Faith that helped Norwich Sheriff face death
For a man who has faced up to the grim reality of death on a daily basis for the last 19 years as Norfolk county coroner, Sheriff of Norwich William Armstrong has a faith which has helped sustain him while questioning matters of life and death. Kevin Gotts reports.
After practicing as a solicitor for some 30 years in Norwich, specialising in mental health and child care issues, he is perhaps more widely known for the subsequent role as the Norfolk Coroner.
During his tenure, William extended the traditional role of Coroner and explains: “I introduced a number of radical reforms including the setting up of a support service and the first chaplaincy service in the country. I also established a new purpose-designed court and introduced new procedures to make grieving family members the focus of attention at inquest hearings.
“I believe strongly that the Coroner should relate directly and personally with the bereaved. Just as every life is unique, so every death is unique. Every one grieves in their own way. I always kept in mind that death is not the end and there is another and fuller life beyond our earthly existence. Supporting the bereaved is an enormous privilege.”
These years have given him an enduring interest in the prevention of suicide and the improvement of care for those suffering mental illness. Each suicide that came before him raised questions of how co-ordination between services could be improved - by compassionate and professional care; and good communication between GPs and community services.
William is Norfolk born and bred, choosing to live in the countryside and be a part of his small local church community. “We are all creatures of a loving God. Everyone has something unique to give, and should have their good qualities recognised,” he said.
His is a faith with more questions than answers, and he approaches the strong beliefs of others with openness and respect; confessing the incoherence of his own faith. When he has to reach an important decision he tries to be aware of his own prejudices and not to prejudge anyone, listening carefully and keeping an open mind.
He is now chairman of health watchdog Healthwatch Norfolk, which seeks to ensure that less fortunate people gain access to health care. At present the average age at death of a homeless person is 47. The gap between rich and poor is widening, so that an alienated underclass is growing.
In June, William was appointed as the Sheriff of Norwich. Besides attending a large number of events, he sees it a tremendous privilege to get about amongst the people, finding out what makes Norwich the place it is and in particular encouraging voluntary organisations and fostering a spirit of community.
“We have in this city a strong history of voluntarism with a massive number of churches and other organisations doing splendid work, often without recognition. I want to support and endorse their work.”
He has seen and is deeply moved by deprivation within Norwich. “There are some disturbing facts which we should not ignore. According to Norwich Foodbank, 30,000 people in greater Norwich are living on the edge of poverty. Norwich was in the top 5 per cent of local authorities in the UK for child poverty and in one year Norwich Foodbank has provided over 9,000 people with three days’ worth of food. Norwich must be fair not just for some but for all. I hope I can have a role in encouraging people to reach out to the impoverished, the marginalised, the disadvantaged and the isolated. They too must also be part of the story.”
In recent months, he was appointed as a Lay Canon of Norwich Cathedral and also as one of the Lay Canons on the Cathedral Chapter, enabling him to be part of that story of 900 years and into the future. Bishop Graham James paid tribute: “William’s Christian faith is deep and profound, as is his love of our Cathedral Church. I decided to make him a Lay Canon of the Cathedral in honour of the way in which he has lived his Christian faith so fully through his work. I’m sure he will relish the chance to serve the Cathedral in the coming years in this new capacity. He is always a blessing to others.”
Pictured above is Norwich Sheriff William Armstrong.