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Diary: Graham James

14 June 2019



“THAT’S the trouble with London: it’s a long way from anywhere.” So said a Cornish parishioner to a former Bishop of Truro who was catching the Night Riviera (the sleeper train) to attend a meeting in the capital. Having recently retired to my native Cornwall, I’ve become reacquainted with the Great Western Railway. The old name has been resurrected. So, too, have old journey times: it takes longer to get from Truro to London now than it did 20 years ago — not that this bothers too many Cornish people, who think of the metropolis as a place on the edge of true civilisation.

Although I’ve only lived in Cornwall for 16 of my 68 years, it’s always been “home”. My wife, Julie, who comes from Peterborough and has lived there proportionately longer, doesn’t possess the same territorial loyalty. Perhaps that’s because, in her lifetime, Peterborough has been moved from Northamptonshire to the short-lived county of Huntingdon and Peterborough, and then on to Cambridgeshire, without any consultation with its inhabitants.

Anyone attempting to shift Truro out of Cornwall would face a serious insurrection — just as Edward VI did, when imposing on the Cornish the Book of Common Prayer in a foreign language: English.

The best things in life. . .

AS I write, Truro Cathedral’s young choristers have received a standing ovation on Britain’s Got Talent. Their novel approach? They stood still to sing — and were in tune. This radical approach to choral singing drew gasps of amazement and delight. It may be a reminder that only a small minority of the population have heard a cathedral choir sing at all, although the experience is on offer daily, free of charge, at a few dozen venues across the nation. When cathedral choirs put on concerts at which seats cost £15 or more, people seem to come in droves to hear them. It’s a curious business. Perhaps we appreciate only what we pay for.

Meekly sitting

WORSHIPPING again in Truro Cathedral, I’m struck with fresh astonishment that the Church of England should have built the first cathedral since the Reformation in a poor and strongly Methodist county. And it did so next door to the centre of Cornish Methodism: St Mary Clement — now Truro Methodist Church. It cannot have seemed much like an ecumenical gesture at the time. Hence, it was intriguing to hear Steve Wild, who chairs the Cornwall Methodist District, say last month that he regarded the cathedral as his spiritual home — and to hear him do so from the cathedral pulpit.

I fancy it would have pleased the cathedral’s architect, John Loughborough Pearson, whose declared aim was always to build a structure that would bring people “soonest to their knees”. Truro does that, although I guess Pearson might be disappointed by the fact that, in Truro today — like everywhere else — the hassocks go largely unused. Pity.

On it may stay the eye

IN THE centre of the east window of Truro Cathedral, there’s a small piece of bright-blue glass that clearly does not belong there. Once you notice it, your eyes are continuously drawn to it. Some decades ago, a choirboy caused the original damage, probably using an air rifle. The blue glass was a temporary repair.

More than 20 years ago, in the days when I was Bishop of St Germans, this boy — by then a man of mature years — introduced himself to me after a service in the cathedral. I’m glad the glass is still there. A few visible flaws are valuable in a cathedral.

Returned to sender

ON EASTER Day, I was a long way from Truro, preaching for a friend in a newly built Episcopal chapel dedicated to St Elizabeth, in Ortley Beach, a settlement on the Atlantic coast in New Jersey.

The original chapel was swept away in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. Only one artefact survived: the bishop’s chair. It had been blown several hundred yards in the storm, and was discovered a few days later by a police officer, who recognised it since he had been confirmed in the old St Elizabeth’s. The chair was battered but unbroken. It is a little parable of the durability of apostolic ministry. I expect that story will have a few outings in the future.

Called to serve

ON THAT Easter visit, Julie and I met Bill Hughes, a long-serving Democratic Congressman in New Jersey, who later became the US Ambassador to Panama. A lifelong Episcopalian, he was a pioneer of environmental legislation to clean up the New Jersey coastline, once horribly polluted. A public policy research centre at Stockton University is endowed in his honour.

It was a surprise to see so many photographs of Bill with President Reagan, along with letters from the President congratulating his political opponent on steering various legislative Bills through Congress — a striking contrast to the polarised politics of our own age. Perhaps, though, the most significant achievement with which Bill can be credited was overseeing the transfer of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. He faced down the criticism that he was giving away a strategic American asset. He had a moral conviction that it was the right thing to do.

At a time when cynicism seems rife, it was a reminder of the nobility of politics. Somewhere buried deep in my memory, I recalled one of my English teachers at school telling me that the sentence “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama” is the longest palindrome in the English language. I await correction on that point from Church Times readers.

The Rt Revd Graham James was Bishop of Norwich from 1999 to 2019.

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