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Chester wins race for C of E’s first woman bishop

19 December 2014

Kippa Matthews

A PARISH priest, the Revd Libby Lane, is to be the first woman bishop in the Church of England, it was announced on Wednesday, one month to the day after the passing of legislation to enable women's consecration.

Ms Lane, Vicar of St Peter's, Hale, and St Elizabeth's, Ashley, will become the Bishop of Stockport, a suffragan post in the diocese of Chester, when she is consecrated in York Minister on 26 January.

"This is unexpected and very exciting," she said, after the announcement was made in Stockport Town Hall. "I am very conscious of all those who have gone before me, women and men, who for decades have looked forward to this moment. But most of all I am thankful to God."

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was "absolutely delighted. . . Her Christ-centred life, calmness, and clear determination to serve the Church and the community make her a wonderful choice."

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said it was "an historic appointment and important day for equality".

Described by the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, as a "first-rate parish priest" with a "varied and distinguished ministry", Ms Lane was among the first women ordained priest in 1994, having trained at Cranmer Hall, Durham.

After serving in both Blackburn and York dioceses, she moved to Chester in 2000, holding several posts, including that of Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands. Although she was among the eight women elected last year as Participant Observers in the House of Bishops, she was not among the women often mentioned as likely candidates for the first appointment.

Archbishop Welby told the BBC on Wednesday that Ms Lane was "very unconcerned about herself. . . Her lack of self-importance means that she will cope with being the first woman bishop brilliantly, and will be a hugely powerful contribution to the College of Bishops."

As a young mother of two small children when she was starting out as a priest, Ms Lane had been "enormously blessed", she said, to have "ministered in places that have honoured and appreciated my ministry. . .

"I have never encountered aggression or unpleasantness." But she knew of women who "carry the hurt and scars of the journey".

She went on: "There are many very real discriminations and injustices that women face in the UK and across the world, and, if just in a smallest way, my nomination as Bishop of Stockport is an encouragement and a challenge for the flourishing of women everywhere, then that, I think, will be a blessing."

Her appointment was welcomed by those who have campaigned for decades to open the episcopate to women. Hilary Cotton, who chairs WATCH, said that it was "a great day of rejoicing and a momentous day of change".

Statements from traditionalists and conservative Evangelicals both promised prayers for her, although they expressed concern about the consequences of her appointment. "Naturally, we regret the implications for the wider unity of the worldwide Church," said Canon Simon Killwick, chairman of the Catholic Group in the General Synod.

Forward in Faith sent her "good wishes". The chairman of Reform, the Revd Rod Thomas, said that her appointment was "against the biblical model of good church leadership".

"The Church is a better place for having the space for dissenting voices to be heard and honoured," Ms Lane said. "I am committed to the Church's principles in the current legislation of mutual flourishing.

"I take very seriously the calling for bishops to be a sign of unity, and I will be wanting to exercise my ministry in ways that draw people together and enable us to work together for the good of the Kingdom."

On Thursday, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, a traditionalist, welcomed the appointmnt, which would "bring great joy and affirmation to those within the diocese of Chichester and across the nation who have prayed and waited so long for this day".

He paid tribute to her "commitment to finding a place for everyone within the Church of England to flourish, irrespective of their theological convictions on the matter of women's ordination".

While rebutting the suggestion at the press conference in Stockport that her appointment was a "gesture", she was clear that the work to see women in the Church reach their potential is not yet complete. She pointed to the fact that, while about half of those entering ordination were women, they were under-represented among incumbents and ordinands under 30: "We have to look at how we can encourage young women to the ministry."

Asked whether she would describe herself as a feminist, she said: "I would describe myself as a woman who has expected, and been blessed to receive, all the opportunity that my male colleagues have. I am conscious that, for many around the world, being a woman is a huge disadvantage. . . Globally, poverty has a woman's face."

In a week in which the Archbishop of Canterbury warned: "We can't simply go on as we are if we are to flourish and grow as the Church of England" (News, 19 December), she offered a hopeful prognosis: "If the Church continues to adapt, as it has done through the centuries, and be faithful to its call to proclaim afresh in each generation the gospel, then the Church will grow and flourish in this generation as it has done in the past."

Christians needed to be "pro-active and confident about our continuing place in the life of the country and to trust in Christ that the Spirit will do their work".

Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, and educated privately at Manchester High School for Girls, Ms Lane studied theology at St Peter's College, Oxford. She was ordained priest in 1994, alongside her husband, George, who is Chaplain of Manchester Airport. They have two children in higher education.

Her interests are listed as: "Being a school governor, encouraging social action initiatives, learning to play the saxophone, supporting Manchester United, reading, and doing cryptic crosswords." A former colleague from Blackburn, Canon Arun John, said that she had a penchant for tap dancing.

Fast-track plan unveiled. On Thursday, Sam Gyimah, the Conservative MP for East Surrey, on behalf of the Cabinet Office, will introduce a Bill to fasttrack women bishops into the House of Lords. All three main party leaders have given their backing to the proposals.

If passed, the Bill will mean that, for a period of ten years, the most senior eligible female bishop at any time will fill a vacancy that arises on the Bishops Bench, in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop.

An explanatory note said: "Male bishops would continue to enter the Lords, in accordance with the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 for determining seniority of precedence, if there were no eligible female bishops at the time a vacancy arose."

The Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, is currently the most senior bishop awaiting the formal demand to take a seat in the House of Lords. If the Bill is passed, that could be postponed indefinitely, depending on how many women are made diocesan bishops.  

"On the one hand, this is quite frustrating," he said on Thursday, "because greater Lincolnshire is under-represented in the House of Lords, and I saw this as an excellent opportunity to raise in the highest national stage the issues which, as a Diocese and a community, we are facing in trying to make our part of the country a better place for everyone. That representation may now have to wait some time.

"However, far more frustrating has been the wait for women to be able to be ordained bishop, and for an anachronism to be consigned to history. For that to happen completely, it is absolutely right that women bishops are fully represented in all levels of society, parliament and the Church, and I look forward very much to seeing that happen."

A statement from WATCH issued on Thursday said that it had "always campaigned for women and men to be bishops on equal terms, including as members of the House of Lords. Sometimes, however, equality is so far distant that some speeding up is necessary to make it happen within a reasonable time frame."

It went on: "The Bill recognizes the fact that for the first Diocesan bishops who are women, this hasn't been a level playing field and they will not have had the same opportunities historically to be able to fulfill their full and true callings."

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords, said that the presence of women bishops would "enrich and strengthen our voice in the House of Lords". 


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