Two decades ago, women priests did not exist, shops were still legally required to observe the Sabbath, and just the idea of same-sex marriage was still taboo for many.

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It has undoubtedly been an eventful time for the Bishop of Norwich on a personal level as well as for the Church as a whole – from his own consecration 20 years ago today and the ordination of an estimated 200 priests, to the rapidly changing way he finds himself engaging with communities.

But one thing which, perhaps surprisingly, does not stand out as a big event for him was his role in the recent selection of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Bishop of Norwich was seen as a front-runner for the top Church of England job for many months.

But, while admitting “last year was slightly strange”, looking back he does not see it as a particularly significant part of his time as a bishop.

“Not really, I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “That’s not some highlight I would have mentioned. It will be a fading memory. And I’m quite happy for it to fade.”

Highlights have included the role he has played in the ordination of so many priests and, of course, his move to Norfolk from Truro in Cornwall in 1999.

He said: “That was a wonderful moment.

“There are over 500 parishes within the diocese. Over the course of the time I have been here, the majority of the clergy I have either ordained or instituted – put into their parishes. I’m the longest-serving member of my senior staff.

“Twenty years ago I was the youngest bishop in the Church of England. I made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.”

Other developments over the past 20 years have stood out for less positive reasons.

In 1997, the death of Princess Diana led to an appearance on the local radio station in Cornwall as he tried to help people interpret what had happened.

“What I hadn’t expected was that week there would be queues in the cathedral in Truro, candles being lit everywhere. I still vividly remember what I was going to say at the service that Friday evening,” he said.

That reaction was a clear sign, for the Bishop, that the Church still had an important role to play in the communities in which he worked.

And despite so much talk about dwindling congregations over the past two decades, it is something he still strongly believes in – even if changes in society have put it to the test.

“Of course, fewer people go to church regularly than they did years ago. People don’t do things habitually in quite the same way,” he said. “The biggest change – and it’s been a change over the last 20 years – is the change in character of Sunday.

“Sunday trading began the time I became a bishop. Sunday was a day of rest. Now it’s a day of leisure activity and shopping. I have noticed a very different attitude to Sunday. That’s a huge challenge to the Church.”

Instead, Bishop Graham has found himself engaging with the community in a variety of different ways from week-day church activities for children to the setting up of the Norfolk Community Foundation and the Open Academy at Heartsease.

“I’m the Bishop of Norwich, not just the bishop for the people who go to church,” he said.

“I think a bishop should be a bishop for the whole county and do as much as he can to be part of the wider community.”

victoria.leggett@archant.co.uk

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