Church, Covid and me - Graham Usher on his first year as Bishop of Norwich
- Credit: Archant
For the church-going communities of our region, 2020 has been a year of challenge but also of opportunity. To mark his first year as Bishop of Norwich, Graham Usher speaks to our reporter James Marston
There’s not an area of life that hasn’t been affected by the nation’s constant attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19.
For the church going communities of our region the lockdown has meant exploring different forms of worship, as well as adapting to new guidelines and procedures in church.
For many who hold a faith and go to church these have been difficult times of adjustment and change – not least for the Bishop himself.
He said: “My own morale has been mixed. There have been times when things have felt very dark. But over the last six months I have held on to patterns of daily prayer, and things have been easier since I’ve been able to see people in the flesh.
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“Since the restrictions eased I have been more buoyant and I am reminded that God promises never to let us go. My own faith has not been diluted in any way, I have held on to the knowledge that God is with us and enfolds us in his love.”
Head of the Diocese of Norwich, part of Bishop Graham’s job is to provide spiritual leadership to the county’s 180 or so clergy in charge of Norfolk’s 650 or so parish churches.
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He said: “Morale is quite mixed. Some people are low in energy and have found these times exhausting and tiring. And yet there are those who are upbeat and who feel this to be a creative and exciting time for the church and see this as an opportunity to build something brighter and better in the coming months and years.”
Now a year into his post, Bishop Graham said he has been encouraged by the response of the clergy and church communities to the pandemic.
He added: “I knew I was coming here in March 2019, I took up the post officially in June and was enthroned as Bishop in Norwich cathedral in November. The first few months was really a big learning experience. I began by watching and waiting and getting to know people and beginning to build relationships. And then Covid happened, nothing had prepared us for what was about to happen, we hadn’t got a contingency plan for a pandemic.”
Nonetheless Bishop Graham said he has been amazed by the response of the county’s church goers and clergy.
He added: “I take my hat off to all the clergy and volunteer leaders, there has been an incredible transformation as we learned to live stream services and bring the church into people’s homes. The online worship has shown us that church is first and foremost about people and not buildings, we have learnt as we have gone along.
“We have also rediscovered pastoral care and serving one another, and this is not just in the church community but beyond as well. We have realises that those who are sometimes the least recognised are often the most essential in keeping the life of the community together.
“The NHS front line, the shop workers, the fruit pickers – the least in line in terms of pay and conditions have been the most important to us, and lockdown has shown us that.”
Nonetheless the bishop said he sensed a “post traumatic unease” across the community.
He added: “This experience will change us. Britain will look different and we have been through a difficult time and we are likely to face more difficulties and deeper challenges in the years to come.
“There is a stress reaction in many people and the question for the church is how to build communities of faithfulness and reconciliation as well as provide a message of hope. All churches offer a sanctuary for many people in a changing world and we need to treasure them and the communities that worship in them.”
However Covid has affected the finances of the diocese. Bishop Graham said: “Some of our church communities are very small. There are two options: either re-evangelise and encourage people who are not currently in the church community to become more involved in the life of the church, or there needs to be some painful and difficult conversations to have about future viability.”
The bishop said he will be working hard to encourage the flourishing of local ministry, which may include volunteer clergy drawn from the worshipping community.
Bishop Graham added: “There has been a noticeable uptake in numbers of people searching online about prayer and much anecdotal evidence of more and more joining in with online worship, whereas they might not have crossed the threshold to a church.
“These people are participating and asking questions and we have a huge opportunity for the church to engage and connect with people who are searching and exploring spirituality. They have yet to discover the call of Jesus in their lives and this is very exciting.”
He added: “This last year has shown us all that we must do all we can for our neighbours. We must keep an eye out for them and do all we can to protect the most vulnerable we live alongside. That is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”