Skipper: An homage to the Bishop of Norwich
PUBLISHED: 13:18 01 November 2018 | UPDATED: 13:42 01 November 2018
As the Rt Revd Graham James heads for retirement later this month, Keith Skipper reflects on his time with the church.
Countless heartfelt verses are being written for a rousing song of praise to mark his farewell. Please be upstanding for a much-admired public luminary with the homely touch.
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, retires later this month after 19 years of purposeful and genial leadership in many spheres, uplifting all kinds of gatherings and downsizing every sort of rumour about the Church shedding relevance in an increasingly rum old world.
He has shown how putting smiles on faces can be just as important as filling pews. Beauty of that, of course, rests in the way such a policy is likely to lift attendances and further reduce lingering images of small flocks of stalwarts in remote areas “cramming for their finals”.
Bishop Graham’s naturally easy style and ready rapport with folk of all ages emerged as a key talking point throughout my cheerful fundraising rounds embracing over 20 busy years and 100 local churches and chapels with productions of All Preachers Great and Small and Mardling and Music Evenings.
Perhaps the most telling summary of an inspiring example from the top came from a rural worshiper with a good sense of humour and unyielding faith in the Norfolk way of saying and doing things. “Good bloke” he announced. “He’s a mixer an’ a mardler, jist the job ter keep us all a’gorn”.
Memories of wearisome chapel services featuring few smiles and too many prophets of doom during my formative years put me on full alert to come up with a formula sparky enough to entertain but carrying enough wholesome weight to avoid giving offence.
Joy and laughter must be preferable to fire and brimstone in an era when so many ancient but beautiful buildings need massive financial and wider community support just to stay open. Churches are natural theatres and need to aim for “box office appeal” beyond traditional festival services.
I have relished a host of cheerful meetings with Bishop Graham as well as digesting several thought-provoking sermons during his years among us. He preached at Cromer parish church fairly early in his ministry and displayed a welcome growing awareness of local etiquette as we shook hands at the door: “Don’t worry .. I’ve brought my passport”.
As a seasoned performer on the amateur stage, he was an obvious choice to join the cast for one of three Aristosquits concert in the Grand Saloon at Wolterton Hall hosted by Lord and Lady Walpole in aid of the EDP We Care Appeal.
I shared organising and compering duties with two fellow Deputy Lieutenants of our county, Paddy Seligman, ebullient chairman of the appeal. and local television personality Carol Bundock.
We wrote to the “great and the good” of Norfolk, hinting to Bishop Graham he qualified automatically on both counts, asking them to do a turn for an excellent cause. He donned his episcopal evening dress to recount amusing anecdotes and lead the entire company in a sing-song about bottle banks.
He later contributed to and launched a pair of my homespun volumes, The Bumper Book of Norfolk Squit and All Preachers Great and Small, and readily accepted a 2012 invitation to help celebrate my 50th anniversary as local scribe and mardler.
It was a dark and stormy night on Cromer Pier as hundreds of culture-lovers and charity supporters sought refuge in the Pavilion Theatre to watch a programme being recorded for the wireless. Normal for BBC Radio Norfolk.
The station’s legendary panel game Should The Team Think?, came out of retirement to help raise laughs and more vital funds for the EDP We Care Appeal. Bishop Graham brought his own brand of wit and whimsy to various challenges after I reminded him we were after a good listen rather than a holy see.
The fact he forgave me instantly for so oblique a text for the occasion and continued to take wholesome Norfolk squit to his proud Cornish heart, provides unequivocal proof of an important figure wholly comfortable with the ways and means of an area all too often dismissed as slow to bless but swift to chide.
We must pray his successor will demonstrate a similar aptitude for mixing and mardling. And take to heart the wisdom of a previous Bishop of Norwich who offered: “The only way to lead Norfolk people is to find out which way they are going – and then walk in front of them”.
Good yarns about bishops inevitably found their way into my heavenly humour silver collection on church entertainment rounds across Norfolk – with occasional “missionary work” in Suffolk.
Did you hear about the Bishop of Norwich who went fishing? He was enjoyed a day off with friends in a boat on a lake in Norfolk when he suddenly realised he had left his lunch on the bank.
So he got out of the boat, walked across the water and collected his sandwiches. He walked back across the water to the waiting boat and rejoined his friends for refreshments.
Next day, a big headline in the Eastern Daily Press trumpeted: BISHOP OF NORWICH CANNOT SWIM!
Then there was a Bishop of Norwich who went to stay overnight with one of his rural parsons. The bishop came down to breakfast and heard Rock of Ages rising lustily from the kitchen. Pleased to imagine this might be an early-morning form of worship, he asked the parson’ son who was singing.
“That’s dear old Mabel the cook” replied the boy. ”She always sings Rock of Ages when she boils eggs for breakfast. Three verses for softly-boiled and four verses for hard-boiled”.
A young Norfolk curate went to a big conference at which most of the gathering consisted of bishops and other high-ranking church officials. The weather was very cold, and it was natural, perhaps, that older clergy should cluster around the cheerful open fire as often as possible.
The curate eventually thought it about time he did something about this. Next morning, he announced loudly : “I had a strange dream last night. I dreamt I had died and gone to Hell”.
After a few seconds of dead silence, one of rhe number asked; “And what did you find there?”
“Just the same as here” came the reply. “Couldn’t get near the fire for blessed bishops!”
Finally, a Bishop of Norwich visited a remote village church in Norfolk and found a smaller than usual congregation. “Did you tell them I was coming?” he asked the old verger.
“No, ole partner” came the reply, “ But word must hev got out somehow”.