"Keep wearing purple, it suits you…"

Yesterday morning, I got up eagerly (always bit of a novelty), excited at what the day would hold. As much of the day’s work as possible was undertaken at home so that I could listen to General Synod’s livestream in the comfort of my living room. Once at the office, Twitter kept me informed. By evening, as the women bishops debate was drawing to a close, my headphones went in, and I listened to the debate while moving chairs. (I was the epitome of this Dave Walker cartoon, sans cassock.) The vote took place as I was briefing a home group in how they would be helping with Student Alpha that night. Everyone paused as the numbers were read out. When it got to the House of Laity, the home group leader looked at me – I hadn’t done the maths, but he had and his face told me it had been lost.

Episcopal ManicureChurch politics via nail art.

The aftermath of Synod’s vote was wide-reaching. I can only really speak for myself, but the news was far more upsetting than I thought it would be. I understand the legislation and the fact that, in principle, having women bishops has been agreed – the vote yesterday was actually to do with the provision that should be made for those that do not feel able to serve under one. I know that it’s simply a matter of time. I know that this decision should not affect my calling to ministry in the Church of England.

But, I was hurt. Very hurt.

This morning, several hundred tweets later and having made a promise to my mother that I would not blog on this subject until I’d slept on it, I’m trying to reflect on how today works after yesterday’s excitement and disappointment. So here are some thoughts…

  • This will happen. Potentially (having just listened to ++Rowan’s speech to synod) earlier than we thought it might last night. When it does, the compromise that several of the laity will have voted against may no longer be there and women will be in a better position overall.
  • That it will happen one day is little solace for the women who are ready to be bishops now, but may well be unable to take up that position in several years time. Several people told me yesterday that it would be ok, that I would see this change in my life time, that I could still be a bishop – but what about those for whom it was the last chance?
  • The Church of England needs to look carefully at its governance structures and encourage those who might not otherwise consider it, to get involved. Yes, church politics can be terrifically dull, but I’d gladly sit through endless meetings about chairs if it meant I got to vote on bishops. I spotted an interesting Facebook thread last night between some students I know, all wondering what it would take to get on Synod – that needs to be encouraged!
  • On the same note, the church needs to get to grips with youth participation. I was stunned, towards the end of yesterday’s debate, to hear an eloquent 22 year old female ordinand – who was attending synod as a result of her membership of the Church of England Youth Council (CEYC) – mention that she didn’t actually get to vote. This person could contribute to debate, yet not vote?! That is not participation, that’s tokenism and the CofE should be ashamed of themselves. Having heard year after year of excellent contributions from Methodist Youth Reps at Conference, all of whom had full voting rights, it seems ridiculous that the CofE hasn’t caught up.
  • Twitter is a beautiful place. When I was grieving, yet having to put on a competent, happy front at work, people across the world comforted me. Actually, not just Twitter, Facebook too. But it was on Twitter that I saw again and again just how outraged people were by the decision; who affirmed women’s place in the church; who felt how I felt; who were able to crack jokes about it when my sense of humour deserted me… This tweet summed up how I felt:

  • When the decision first came through, I had a moment of wondering whether I’d made an horrific mistake in leaving the Methodists for the Anglicans – after all, I could hold whatever position I wanted to in Methodism (well, providing I was qualified for it, my gender wouldn’t be an issue). Almost immediately, a tweet from one of my closest college friends appeared, saying: “Unbelievable. Think I’ll become a Methodist.” which didn’t massively help me. I knew I’d been called to the CofE, I knew I was willing to fight, but it felt very hard at that moment and almost as though every Methodist I knew was smugly thinking “thank goodness we’re out of that!”. They weren’t, I was being illogical, and much of the support I received last night was from Methodist friends (and my own Methodist parents). But, the Methodists still have work to do and I think last night this became more apparent. Yes, women can hold high office, but do they? Not as much as they ought to. Current number of women in senior management within the Connexional Team? Zero. If this furore about women in the CofE helps women in Methodism get further, then that’s a good thing.

So this morning, we get up and we get on with life. The world outside the church understands even less of what’s gone on than those inside do, so we need to be gracious and caring and not contribute to a belief that this is the death of the church. It is not. We need to show women – particularly young women – that there is still a place for them within the church, and we need to affirm the women that are already serving within it.

We also need to remember that life goes on despite all of this, and that life can be hard and painful. Why mourn women bishops when people are being killed in Gaza? My personal wallowing in self-pity was brought to an abrupt halt late last night as I heard that a friend had been rushed into hospital with acute myeloid leukaemia – probably as a result of radiography having been diagnosed with lymphoma a few years ago, an illness her husband was then diagnosed with earlier this year. The news put life dramatically into perspective.

Ultimately, I will continue what I’m doing – training for ordination, helping to lead a church – and will take the advice of a reassuring friend in a chat last night: “keep wearing purple; it suits you.” 

When I am older, will I wear purple?

It’s a big week in the Church of England. Tomorrow, General Synod (its decision making body) votes on a resolution as to whether women can become Bishops. The decision they make has the potential to affect the trajectory of my career as a priest in the church. No, I’m not saying that I have episcopal aspirations – but I would like the option to be open to me – I do not want my calling to have boundaries based upon my gender. [Having said that, a group of well-meaning friends have already begun a “Liz for lady Bish” campaign. Bless their enthusiasm…]

20 years ago, this same decision making body voted to ordain women as priests. I was an 11 year old pupil at an all-girls Church of England school in central London and had little idea that this decision would actually have a major impact upon my life. With my fellow pupils, we rejoiced that the Church had seen sense and that the female Deacon at the school’s church could now be priested. If a church can agree to ordain women, surely the same church can agree to allow them to exercise their ministry in full?

I’m not going to write about the theology of the issue. There is (obviously) a lot to be said about it, but personally, I believe that once the CofE agreed to priest women, ordaining them as Bishops had to be inevitable. I’m also not commenting on the wording of the resolution that’s going to go before Synod. No, it’s not perfect, but we can’t afford to wait any longer to make this step. Why? Because currently, nothing makes the Church look more archaic to secular society than its structural sexism.

Along with thousands of others, I am praying that God’s will is done at Synod – and I genuinely believe that God’s will is to enable all his people to fulfill the calling he places upon their lives. I think it’s highly unlikely that God only calls women to be Bishops when they live in North America, or Australia, or New Zealand – I could go on.

If you want to read some slightly more theological, intellectual or well-argued pieces on this issue, here is a selection:
On a lighter note, I spent Friday evening celebrating the birthday of a friend of mine who happens to work at the CofE’s headquarters. Some of her colleagues were bemoaning the fact that her birthday party fell on the Friday before the beginning of General Synod – they’d wanted to stay late and get lots of work done. Inevitably, conversation turned to women bishops and I was asked if I was planning on being there for the debate [I would love to, but my job – helping to lead a church – may prevent that from happening]. This led me to ponder whether there would be themed t-shirts for those that were lobbying for a Yes vote…

This became a source of hilarity. A suggestion from a dear friend was “Make Me a Bishop!”. A tweet on the subject was re-tweeted by the Yes Campaign’s unofficial account, yielding the reply “I am an Episcopal Girl”. [To fully appreciate that reference, check out this video.] When I got home, I asked Facebook and got some interesting responses:

A female curate friend didn’t care to post her suggestion of “Bish with boobs!” publicly, but I do rather like it. I don’t yet have a t-shirt (a female ordinand friend suggested a pin-badge would be more suitable to the cause than a striking t-shirt), but hopefully, after Tuesday, I will have the option of wearing a purple clerical shirt when I’m older and more experienced. Here’s praying…

A revelatory blogpost

If I told you that in the last week I’d handed in my notice at work and on my flat, you’d think that something rather big must be occurring in my life – and you’d be right.

Now is the time to come clean with my dear blog readers about something I’ve been keeping rather quiet for quite a long time. The reason for the for all the change is that, from September, I’ll be training to become a vicar, a woman of the cloth, a dog-collar wearer, whatever it is you like to call the good people who lead churches.

I wonder what your reaction to this bit of news is? It’s almost been the funnest part of the journey, watching peoples’ reaction to it…

My boss was “shocked”.
My mother was “surprised, but in a good way”. [My Dad wasn’t in the least bit surprised.]
My sister asked “Methodist or Anglican?” [Anglican]
An old school friend was utterly speechless for quite some time; another immediately asked if she could come to my church [she’s an atheist].
Assorted church friends have whooped in delight in the gleeful way Christians tend to have about them.
Just this afternoon a former boss greeted me with “I hear you’re finally doing something with your life?”
One dear friend has been unceasing in their perseverance at ensuring I didn’t procrastinate (too much) at various points along the way.
Dibley - No!

My all-time favourite reaction though was Morv’s. Dear, dear Morv. I suppose I should’ve known better than to spill the beans in a crowded central London Wagamama’s [in a separate post I ought to chronicle the amazingly inappropriate conversations I’ve had in the communal canteen that is Wagas…]. The announcement was initially met with a shriek of “You’re going to be the Vicar of Dibley!!” and then followed with an equally loud cry of “you do realise you’re never going to have sex now, don’t you?” (this was a joke, but nonetheless not overly reassuring). What the other diners must have thought…

Incidentally, anyone who makes a Vicar of Dibley reference in my presence will not be appreciated. In fact, multiple references could result in physical harm – dog collar or no dog collar. Bless Richard Curtis and Dawn French, but in many ways they’ve done female clergy few favours.

The process has been long (nearly two years since I sent the original and very long form in) and arduous – hours and hours of questioning from a variety of people not to mention countless written questions and exercises, culminating in my BAP in April. Yes, that’s BAP – a Bishop’s Advisory Panel to be precise – I’m not sure that Ministry Division were fully aware of what they were doing when they came up with that acronym. Actually, knowing the church, they probably did and I’m grateful for it, as it resulted in a whole host of brilliant BAP jokes that lifted my spirits during a rather stressful time.

It all began when my student small group prayed for me and my dear co-leader (a stand up comic, if you please) got things started with “Lord, we pray for Liz’s baps…”. Post BAP, one of the students came up to me at church and began a conversation with “so, how’s your baps?” on a day when I was wearing a rather low-cut dress and I was suddenly very conscious that I was having a potentially inappropriate conversation with the object of many of the female students’ desire. A Twitter follower worked out what I was up to and suggested that when I finally let the cat out of the bag, it could be described as “getting my baps out”. Of course it’s not at all inappropriate to connect a vocational discernment process with breasts – no, not at all.

So what does this all mean? Well, from September it means that I’ll be an ordinand – the CofE’s glamorous term for a vicar-in-training – and I’ll be studying at vicar school. However, I’ll be at a slightly less conventional one that the usual residential college. Instead of a quad amongst dreaming spires, I’ll be in central London engaged in mixed-mode training – with lessons in theology and how to be a vicar in Kensington (the lessons are in Kensington, we will be taught how to be vicars in a variety of locations) and will also work in a central London church part-time. In August I’ll swap Bermondsey for Bloomsbury (well, practically Bloomsbury – it just alliterates better than King’s Cross/Holborn does) and will live in a parish that includes Rupert Everett and Gillian Anderson. Fabulous.

And as for the blogging? Oh, that’ll continue, no doubt about it. My usual working rules will apply – just as I don’t tend to blog about the content of my day job now, nor will I in the future. But I’m sure life at vicar school will provide plenty of blog fodder, as will the continuation of my random London life. As for what happens post-ordination, we’ll just have to wait and see…