Blind Norwich minister just loves adventure
By Mike Wiltshire
2007: A blind Christian minister in Norwich has a great love of ocean-going adventures – which have led him to climb 130 feet above deck to work on the yard-arm of the magnificent tall ship, Tenacious.
Not deterred by a total lack of sight, the Rev Simon Stokes of Bowthorpe has even sailed as a bosun's mate on a tall ship across the Atlantic during a sabbatical break from his church work. The famous tall ship, Tenacious, is the sister vessel to The Lord Nelson.
A former accountant and tax specialist with a leading firm, Simon may have inherited his love of adventure, and cars, from his racing driver dad.
Although without sight, Simon says: "there is something just staggering about being on a yard-arm, more than 100 feet above deck."
After leaving the world of finance, Simon studied theology at Cambridge and has now been in the Christian ministry for 21 years. For the last 18 months he has led Bowthorpe Church, which serves the growing community as a pioneering partnership between four denominations: Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and the United Reformed churches.
Simon, now 45, also loves the challenges of serving the community. "One issue I'm passionate about is to encourage people to find real fulfilment and excitement – to discover how the love of God can transform each of us."
Simon's sight deteriorated from his mid-teens, but as his vision faded, his faith gave him courage and determination to show that loss of sight would not be a major problem.
Today, he loves being a Christian minister: "It's the most fantastic job in the world, there is nothing better." He admits to struggles about his early calling to the church, while at university. He thought being ordained might "ruin his street cred" and he could serve God better "by getting a good job."
He even hoped he might fail the selection process for the ministry – though his bishop believed otherwise, and urged him to complete the application.
Simon's working guide dog, Tigger, is a three-year-old Labrador retriever, who is also supported by Jamie, an 11-year-old "retired" guide dog – both animals are "very much part of the family," says Simon, who with his wife, Christine, have three children. Both dogs are popular with Bowthorpe residents.
With Christmas coming, Simon is reminded that "so much of the Christmas story is 'Hey, don't be afraid' as he recalls the shepherd's first fearful reactions at the birth of Jesus. Nowadays, many people are uncomfortable about "being before God" or even visiting a church, he says – "but God loves us so much. He truly wants the best for each of us."
Simon uses computer technology to access the Bible with screen-reader software that "reads" Scripture to him. Simon also senses God's special help as a minister without eyesight. "His grace is sufficient and I know God loves me just as I am – and I'm His servant and I rejoice in that."
Simon loves working with people: "yes, I'm in God's personnel department," he says.
In a new challenge, he is also working towards a master's degree in pastoral theology in which he is studying the 'rhythm' of daily spiritual disciplines in following God and last year he met another blind minister, the Rev John Beecham, a vicar at Beccles.
Simon also "passionately believes" in healing prayer and that God could heal him one day. But he adds that the greatest compliment is when people say, "Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot you were blind - so they see me as an individual, not me as a blind minister."
Pictured above is Rev Simon Stokes with companion Tigger.