‘A parish priest at heart’

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“Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel.” That was the motto of the London College of Divinity where the Ven. Norman Russell prepared for ordination and studied for a degree in theology before he was ordained in 1970. Prior to that he read Mechanical Sciences and then Economics at Churchill College, Cambridge before being articled in the City with Cooper Brothers, Chartered Accountants, now part of PWC.norman-russell-3a - crop

As Archdeacon of Berkshire, Norman, who retires this month, has worked to enable churches to be effective in their witness to the Gospel. As a parish priest he was part of a working party on diocesan re-organisation back in 1982 – the Thomas Report, and has also been involved in Diocesan Finance since that time. “The work of an Archdeacon is hugely varied on a daily basis. It’s been great really. It’s not glamorous work, but archdeacons have responsibility with churchwardens and PCCs for some of the most wonderful listed buildings in the country, often in this diocese in lovely countryside and at the heart of urban conservation areas.

“I have had the opportunity to get close to clergy, especially incumbents, and a good proportion of church wardens and treasurers. You develop a wide knowledge base, becoming aware of finance issues, legal issues, deployment issues, housing issues and a myriad of other of other matters. In the Berkshire archdeaconry there is a wonderful mix of inner-city challenges in Reading, a fair amount of suburbia and then the glorious countryside and rural life of West Berkshire, the Berkshire Downs and the Vale of White Horse.”

He mentioned the tiny idyllic parish of Compton Beauchamp, where Bishop Dominic, when he was Bishop of Reading had unexpectedly found himself addressing the Queen of Sweden. The King of Sweden visits the area for shooting.

Norman had 28 years of parish experience before becoming Archdeacon; after curacies in Clifton, Bristol and north London, he became Rector of Harwell and Chilton, then of Gerrards Cross and Fulmer. He has also been Rural Dean of Amersham and an Hon Canon of Christ Church..

“At the heart of being a parish priest is care for the people of the parish, but particularly important is helping those who are open to find a living faith in Jesus Christ and to grow into mature Christian discipleship. As an archdeacon I do a lot to enable this to happen. However, an archdeacon’s work is rarely on the front line and it took me quite a long time to come to terms with this change in role after 28 years of parish ministry,” says Archdeacon Norman.“Many people in the Church of England think decline is inevitable. I don’t agree. Churches can and do grow. We need to look for ways of encouraging those churches which are growing and learn from them.

“I think there is more awareness of the need to be pro-active in mission than there was. This is in part due to the influence of several Bishops of Reading. In addition the penny has dropped that unless something is done many churches will disappear. We need to help churches to grow and make sure they have the resources to do that.”

Archdeacon Norman sees the lack of men in the pews on Sundays as a major challenge. “I am not in favour of a macho church but I would like to see the CofE put as much energy into developing ways to reach out to young men as it has recently into the ordination of women bishops,” he says. “Both are important”.

During his 42 years in ministry, Archdeacon Norman has seen real changes within the Church of England. One is the age profile of ordinands. “When I was ordained most priests began their ministry in their 20s and were expected to do 40 years’ service. I think now the age profile of ordinands is worrying. Only 15 per cent of ordinands are under 30,” he said. Of course in the 1960s, all ordinands were men, with women not becoming priests until the 1990s.

Archdeacon Norman, while describing himself as an evangelical, has been very supportive of traditional Anglo Catholics with whom he has good relationships and is comfortable in churches across the churchmanship spectrum. Although he is in favour of women bishops, he thinks there should be more provision for traditional catholics and conservative evangelicals than Synod has been willing to allow. “Some of those who say they are in favour of inclusion seem all too ready to exclude those who hold traditional views.”

He grew up in Northern Ireland during the days of the old Stormont Parliament in which there was always a Protestant and Unionist majority – as one Prime Minister of Northern Ireland put it shockingly “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People”. When in his late teens, Norman came to realise that good governance engages sympathetically with the needs and aspirations of minorities and not simply the will of the majority. Failure to do this played a significant part in the tragedies in Northern Ireland which subsequently unfolded.

“One of the things I learnt as a teenager was that good government is not simply a question of doing what the majority want, but to govern also with sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the minority.

“This is relevant to the issue of women bishops. Good governance in the church as in the state isn’t just a question of getting things through Synod, but actually looks for sensitive and appropriate ways of taking into account the needs of the minority. I would like to see legislation which permits the consecration of women as bishops coupled with adequate provision for those with traditionalist theological convictions. The CofE has not fallen apart because the Bishop of Oxford does not have jurisdiction in St George’s Chapel, Windsor and the Bishop of Ely has had no jurisdiction in the chapels of the Cambridge colleges since before the Reformation.”

This was a matter on which Norman took a strong stand in General Synod. Nonetheless, he was for five years elected by his peers as Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, alternating with the Prolocutor of York as Chair of the House of Clergy, and a member of the Archbishops’ Council.

With a strong belief in the centrality parish ministry and very suspicious of over centralisation, a major battle which Norman fought and won was to persuade the Synod to remove from draft legislation provisions designed to transfer the ownership of all parsonage houses, churches and churchyards from the ownership of the local Rector or Vicar to the Diocesan Board of Finance. As Norman points out, “at a stroke housing whose total value is comparable to the assets of the Church Commissioners would have been transferred from local to centralised ownership changing for ever the relationship between parish and diocese, between vicar and bishop”.

At heart he remains a parish priest and looks forward to making an appropriate contribution locally when he retires from his present role.

Archdeacon Norman, 69, is married to Vicki and has two sons, two grandsons and a granddaughter. He is planning to move to Camberley, where he will live half way between his sons and their families. Everyone is welcome at his leaving service at 4.30pm on Sunday, May 12 at Reading Minster.

 

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