of her life.
Enid was an achiever. In 1981 she became the first woman to chair the Magistrates Association of England and Wales. She lectured at Keswick Hall College of Education, and was President of the Norwich branch of the United Nations Association as well as President of Norfolk Girl Guiding.
'She was grateful for a life of huge activity but she never ceased to live in the present. I think Enid's secret was really no secret at all,' he writes.
John, former Rector of Attleborough and Priest in Charge of St Giles, Norwich, was one of those priests whom bishops treasure. Loved by the people of his parishes, he had an infectious joy about him which made the Christian faith attractive. He also possessed immense curiosity: he wanted to know how other people lived.
That's what led him to spend the last three months of his life in the Holy Land. Not that anyone knew it would be the last three months.
John went to live alongside the Palestinian people in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. It was in Bethlehem where he died suddenly in 2004, aged just 52, only a short time before he was due back home.
I've always been grateful for just a few priests in my care, John was among them, whose words of pastoral wisdom, gentle inquiries and occasional admonitions over a shared whisky have been balm to the soul.
I am always conscious of what I owe John when I'm with his widow Anne and his sons Ben and Ed who are all committed to continuing the work in the Palestinian Territories their husband and father started.
A loud collective sigh was heard from all corners of the House of Lords on November 13 2012 when the death of Robert Washington Shirley, the 13th Earl Ferrers, was announced.
He was 'Robin' to all who knew him. He was held in deep affection. Just three weeks earlier he had paid his last visit to Parliament. In his wheelchair surrounded by colleagues queuing up to speak to him, Robin was in his element. The word gregarious might have been invented for him.
He was High Steward of Norwich Cathedral, a place he loved with every fibre of his being. He was a deeply loyal man – to his country, his church, his wife and to all the places and people who had nurtured him. He treated people with immense respect and care.
Robin served in every Conservative administration – under five prime ministers – from Harold Macmillan to John Major. He loved his time as a Minister in the Home Office.
He never considered himself quick-witted but he would be masterly.
There was once a fuss about a large meteorite apparently coming towards earth. How much notification would Parliament received if it hit the country, he was asked.
Robin said he was pretty certain Black Rod would have time to say: 'Cheerio chaps!'
It was touch and go whether the preacher for a special service in Norwich Cathedral in July 2011 would be well enough to make it. Michael Stagg had been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was not good.
The service was a biennial one for retired clergy, widows and widowers. Michael did make it and preached a sermon never to be forgotten. He produced a glazed pot and from the elevated pulpit threw it on the sanctuary floor where it smashed into smithereens. The senior clergy sitting below nearly jumped out of their cassocks.
He provided a vivid remember of St Paul's words: 'We are no better than pots of earthenware to
contain this treasure.' The treasure
is the Gospel. The pots of earthenware are human beings.
The 'cracked pot' called Michael Stagg certainly contained the treasure of the Gospel in and through his humanity. He was immensely treasured. Just over a year later the cathedral was packed for his funeral requiem.
Michael was the chaplain of Bishop Graham's predecessor, and also diocesan communications officer, appointed in 1989.
A couple of years later two nuns from Ditchingham kidnapped him as part of the Comic Relief Appeal. They took him to the Bishop with a ransom demand. According to the Eastern Daily Press, Michael said:
'It was dreadful. It turned out I was only worth a couple of quid.''