Karen Gorham on her role as the Bishop of Sherborne
PUBLISHED: 11:12 06 January 2017 | UPDATED: 11:12 06 January 2017
The Right Reverend Karen Gorham, the ninth Bishop of Sherborne in modern times talks to Liz Burt about getting out and about in the county to meet her flock
On 26 November 2015 the Prime Minster’s Office released the following statement: ‘The Queen has approved the nomination of Venerable Karen Marisa Gorham to the Suffragan See of Sherborne in the Diocese of Salisbury.’
From St Aldhelm (the first Bishop of Sherborne) to Bishop Karen Gorham is a journey of some fourteen centuries of change, often tumultuous, for this historic North Dorset market town. Throughout history, from Saxon cathedral to Benedictine abbey and now the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin; Sherborne Abbey as it is known, has remained at the heart of life in the town. So when The Right Reverend Karen Gorham was consecrated as a bishop at Westminster Abbey in February this year, it marked an historic occasion, not only for Bishop Karen, her family, friends and church community, but especially for Sherborne and the wider Diocese of Salisbury.
Dorset’s abbots and bishops of the 8th century would never have conceived of a time when there would be a female Bishop of Sherborne. During the consecration service, led by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and attended by more than 1000 people, Bishop Karen was presented with a traditional Dorset shepherd’s crook, along with a specially designed ring and pectoral cross.
Speaking after her consecration, Bishop Karen said, “Having had a few weeks to settle into my home in Iwerne Minster, I am looking forward to starting my life as a bishop from today. Christians are people called to tell a story of God’s love and grace. A key part of my role will be to encourage and equip Christians in this area to have the confidence to share that story.”
Despite knowing East Dorset from childhood holidays, Bishop Karen knew it would be a challenge getting to know as many people and places as possible after her appointment. However she quickly identified that, although living in one of the more affluent counties in England, Dorset has its share of problems including poverty, hunger, homelessness and rural isolation. From Sandbanks to food banks – Dorset can be a county of polar opposites.
The newly appointed Bishop immediately made it her mission to champion young people, struggling families, farming communities and those suffering loneliness. “The Church IS the people,” she declares, “and wants to empower others to be active in supporting those in need.” She is already involved in many local organisations, including Routes to Roots and the Dorset Community Foundation, and takes every opportunity to spread the word. ‘Renewing Hope’ is an important message from the Diocese, and Bishop Karen speaks of it often, including on social media where she reaches out to some of her flock via twitter as @bishsherborne.
Children are intrigued by her Bishop’s attire - the elaborate mitre and cope proved irresistible to the pupils of Holy Angels’ Infant School, Lillliput who greeted Bishop Karen last March with big smiles and lots of questions when she was invited to bless the school’s new Prayer Garden.
She is also School Governor at Sherborne Girls, promoting the belief that women can thrive and achieve great things in life – as she has demonstrated so well herself.
“Dorset is a place of story. From Enid Blyton to Thomas Hardy, whose poetry I particularly enjoy, and we all have a unique story to tell, as individuals and as Christian Communities, of God’s love and grace. That’s our witness to the world, and our biggest challenge is to have the confidence to share it,” says Bishop Karen.
Another of her great interests is music and she tells me that she is very much looking forward to her first year as President of Sherborne Abbey Festival.
From Essex to Wessex
Bishop Karen’s own journey began in Billericay, Essex where she was brought up in a Christian home. At the age of 12 she volunteered to sharpen pencils for the local junior Sunday School at Christ Church. She believes God honoured that first step, gradually giving her the ability to “do all sorts of other things she never thought would be possible.”
The Bishop first preached at Sherborne Abbey on 6th March this year, saying: “This Bishop comes via God’s great adventure in a round-about route from Essex to Wessex.” She recalls the daunting moment of being in the pulpit for the first time, the sense of expectation to see how “the new Bishop sets out her stall” and the feeling that “the eyes of Dorset” were upon her.
Not long after her first sermon she conducted her first baptism in the sea at Branksome Chine and realised that her ministry in Dorset was going to be a very interesting journey indeed.
“In Dorset you never quite know what you will find around the corner and that the element of surprise is often wonderful; it could be the discovery of an old church building or even the best pub for miles,” she smiles.
For Bishop Karen all churches are spiritual powerhouses, be they old or new, large or small – attracting people from all walks of life, regardless of religious belief. Walking is a huge passion and she often has chance discussions with fellow walkers drawn to churches discovered along the way. “I would love to follow the source of The Stour to the sea, I believe ‘walking through life’ is part of my pilgrimage.”
She then confesses that prior to her interview for the post of Bishop she came to Sherborne to look around the Abbey and was inspired. “I wanted to see the Abbey as a visitor. In the chapel behind the high altar, where people are encouraged to pray I found these eight words: ‘Talk Quietly, Walk Gently, Think Deeply, Pray Faithfully’.
“Walking gently means taking our time to absorb what we are passing, being attentive to those who walk with us, giving others the chance to walk ahead and learning from them. It also means not leaving too many footprints on this planet of ours, taking care of God’s creation and doing our very best to preserve it.”
Meet the new Bishop
Bishop Karen holds a BA from the University of Bristol and trained for the ministry at Trinity College, Bristol. Prior to ordination she worked as an administrator with BTEC and the Royal Society of Arts and as a Pastoral Assistant in Essex and Hull.
She served her title at Northallerton with Kirby Sigston in the Diocese of York from 1995 to 1999. She was ordained priest in 1996 and in 1999 went on to become Priest-in-Charge of St Paul’s, Maidstone in the Diocese of Canterbury. During this time she was also Assistant Director of Ordinands and Area Dean of Maidstone. In 2006 she became an Honorary Canon of Canterbury Cathedral.
She was Archdeacon of Buckingham from 2007, a member of the Church of England General Synod for 12 years, and served for two years as a member of the Panel of Chairs. She was consecrated as the 36th Bishop of Sherborne, only the ninth in modern times and the first female, during a service at Westminster Abbey on 24 February 2016. Twitter @bishsherborne and on Facebook.