A fresh start

PUBLISHED: 09:21 20 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

Bishop Graham

Bishop Graham

He adores Springsteen, knows how to rap and is poised to take over as the new leader of Fresh Expressions. Meet the very funky Bishop Graham

He loves his rock music and appears in a clip on YouTube called 'Bling the Bishop', sporting baggy jeans, baseball cap on backwards, jewellery and obligatory shades, performing a highly creditable rap. But then Graham Cray is no ordinary churchman.

Currently Bishop of Maidstone and Bishop for Mission in the Diocese of Canterbury, as well as Episcopal Adviser to Anglican Mainstream, he is about to take on a new role that will give him a national and indeed international portfolio.

On 1 May, he becomes the Archbishops' Missioner and leader of Fresh Expressions, succeeding Dr Steven Croft, who is to be the next Bishop of Sheffield. Within days of that start date, he will be flying off to Toronto.

Bishop Graham, 61, read theology at Leeds University and at first thought he wanted to be an RE teacher, teaching the subject together with remedial English for a year at Rainham Mark Secondary School in Gillingham.

However, while at Leeds he got a call to ordination and began his career with a curacy at St Mark's Church, Gillingham. This proved a particularly happy time, for it was here that he met his wife, Jackie, now vicar of St Faith's in Maidstone, and the courting couple got their first chance to explore more of Kent, developing a particular fondness for Sissinghurst.

Bishop Graham later spent 14 years at St Michael-le-Belfry in York, before becoming Principal of Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge, teaching sociology and English culture. The move back to Kent came in 2001, following a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury inviting him to be Bishop of Maidstone.

"I knew Maidstone from my curate days in Gillingham, when Jackie and I used to come over here occasionally, but I had been out of Kent by then for 26 years," says Bishop Graham.

"When I was driven around for the first time, I joked that the only thing that hadn't changed was the prison walls - only to be told that they had: they'd got higher."

Indeed, Kent's prisons became one of his fascinations and he laughs that he was "let out of eight prisons in six months", adding, on a more serious note, his concerns over the levels of overcrowding and understaffing, especially on Sheppey.

While he has thoroughly enjoyed his time in our county town, in particular developing the hugely successful Street Pastor scheme in conjunction with Kent Police, his new role will mean that Bishop Graham can develop many of the ideas put forward by the Working Party he chaired which produced the highly acclaimed Mission-shaped Church report, published in 2004.

The concept of 'fresh expressions' and the notion of a 'mixed economy' church were both explored in that document, which has gone on to sell an astonishing 26,000 copies. "We call it our Harry Potter title - it's the best-selling Church of England publication," laughs Bishop Graham.

Both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Methodist Church are keen that the Fresh Expressions initiative continues for a further five years, which means that Bishop Graham can spend his last years in stipendiary ministry giving it his whole attention.

Fresh Expression is a means of developing new styles of conducting worship and liturgy and has produced some radical forms of church since its genesis. An initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church, it aims to help Christians of any denomination think about ways of starting and growing fresh expressions of church in their area.

A form of church for our changing culture, it was established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church and it works through principles of listening, service, mission and making disciples.

Bishop Graham, who has been closely involved with the charismatic youth movement Soul Survivor, is keen that more and more parishes take up the concept of Fresh Expressions, while also helping existing ones mature.

And while the general consensus may be that congregations are falling, Bishop Graham begs to differ. "Churches are growing, not shrinking, as is publicly believed. More people in Kent, for example, go to church than any other group activity and 45 per cent of the Anglican churches in the diocese of Canterbury grew between 2005 and 2007," he tells me.

"But the proportion of people who've never been to church is one third of the adult population in the UK. We have to learn to do our church differently, as well as the same. If you want to share the Christian news, you need to be the good news."

A big fan of his adopted county, Graham and Jackie, who have two grown-up daughters, are remaining in Kent, despite the change of job, and a move from Charing to Harrietsham will take place after Easter.

"Kent is beautiful - I criss-cross half of it all of the time, especially Whitstable, Broadstairs, Faversham and Canterbury," says Bishop Graham. "Our diocese is twinned with Madagascar and whenever we have visitors, we always take them to Leeds Castle. And as a family, we still have a particular love of Sissinghurst."

And when he is relaxing at home, or on the road, you can bet that this music-loving Bishop will be singing along to some of his favourite artists, who range from Helen Shapiro (Walking Back to Happiness was the first record he bought) and Aretha Franklin (his all-time favourite) to Springsteen, U2, Radiohead and Coldplay.

"I got an iPod for my last significant birthday with a '0' in it, and it's heaving," he chuckles. No wonder the kids love this Soul Survivor.

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