Safety in numbers
“BISHOP Graham, aged 48, appointed Bishop of Norwich” ran the headline, announcing the translation of the Bishop of Dudley to my former diocese (News, 10 May). Twenty years ago, the same headline was used on my own appointment. Not quite déjà vous, but something like it.
Graham Usher’s appointment is very good news for the diocese of Norwich, but I doubt there will be many other Bishop Grahams there or anywhere else in years to come. In 2017, only 12 out of more than 330,000 boys born in the UK were named Graham. Grahams need to stick together. We are very nearly extinct.
I HAVE had several unlikely experiences lately. Preaching in the Savoy Chapel in London, I illustrated a point by telling an anecdote about David Frost, the late broadcaster and famous son of a Methodist manse. I’ve never collected anecdotes in any organised way, but rely on them surfacing in my mind. Quite why this one did I don’t know, but, after the service, I discovered that Frost’s long-serving secretary was in the congregation. I’ve now got one or two more Frost stories.
More seriously, last month I was reading morning prayer on my iPad (a sign of changed times) when a friend came into my mind. I had not been in touch with him since we moved back to Cornwall earlier this year. I sent him an email; later in the day, he rang to thank me, but also to tell me that, an hour or two after he received it, his wife had died suddenly. Although she had a form of dementia, her death was unexpected. I have always been disinclined to claim connections between my prayers and what subsequently happens; but I do know that that email was sent at just the right time.
William Temple is recorded as saying, “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”
A WEDDING in Austria meant that my wife, Julie, and I visited Salzburg for the first time. It seemed strangely familiar — a tribute to the way scenes from The Sound of Music linger in the mind. We expected to meet Julie Andrews around every corner.
What I had not realised, however, was the immense legacy of the long line of Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg. Every palace (and there are quite a few in the city) seemed to belong to them. Their portraits did not suggest that many of them would be much fun, although this was certainly not true in the case of Markus Sittikus. In 1613, he commissioned the construction of Schloss Hellbrunn, a pleasure palace rather than a residence, noted for its trick fountains, grottoes, and a water-operated mechanical theatre.
We saw a stone dining-table and seats, perfectly positioned so that a fine meal could be enjoyed while viewing the entertainment in the surrounding pools and fountains. Our guide then demonstrated what happened when the Archbishop got bored, or thought his guests should go home. Every stone seat (except the host’s) had a secret fountain underneath, which could provide a surprise soaking from below. Despite the current fashion to make church fun, I doubt the Church Commissioners would pay for such an installation in any English episcopal residence.
AT THE wedding itself, the couple had chosen a reading from the Song of Songs, enabling me to use “Set me as a seal upon your heart” as the text for my address. Years ago, I might have mentioned the importance of sealing an envelope to protect its contents; nowadays, the advent of email and social media means that the envelope is almost an endangered species — even if not as near extinction as the name Graham.
The Song of Songs is a strangely unfamiliar book of the Bible. At the Austrian wedding, I could see a degree of incredulity — especially on the faces of the young — as I explained that it was an erotic poem, organised as a dialogue between a young woman and her lover. As I described how the couple praise the beauty of each other’s bodies, with the man calling the woman a garden of delights and the fountain of life, I could see one or two thinking I was about to go too far. I sensed relief in the laughter when I said I would refrain from quoting any more since I had no wish to scandalise.
The Bible can still do that. Perhaps it’s no surprise that John Wycliffe, when translating the scriptures into English, was a bit uncertain about the impact of the Song of Songs on the untutored mind. He thought the uninformed may imagine it would “signify unclean love of lechery”.
WHILE at home, we’ve been walking a little of the Cornish Coast Path. It’s a bit like a drug, although we’ve given ourselves years to complete it gradually. I’ve also been reading Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, which tells the story of how she and her terminally ill husband (named Moth — makes Graham seem commonplace) walked the South West Coast Path (not just the Cornish bit of it) after they had lost their home and livelihood (Reading Groups, 7 June). Their courage and endurance make our days out seem very soft.
Recently, we had walked part of the path near Zennor just before I read the chapter in which Raynor and Moth negotiate the same section. We found it very hard work, since it’s so rocky. Raynor says: “The ground breaks and heaves, pushing up boulders, turning the path into a spew of sharp, impassable rock.” Accurately put. If I’d read that before we went, we might have chosen somewhere different, but the sense of achievement would have been much reduced. Perhaps it was meant that I should read it only afterwards. God working in his usual coincidental way again.
The Rt Revd Graham James was Bishop of Norwich from 1999 to 2019.