The lady cement mixer

“And amongst their number is a lady cement mixer…”

The Bishop of London’s deep tones rang out across the congregation gathered for ordinations at St Paul’s Cathedral, and as he did so, people sitting near me conferred quietly. “Who *is* this lady cement mixer??” they murmured – for, amongst those being ordained, this was the second reference to this mysterious woman in just two days. From the seat behind, my sister giggled, she had guessed the answer. My mother apparently hadn’t, for several hours later,  she asked me who it was – to which the response came from more than one person gathered there: “It’s Liz of course!!”

In my defence, I had been asked to complete a form that shared some information about myself with the Bishop. What did I enjoy doing in my spare time? What hobbies did I have? There was even an instruction to be a little bit different. So I shared my hobby of house renovation in France, complete with the acquisition of the skill of cement mixing. And thus, I became “the lady cement mixer”.

IMG_7282Lady cement mixer at work. The stuff gets EVERYWHERE.

It’s embarrassing. Not because I am in any ashamed of my Chateau Duffy skills, but because there are probably people who heard the Bishop’s words and thought to themselves: “How wonderful!! Not only was a woman working on a building site, but she then felt a call from God and is now ordained! Fantastic. London is such a diverse church!!” When in fact the truth is that a terribly middle class woman has some slightly odd hobbies – hobbies that actually, she shouldn’t tell churches too much about, because otherwise they’ll want her to start fixing things!

The Bishop’s words were uttered a year ago last week. [Confession: this post was sitting in drafts for ages! My ordination birthday is July 4th…] I’m officially a Reverend of one year’s standing! But they came back to me last month, as I not only mixed more cement (as apparently it’s believed I’m the only person who knows how to do – I am not!), but also learnt about plastering and how to tile a bathroom. Pretty soon I could start my own business…

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so embarrassed by the Bishop’s fascination with the female ordinand who can mix cement. After all, how many people do you know who can mix cement? How many of them are women?? Do any of them do it for fun?

Liz the vicarThe lady cement mixer in her natural habitat…

One of the many things that Chateau Duffy has taught [and it’s categorically taught me A LOT], is that I love breaking gender stereotypes. I knew this already (hello lady vicar), but the world of building sites is so dominated by one gender that it feels more noticeable there. Am I as strong as other people? Not necessarily. Am I happy to scamper across the roof or to balance precariously upon things? Nope. But do either of these things have much to do with my gender? Not really. [I concede that the men are generally stronger, but that doesn’t have to be a gender thing. I am very anti the cries of “Can we have some men to help with…” that go up at events when some marginally heavy lifting needs to be done.]

On our most recent trip, there was a day on site when I was the only woman present. I actually didn’t realise this initially – I was ankle deep in mud, standing in a 1 metre deep trench and it was difficult to see anything that was going on that wasn’t to do with the removal of mud and rocks. I was proudly putting to use my brand new steel toe capped wellies [an emergency purchase the day before after an old Primark pair split – they were a massive bargain courtesy of my favourite ex-pat], while desperately trying to clear the last few inches of the trench. But when another woman popped by and pointed out my unique status

Trench WelliesCaught between a rock and a hard place. (Standing in 1st position – because of lack of space) 

My job wasn’t super hard. I was following behind a friend using a pick axe (and later a jack hammer) – they broke up the rock and I removed it. It was tedious and tricky. The trench was too narrow for feet to stand side by side, so there was some physical dexterity required, plus a little ingenuity when the spade became too wide for the trench. And thus I found myself putting skills acquired during pilates to excellent use: standing on one leg, the other hooked up on the ground above the trench; and one arm stretched out over the ground while the other clutched a trowel – in this position I was able to do an elegant and safe bend down to the bottom of the trench. (And looked ridiculous, but no matter, it worked.)

Trophy gloryMy efforts in the trench even earned me a trophy!  

The thing with Chateau Duffy is that it’s completely dependent upon team-work, and the willingness of individuals to pitch in at whatever level they’re capable of. Some people turn up who are trained architects, builders, plumbers or general DIY-y type people. Other people come with other important gifts – like cooking amazing meals for large groups of people. And yet others – myself included – turn up to learn new skills, pitch in wherever’s needed, and generally do their bit for the greater good of seeing the building finished. One day. One day…

I work hard because it’s fun. I love a challenge. I want a place to go on holiday to in the future. And, because I really like the novelty of being a female vicar who knows her way around a building site. It’s not so much “This girl can” as “this lady vicar can”. Can, does, will and LOVES it.

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…

So, you’re going to a BAP…

Well, actually, the chances are you’re not – you’re probably just a regular reader of this blog who has absolutely no intention of ever putting themselves forward for ordination in the Church of England. [Wait, are you confused as to why I’m talking about BAPs? This explains it all.] However, this post is primarily for the benefit of at least four people I’m acquainted with who I know are going to BAPs imminently. Plus, there’s always the chance that the odd candidate might approach Google for help.

Whitby AbbeyThe graveyard at Whitby. This image is becoming my default ‘card to send to BAP candidate’ image…

True, when you’re selected for a BAP, the CofE sends you a helpful booklet entitled ‘Going to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel’, which explains the processes and procedures (if you’re interested, you can find a copy here). But, there are plenty of things that you could do with knowing that neither it nor your DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands, aka the person who you meet with regularly who supervises your progress through the selection process) tells you, so these are some of my tips. One day, I might write an entire book of such hints – I’d like to call it The Irreverent Guide to Becoming a Reverend – or maybe the Church Times would like a new regular columnist…?

My DDO was terribly thorough in her BAP preparation, which was very useful – we even had a helpful clothing chat. [This can be summarised as: no suits; smart-casual; be comfortable. Basically, wear what makes you feel good, but be sensible.] One of her best pieces of advice was that I should take ‘comforting’ things with me – like a Teddy Bear, a favourite book and some nice food. I translated this as:

  • Comfort viewing – specifically Gilmore Girls Season 4. Do not underestimate the power of the box set. BAPs involve long periods of time in your room and it’s nice to have background noise and something to get engrossed in to take your mind off everything else.
  • A cosy cardi – partly in case it was cold, partly so I could curl up in it.
  • Green & Blacks chocolate – self-explanatory.
  • G&T in a can – for emergency situations only. In fact, I ended up drinking it on the train home because I hadn’t needed it.
Beforehand, lots of people will (hopefully) give you advice, pray for you and send you nice (or comedy) cards. If you know someone going to a BAP, look up the address of their centre (it’s either Ely or Shallowford, so not tricky to find) and send a card to them that they’ll get on arrival – it’s a nice touch. Amongst my cards, I had a letter of advice from my Dad which included a few gems:
  • “Do be yourself…” “Do show your humorous side…”
  • “Don’t get into an argument! Do keep calm at all times.”
  • “Don’t dominate a discussion… As Karen was told in Outnumbered, ‘treat everyone with respect – even idiots’.”

[I feel I should clarify that my Dad wasn’t suggesting that I would get into an argument – just that he’d heard of it happening. He was suggesting that I might dominate a discussion and it’s not the first time he’s compared me to Karen from Outnumbered.]

Once you’re actually at the BAP, the important thing to remember is that everyone is in the same boat. Don’t let yourself get psyched out by the people who already seem to be behaving like vicars (unless they’re one of the advisors). It’s a little bit like Freshers Week at uni – everyone will ask you the same questions and you’ll spend a lot of time having the same conversations, and you’ll be offered endless cups of tea.

There will be ice-breakers, they may be cringeworthy, but this is an ideal time to pick up on what your advisors are like – which is always useful, especially when you’re completing your Personal Inventory. This is a peculiar 45 minute exam on you and your calling (top tip: take more than one pen in with you). In mine, I took a risk in the Education section and used Glee as an illustration – having already spotted that my Education Advisor was younger and had teenage children – it worked, she got it. Neither of the others would’ve known what I was talking about!

Your DDO may suggest you don’t become too pally with the other candidates, which is probably wise. But it’s worth finding out who the likely pub people will be (I ended up being the only woman who went for a drink), although there’s also a good chance you’ll be at a venue that’s miles from a pub – but there will be a bar. It’s also worth remembering that you may come across the candidates at a later date – like at the theological college you end up at. You may even have met some of them at open days or diocesan vocation courses – which can be both a help and a hindrance. Hopefully you’ll also find someone you can have a giggle with. A friend of mine at Vicar School found the whole BAP/baps thing hilarious and someone prayed that he’d find someone at his BAP who also found it funny – he did, and as it turns out, both of them ended up at the same college.

It’s a long 48 hours and definitely arduous. You’ll go to more chapel services than you’ll have thought possible [they will say that all but two are optional, but really, you’ve got to go – you’re hoping to become a vicar after all!]; you’ll be watched all the time – especially at meal times [you rotate between tables, which can become a trial to remember]; you’ll get grilled three times; and you’ll be with a bunch of total strangers, several of whom you’ll probably think are utterly insane. There will be people who you’ll think shouldn’t get selected – but you definitely can’t tell them that. There may even be people who seem to think that you shouldn’t be (perhaps because of your gender or age) but ignore them.

You’ll also need people on the outside. If you’re married/in a relationship, then you’ll participate in the mass, post meal, exodus of phone call makers. If you’re single, have people who you can call or text whenever you need to. In both cases, have people at home who are praying. (My church always prayed for BAP people at weekly staff meetings – find out if your church does.) Even better, have someone on hand who’s been through the process themselves. I was lucky enough to have had two friends go to BAPs in the two months before mine, and one was on hand for “I can’t believe how crazy this is!” phone calls. You probably won’t have wifi, and 3G access will probably be patchy – so don’t rely on that kind of communication.

Oh, and your bedroom door may not have a lock. This probably isn’t a big deal, but it does mean that you need to pay attention to your room name – rather than relying upon a number on a key-ring. I was shown to my room, I unpacked and left for a cuppa, realising half-way down the corridor that I had no idea of my room name and only a vague idea of which one it was. Given that none of the doors locked, there was a high chance that if I picked the wrong room, I’d walk in on a fellow candidate! (Or, even worse, an advisor. Or, even worse than that, an interview.)

Ultimately, the best advice is to go and be yourself. If your DDO is worth their salt, you wouldn’t have got to the BAP stage if they didn’t think you were a worthwhile candidate. If it all goes horribly wrong, it isn’t the end of the world (although, if you feel like Nigel from Rev did, then do avoid church roofs) and you can have a second chance at it. Whatever you do though, don’t drink your emergency G&T just before an interview – those bad boys have two and a half shots in them, which could decimate your performance!

Things I’ve learned from Rev

Last year, a new sitcom rocked my world. Last time I wrote about it (2 episodes into the first series), I was undecided as to whether it was a good thing or a bad, mainly thanks to its depiction of ‘my kind’ of church. By the end of the series it was a firm favourite, and major excitement resulted from spotting Revd and Mrs Smallbone at Greenbelt just a couple of months later.

It’s still a little controversial. Some church friends hate it and only watch it because it’s classic Water Cooler chat at their Vicar School; others think it presents a very one-sided view of the church; others think it perfectly captures the strains, stresses and hilariousness of vicar life. My family have weekly discussions around every episode, with my sister saying just the other day “I thought I’d had a normal childhood yet it seems to make an excellent BBC sitcom…” – I couldn’t agree more.

When series two finally showed up last month, a lot of things had changed in my world. As I said on Twitter as episode 1 began, “Last time I watched Rev I was a normal individual & it was fun; now I’m a trainee vicar…it’s terrifying”. Tonight, the last episode of the series (and Christmas special) aired, and I’ve finished my first term of training. In some ways, Rev has taught me more* than a term of Vicar School has…

Episode 1:

  • Never have a meeting with your Archdeacon in a sauna.
  • The Church of England would be a much more exciting place if all bishops were in fact Ralph Fiennes.
  • Anything worthy in the church (like going on a day trip) involves a lot of paperwork.

Episode 2:

  • I now aspire to be a hot, intellectual and intimidating curate. According to my father, all I need to do to achieve this (aside from making it to ordination) is improving my piano playing skills.
  • There needs to be further debate in the church over the public versus private baptism debate. Colin should have been baptised in front of the rest of the congregation (as Canon Law dictates).

Episode 3:

  • All dioceses do actually have diocesan exorcists. (But it is ok to do the odd house blessing yourself, should the need arise.)
  • I am finally thankful for my traumatic viewing of The Exorcist some years ago, as it meant that I got all the jokes and references in the episode – other wannabe vicars should go and do likewise.
  • Cassocks aren’t useful clothing during heat waves.

Episode 4:

  • Football is not a good forum for conducting inter-faith relations.
  • The Dragonfly story is apparently the only acceptable way to explain heaven to primary school children. [Just before Adam began to tell it, I had a sudden flashback to being told a weird story about dragonflies when someone died at school – hadn’t thought about it in 2 decades – so was rather surprised that the BBC used the exact same story!]
  • Cycling vicars (clad in all the appropriate safety gear) do nowt for the reputation of the clergy.

Episode 5:

  • Don’t steal from prospective parishioners – even if they’re stoned, loaded, or Richard E. Grant.
  • Archdeacon inspections are, in fact, a bigger deal than I realised. [Within days of this episode our parish’s forthcoming inspection became a big deal.]
  • “Pray quietly Vicar!” is something to bear in mind at all times.

Episode 6:

  • Not everyone finds the BAP (Bishop’s Advisory Panel) acronym as amusing as my friends and I do. I couldn’t believe the BBC didn’t make any reference to it…
  • Those who don’t get through the aforementioned BAP should be kept away from church roofs.
  • There are parishioners who like nothing more than to cook delicious meals for their clergy.

Christmas Special:

  • It’s unwise to postpone visits to elderly parishioners, just in case…
  • Midnight communion in Shoreditch looks like rather more fun than my Tewkesbury Abbey/Gloucester Cathedral experiences.
  • Sharing a nervous breakdown with a congregation via The 12 Days of Christmas is possibly the best use of that particular Christmas ditty, and something to put on the bucket list.
  • Never cancel a planned waifs & strays Christmas dinner. [Incidentally, love that the BBC used exactly the same name that me and a colleague used to refer to it today. We love a good waifs & strays Christmas.] It will ultimately unite your entire parish and solve all family traumas.

The series will stay on iPlayer for another week, so catch it while you can (handy hint: if you download it, you’ll have a month in which to watch it, if the next 7 days are somewhat hectic for you). Here’s hoping there’ll be a series three, and in the mean time, I think I’ll need to stock up on the boxsets for future formational guidance.

*When I say ‘more’, I obviously mean ‘different’. Obviously, I have learned tons of things that 3 and a half hours of a BBC sitcom couldn’t possibly teach me. [Disclaimer endeth.]

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…