New Bishop of Reading puts social justice at the heart of her agenda

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THE NEW bishop of Reading has said that her priority is to be social justice and climate change.

On Monday, the Diocese of Oxford announced that Venerable Olivia Graham is to be the successor to the Rt Revd Andrew Proud after the Queen approved her appointment.

The Bishop of Oxford announced the news during a visit to Ranelagh School in Bracknell, where students had an opportunity to ask the Venerable Graham questions.

Their visit was followed by a reception at Reading Minster.

The Venerable Graham is, like Bishop Andrew, a familiar face to the borough’s churchgoers: she has been the Archdeacon of Berkshire since 2013.

Married and with three adult children, the Venerable Graham’s career saw her spend seven years as a volunteer teacher and schools worker in Kenya. She has also served as an overseas relief and development worker for the aid agency Oxfam between 1984 and 1993.

Ordained as a deacon in 1997, she went on to become curate of a church in Princes Risborough and a team vicar in Burnham.

In 2012 she was installed as an honorary canon of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. A year later, at a service in Reading Minster church, she was installed as archdeacon of Berkshire.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, said: “One of the things that was apparent when we were listening and consulting about the new bishop was that people wanted somebody who really knew what it is like to be in ministry in this part of the world.

“Someone who knew what the pressures and challenges are.

“In this and many other areas, Olivia brings just what we need at this time. I am very excited about what Olivia’s appointment means for the Diocese.”

And the Venerable Graham said that her career has influenced the way in which she approaches her life now, as a shepherd to Berkshire churches.

She said: “I think having had spent 13 years in Africa before I was ordained has given me a perspective on ministry, and a perspective on society in this country, which is perhaps a little broader than some people have, and the realisation that many of the problems that we have in this country are – compared to what some people have to deal with overseas – not terribly huge but that isn’t, by any means, to minimise the difficulties that some people here do face.

She continued: “In terms of Africa, I’ve also had the great privilege of sharing a link with a South African Dioceses Kimberly and Kuruman, and have been able to visit several times and welcomed visitors from there, over here and form some really good friendships.

“That’s given me a really good insight into what people are dealing with now and that ties in particularly with the climate change question because of course people in the southern hemisphere are facing what we will face in five years time, 10 years time in terms of the impact that climate change has already had on livelihoods, on their ability to feed themselves on the way that their lives now are impacted.

“I think that, that’s been a little wake up call for us in Oxford Dioceses.

“It is very, very valuable to get that, to have that relationship.”

The Venerable Graham said that for her first year as bishop, she intends to visit as many churches as she can and encourage the people that she meets there.

“I’m looking forward very much to getting around the churches, and going to visit and talk with people. One of the things which we are really working on as a Diocese, under Bishop Stephen’s guidance is, the challenge to become more contemporary, more compassionate, and a more courageous Church for the sake of the world.”

The Venerable Olivia Graham with the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Stephen Croft Picture: Phil Creighton

She pledged to work with churches to help they understand what those words would mean and how they should relate to the communities around them. And in a week where it was revealed that the number of people who call themselves a Christian is declining, the bishop-designate said that there is still a hunger for the spiritual.

“I don’t agree that society’s getting more secular,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that people don’t have faith or curiosity or a gap in their lives where religion might be, that they aren’t living with huge questions.

“I think that is an open door because the churches have got the tools and the ability to be able to connect with those people. That it’s a big challenge; that’s what we are going to need to be working on.”

And as part of this, she is keen to see the borough’s churches get more involved in social action.

“I know that 70% of our churches are involved in social action outreach,” she said. “That means that 30% aren’t.

“I’m very interested to find out who the 30% are and to work with them to more engaged with society around them.

“I do know there’s been fantastic work going on, many are really engaged with the community in providing all sorts of amazing facilities: Drop-ins, work with homeless people, night shelter support, food bank support, parents and toddler groups, you name it, the list goes on and on.

“The church is massively involved in all of that.

“We’ve got to promote that and increase it.”

The Venerable Graham will succeed the Bishop Andrew, who retired in May, at a special service to be held at St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday, November 19.The 24th female bishop to be installed in the Anglican Church, she is the Diocese of Oxford’s first.

The Reading Episcopal Area extends from west Berkshire along the M4 corridor to Windsor and comprises 170 churches.

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