Creating Connections in Norwich: where there is more to religion than just statistics

By Lianne Kolirin

Norwich has a church for every week of the year, so the old saying goes.

But given the religious make-up of the city’s population, we might be left wondering whether these have mostly fallen vacant.

According to the 2021 Census, 53.5 per cent of Norwich citizens describe themselves as being of “no religion” — making it second only to Brighton and Hove as the country’s least religious city. That figure was considerably higher than the overall equivalent for England and Wales — 37 per cent.

But there is more to the communal identity of the Norfolk capital than the statistics, the Very Rev Andrew Braddock believes.

Dr Braddock, dean of Norwich Cathedral since the start of this year, set out, in a keynote speech to the Religion Media Centre’s Creating Connections on Thursday, to show that his new home city is far from irreligious.

Addressing a packed conference room within the cathedral, he explained that Norwich had now been knocked off the top spot, having emerged from the two previous censuses as the least religious place in Britain.

The dean said he planned to “dig in” to the issue to show the opposite was true and then set about describing the city’s religious landscapes through three different strands: identity, engagement and influence.

The statistics, he said, did not take into account that many people might not consider themselves Christian but are culturally observant, attending events such as carol services in the cathedral. Meanwhile, he said, attendance at Anglican services in Norwich, according to 2019 figures, stand at 2 per cent — just shy of the national figure of 2.2 per cent.

Dr Braddock said there was a significant growth in evangelical churches in Norwich, and he highlighted the social action of numerous faith groups, saying that the number of working hours clocked up by volunteers was 20 per cent higher than the national average.

The cathedral was all-important to the city’s identity, said the dean at the last of the RMC’s six Creating Connections events this year.

“We are the largest visitor attraction in Norfolk and Norwich by some way,” he said, adding that innovative installations, such as Dippy the Diplodocus and a helter-skelter, had drawn in crowds from far and wide.

“There’s a strong sense of relationship between the cathedral and the civic life of the city,” he said. “I think we are pretty religious in spite of what the headlines might say in some newspapers.”

An alternative view of this came from George Cooke, one of a panel of third-year broadcast and multimedia journalism students from the University of East Anglia.

Introduced by their lecturer Barnie Choudhury, a former BBC journalist and editor-at-large and columnist at Eastern Eye, the group screened a series of TikTok videos they had made on religion for the event.

Cooke took to the streets of the city to speak to residents about the “no religion” label — which most appeared to identify with. Nevertheless, he admitted, it was an “uncomfortable truth” that social media clips were usually too short to take in all sides.

On that note, fellow student Jasmin Jessen told the audience that data showed that the average attention span was a mere 12.5 seconds. Her social media clip centred on the Quaker community in Norwich, a subject she admitted she knew little about before researching the project.

Louise Graham centred on the Norwich Buddhist Centre in her clip, which focused on interviews with two people who had made it their spiritual home. Meanwhile another student, Joe Bunker, who visited a mosque for the first time, told the story of the increasing number of Muslim converts in Britain.

The audience viewed the video of fellow student Amy Dexter, who visited the Jewish community of west Norfolk who regularly meet in people’s houses because the nearest synagogue is 40 miles away.

Later Kirsteen Thorne, who until this summer was a longstanding presenter on BBC Radio Norfolk, hosted another panel — but this time of media professionals. The aim, as in the other cities visited by the Creating Connections events, was to introduce the local media to the city’s faith and community groups and to build a better understanding of how they can co-operate.

Ian Clarke, executive editor of the Eastern Daily Press, said much had changed since he started work in the industry in the 1980s, but added: “The way that we tell news is very different but the number of eyeballs that are on stories that we read and pictures that we take is probably more than when we first started.”

Everyone on the panel agreed that communicating with people was vital to storytelling. Robert Thompson, editor of BBC East, said: “In the heart of every journalist they want to make a connection with the story and the interviewee who is telling that story because that is what turns into a great story. For all of us it’s about how we build those connections.”

When questioned about the lack of trust that some may have in journalists, Simon Wright, Anglia TV’s programme and digital editor, said: “We all live and work in this community. There’s no great benefit to us in getting things wrong and sensationalising things.

“We are all regulated, but more importantly we are all dependent on our viewers who are people in this region.”

Keith Morris, director of communications at the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia and publisher at Christian news website of Network Norfolk, said that while his website’s audience was smaller, it provided “inspiring and engaging” content for readers. In particular, they were able to focus on faith stories, he added.

Dean Tucker, manager of Future Radio, a community station based in Norwich, said its focus was on music, but “we are all about giving people a voice, certainly people who wouldn’t necessarily get their voice heard anywhere else”.

Someone who never expected to get her voice heard in the media is Vandana Khurana, who was introduced by Ms Thorne during the discussion.

She described how her journey during the pandemic became a happy news story. Like so many, she struggled to deal with the frustration of being unable to visit her poorly mother in India and the sadness after she died. “My faith was very strong, but I found the comfort in nature,” she said.

During that period, she would get up early and go to the beach near her home in Hopton-on-Sea to photograph the sunrise. She would later post her pictures on Facebook with inspirational quotes. These became a hit with friends and family, equally frustrated by lockdown restrictions, and she later went on to collate the pictures into a book, which she sold to raise money for five charities.

Kirsteen Thorne said she had reported on the inspirational story during her time at the BBC. 

Ms Khurana said she had “learnt a lot” from the experience, adding: “I can’t thank the media enough for instilling the faith in me to be able to reach out.”


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