The Ven Olivia Graham

Olivia Graham tells Jo Duckles about her life from becoming a Montessori teacher in Nairobi, to a career in international development and the road to becoming the Archdeacon of Berkshire. 

Olivia tells me her story from Foxglove House in Newbury – her base since she became Archdeacon in October 2013. Despite being a cradle Anglican, attending Matins every Sunday and getting confirmed at 13, Olivia woke up aged 14 and decided that Christianity was “a load of baloney”. It would be more than a decade later, after a couple of stints in Africa, that she returned to faith.

After her A levels, Olivia moved to Kenya, where she worked in a co-educational secondary school on the Uganda border. Aged just 18 and with some of the students older than her, Olivia ended up running the school when the head left. She then trained to be a Montessori teacher and worked with children aged two-and-a-half to six in Nairobi. She kept deferring a place to study Swahili and Linguistics at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) until eventually the university asked her if she really wanted to do the degree.

By the time she was 25, Olivia had decided that what she really wanted to do was a degree in Development Studies. “I had a wonderful three years at the University of East Anglia,” says Olivia. “My dissertation field work was done on a Maasai group ranch in Kenya.”

It was while she was at university that Olivia began to re-engage with faith, when a cousin asked her to be a godmother to her baby. “It was a bit ridiculous to say I would be a godmother if I didn’t believe in God,” says Olivia.

“I started going to the university chaplaincy and talking to the chaplain and came back to faith that way. I have always been grateful for that challenging question and I later had some powerful charismatic experiences which left me with no doubt at all about the reality of God.”

After graduating, she co-ordinated a UN-funded education programme for refugees in Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa, which borders Ethiopia. “There had been a large influx of refugees from the Ogaden War in Ethiopia. I worked in the camps for a couple of years but made myself unpopular because I wrote a report that was critical about the lack of protection for women refugees,” says Olivia, who went on to run a relief and development programme for Oxfam in Somalia, before moving back to Oxford to run a networking project covering 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. “It was helping local project workers in different countries to not re-invent the wheel. They were doing similar sorts of work but with no mechanisms to contact each other.”

During this time, Olivia met and married Keith, and their son Robert was born. After a couple of years, the project headquarters was moved to Senegal, and the family moved to west Africa. Olivia says she first considered ordination during a power cut in Mogadishu. “I was sitting with a group of people one hot evening in semi-darkness, drinking beer and chatting about what we would be doing in ten years.

"I heard a voice saying ‘I think I’ll be ordained.’ I realised I’d said it, then having said it I had to carry it around with me.”

In 1992, as Olivia was coming to the end of her time in Senegal, General Synod voted to allow the ordination of women.“I came back to England and started exploring ordination. I went to my selection conference six months pregnant with Philip, my second child. Olivia says: “One of the selectors looked over his glasses and asked ‘Are you sure this is the right time dear?’”.

It clearly was as she was recommended and began training on what was then the St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course, based at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. “In my third year I got pregnant with Sophie, my youngest, who was born in the July. I missed the final summer school but took her to the closing Eucharist when she was three days old.”

Not wanting to up sticks with a new baby, leaving the support of friends, Olivia served her first year as a curate in Garsington, on the outskirts of Oxford. She completed her training in Princes Risborough before becoming team vicar at St Peter’s, Burnham, for seven very happy years.

Sheila Watson, the Archdeacon of Buckingham at the time, encouraged Olivia to apply for the role of Parish Development Adviser (PDA) for the Oxford Archdeaconry. It’s a role she is extremely enthusiastic about, once telling Bishop John it was the best job in the Church of England. “I am grateful to have been able to continue my ministry of spiritual direction which I trained for during my curacy, and also to train in supervision skills. Another good project was the Festival of Prayer. It was a really good, creative time. I was enjoying my role, and when a senior colleague suggested I might apply for the Archdeacon of Berkshire role when my predecessor the Ven Norman Russell retired, it came as a big shock to me. I hadn’t considered being an archdeacon."

"A large element in applying for a job like this is allowing the wisdom of others to come to bear on the discernment, trusting that the process has God in it and that the outcome will be the right outcome for everybody, which is a good strategy. If you believe that, you never have any reason to feel disappointed...”

Since starting her new role, Olivia has been extremely busy. “Although I’ve worked in the diocese for the whole of my ministry, I’m in a new county and a new archdeaconry. A lot of the things I am called on to do require a depth of knowledge and a different kind of knowledge and I’m on a steep learning curve. Newbury is a lovely town. I’m really happy to be doing this job, excited about what God might be doing in Berkshire, and energised by sharing that with wonderful colleagues and lay people.”

Olivia is married to Keith, who is on the admin team at Ripon College Cuddesdon and choir master at St George’s, Wash Common. They have three children, Robert, an ordinand at Cuddesdon, Philip, who is studying in Liverpool, and Sophie, who is doing her A levels.

This is an older post. Please note that the information may not be accurate anymore.


Page last updated: Friday 24th September 2021 3:35 PM
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