Crowds gather for funeral of Roman Catholic Bishop of East Anglia

More than 1,700 people were estimated to be at St John's Cathedral, in Norwich, yesterday afternoon in what was thought to be the biggest congregation in its 101 years.

As the silence echoed around the century-old cathedral, a single bell rang out.

Above a sea of faces a cross was carried slowly along the centre aisle, and towards a single covered coffin surrounded by candles.

Following were more than 170 bishops, priests and deacons dressed in white who walked solemnly up to the coffin, some choosing to touch it, while others simply bowed as they made their way forward.

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It was the start of a special moment of remembrance and celebration for the life of East Anglia's Roman Catholic Bishop, the Rt Rev Michael Evans, who died last Monday, aged 59, after a six-year fight against prostate cancer.

More than 1,700 people were estimated to be at St John's Cathedral yesterday, in what was thought to be the biggest congregation in its 101 year history.

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Christians from across East Anglia and beyond travelled to the city as every pew, seat and standing position was filled inside the building.

To the left of the aisle were 120 children dressed in colourful uniforms from 29 different schools across the diocese and to the right were the choir and ecumenical representatives.

Once the procession of bishops, priests and deacons took their seats at the head of the church, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, welcomed the congregation.

Archbishop Nichols said: 'My brothers and sisters, today we gather with sadness and a sense of loss as we come to celebrate this funeral mass.

'We gather with clear faith, hope and trust in the promises of the Lord that death is not the last word but the opening of eternal life.'

Archbishop Nichols welcomed Bishop Michael's mother, Jeanette Evans, and sister Susan, as well as His Excellency Archbishop Antonio Mennini, Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain; his eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor; Most Rev Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark; and Most Rev Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham.

He also made reference to a message sent on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI and read one from Cardinal Koch, of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, who said he remembered the Bishop 'with great affection'.

Readings were made from Isaiah 25, 2 Corinthians 4 and John 11, and in the homily, Mgr Anthony Rogers was keen to emphasise the importance of these passages to the bishop.

He said: 'The instructions for his funeral were very detailed but very simple. He wanted the emphasis on the Lord's meaning of death rather than focusing on him.

'But how can we talk about that meaning without talking of you who helped us to understand that meaning?'

He said that Bishop Michael never saw reason to water down the word of God, had much to say about what mattered and had little time for small talk.

He added that 'living with dying' had become Bishop Michael's motto.

Archbishop Nichols said: 'He said that when we have been told that death is on the horizon it is important not to give up but make the most of living and move forward in faith.'

Before the congregation joined together in Holy Communion, other symbols of the bishop's life and ministry were brought along the centre aisle.

These included the Taize cross, a copy of the Hail Mary in Arabic and a relic of the martyred Archbishop of El Salvadaor.

Following communion, the Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, spoke of his privilege at being asked to say a few words.

'Michael said he did not want any eulogies, so I will be obedient in just the way Michael would have been and I will take no notice at all.'

He spoke of how their close friendship had seen them called the Morecambe and Wise of cross denomination relationships and about their shared love of football.

He added, to warm applause from the congregation, that Bishop Michael was a priest, scholar and friend.

The school choir lead Bishop Michael's favourite hymn, I am the Resurrection, as the cloth cover was taken off the coffin.

A final commendation and farewell was read by Most Rev Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, before the procession of bishops, priests and deacons left the church.

Outside they lined up next to the hearse, and sang Salve Regina as the bishop's coffin was brought out.

The bishop's body was later taken to Earlham Crematorium for cremation and later interment in the cathedral.

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