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Retiring bishop’s wife takes centre stage

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 November 2018

Bishop Graham and Julie James  Picture: Bishop's House

Bishop Graham and Julie James Picture: Bishop's House

Bishop's House

When Julie James retires next month, the ceremonies will be smaller than those for her husband, the bishop, but no less heartfelt.

Although she’s been Julie James for 40 years, she is called Mrs Bishop almost as often. But while she shares her husband’s faith, Julie, wife of the Lord Bishop of Norwich, the Right Reverend Graham James, has never been defined by his calling.

Next month she will retire after 16 years as a staff nurse in the Norwich’s Priscilla Bacon Lodge hospice. Before that she volunteered at the hospice. And before then she was a nurse, a midwife and a teaching assistant.

Aside from the years when their children were very young, Julie has always had a job alongside her clergy-wife duties.

She had just qualified as a nurse when a new curate moved to the Peterborough council estate where she grew up, the middle child of seven siblings.

“He was our first curate,” she said. “It was quite a big thing in the parish.”

It turned out to be a very important appointment in her life too. The young curate and the new nurse began dating at a church New Year dance and married in 1978. From then on Julie, who says: “I only ever wanted to be a nurse,” had a parallel career which took her from hosting rectory meetings to living in a palace apartment (when her husband was chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury), to working alongside Bishop Graham in two dioceses.

“I was never going to be a full-time bishop’s wife,” she said. However, asked what she had most enjoyed about living in Norfolk for the last 20 years she replied: “Everything!”

From being able to walk to the city centre shops, to meeting the royals, and from friends and colleagues, to the cathedral and the coast, she has loved her time here.

We meet in Julie’s kitchen. It’s a beautiful, sunny yellow and blue room, and was at the heart of a family home when she and Graham moved to Norwich with their children. The oldest, Rebecca, had just started at university and is now a primary school teacher; the youngest, Dominic was 14 and still at school. In between there should have been Victoria, and as Julie speaks her eyes fill with tears and the bright kitchen is suffused with the sadness of a loss more than 30 years old.

Baby Victoria, was six months old when Julie discovered her, dead, in her pram. It was sudden, inexplicable and devastating. Twenty five years later, and by now Bishop of Norwich, her husband spoke to other bereaved people of the heartbreak of losing their baby to cot death. “The usual language doesn’t work,” he said, “There were two things that got on my nerves - the assumption that because you’re a Christian you don’t feel grief. But of course you do. It’s a human emotion. This is your child that’s died. The other thing that’s irritating is when people say you can have another child. Each human being is unique and you can’t replace them.”

Julie was unable to return to midwifery. “I had tried to resuscitate my own child, and failed,” she said, the desolation of that day still sharp, although her faith was undimmed.

Instead she worked as a classroom assistant with disabled children until arriving in Norwich and discovering Priscilla Bacon Lodge.

“I’ve loved it,” she said. “It’s a huge privilege to look after people. People think you come into Priscilla Bacon and go out in a box, but people can come in, and go home. You are alongside them, on their journey.”

And do the difficulties of some of those journeys challenge her belief in God? “That’s part of my Christian faith. It never tests my faith,” she said.

However, she admits she is far from perfect at work. “I’m known as very bossy, and they always laugh at me if I swear!” she said.

Matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, confiding, chatty and hospitable she might not have wanted to devote all her time to being Mrs Bishop but she has given a lot to the role, including welcoming many hundreds of clergy spouses to Norfolk over the years.

Her advice for the next Bishop’s wife, or husband, is: “Just be yourself. Be your own person. Do what’s right for you.

“And wear something comfortable. I’m a person who lives in jeans in the winter, shorts in the summer.” Of course she dresses up for occasions but said: “I’ve been to services where I’m the only woman not wearing a hat!”

Her husband will not be wearing his own hat, or mitre, so often. He retains his title as bishop, but Julie might get to reclaim the traditional bishop’s purple. “I wore purple before he did!” she said.

And they also plan to rekindle a shared passion for amateur dramatics. One of Julie’s proudest moments was when her portrayal of a cleaner was compared to a Julie Walters role. “I’m a very great fan!” she said. So, as they retire, the bishop won’t be completely stepping out of the spotlight; instead he and Julie could be centre stage together, missing Norfolk, missed in Norfolk, the end of an act, but the mission going on.

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