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If your face doesn’t fit . . .

13 March 2015

Joanna Jepson was unhappy with her face, her Church, and God; so she decided to make some changes. She talks to Madeleine Davies

The Revd Joanna Jepson

The Revd Joanna Jepson

LAST year, a letter written by Louisa Manning, a 22-year-old student at Oxford University, went viral on social media. She had delivered it, via a waitress, to a man who, ten years earlier, had bullied her at school, calling her "Manbeast".

Attached to a photo of her, aged 12, it read: "Next time you think of me, picture the girl in the photo, because she's the one who just stood you up." Another photo that accompanied the many articles celebrating this revenge showed her, glowing and gorgeous, in a ball gown.

The Revd Joanna Jepson knows what it is like to endure the cruelty of childhood bullies. Born with a cleft palate, by the age of 17 she had a face that "literally didn't fit". She dreaded telling a new person her name, because it meant revealing an "unexpected flash of pink, bony jaw".

She was called "chipmunk", "can-opener", "wood-chipper", "metal-masher", "scrap-car-crasher". A letter slipped inside her Bible at a church youth-group read: "You are so ugly. Why don't you just kill yourself?"

It is an experience she describes in her memoir, A Lot Like Eve, as her exile from Eden. Yet, when granted her opportunity to exact revenge - after reconstructive surgery, she encountered a former bully in a pub - she declined it.

"I think it would have been incredibly tiring and exhausting to have - even in my mind - tried to wreak havoc and revenge on people, because I didn't need to," she says. "Their words no longer stood or stuck. I felt much more that I wanted to turn my attention to dealing with how I felt as a child, to integrating with that little girl, that wounded child, and making that healed."

Yet she admits, with some sadness, that she has never received an apology from those who tormented her, and is not expecting one. Catharsis, you sense, has partly been found in writing this book. Ms Jepson is now 39, beautiful, and famous - both for challenging an abortion in court, and for her work as Chaplain of the London College of Fashion; but the bulk of her memoir is devoted to her difficult adolesence and early twenties.

THEY were years in which she struggled not only with rejection by her peers, but with a fear of God, and "what his wrath would do to me if I failed to live up to this good Christian life".

Those who grew up in the Charismatic Evangelical milieu of the 1980s will no doubt find themselves nodding in recognition. Top of the Pops, Grange Hill, swearing, fornication, crystals, horoscopes, make-up, shopping on Sundays, witches, and wizards were all frowned upon, she says. And sex was the only sin that really counted. When offered the possibility of reconstructive surgery, she could not bear to pray about it, terrified that God would say "No." "I think the God I was afraid of then was the God who was always beyond pleasing, and beyond reach, and made me frightened, and was disapproving, and I would have to work very, very hard to appease," she says.

"God wanted me to be something I wasn't. But that was message I was getting from school as well . . . So, on all fronts, I was sort of being pulled apart, really."

This trajectory, from what might be termed fundamentalism to a gentler, less dogmatic faith, born out of a period of crisis and intense questioning, has been well documented in recent years - particularly in the United States, where bloggers such as Rachel Held Evans have attracted a huge following.

Ms Jepson's description of being terrified during prayer ministry at a summer camp, where a "startling number of Christians" appeared to be in need of exorcism, carries echoes of the blogger Vicky Beeching's story of an attempt to be "delivered" of homosexuality.

SHE believes that a "whole generation of Evangelicals" are making a similar journey. "There are so many people out there still feeling very hurt, and wounded, and angry, and resentful," she says.

"Maybe they were told to believe, and they responded to it, and gobbled it all up, and then felt very foolish later. I really hope this book gives space for people to think it could be OK to go back to it, and have another look at what was human nature, and organisational psychology, and what might be God, and tease out the difference between the two."

Her odyssey included a theology degree at Trinity College, Bristol. She went without the blessing of her pastor - who told her that her vocation was as a "wonderful wife and mother" - but with the en-couragement of her father, whom she recalls apologising to her, in tears, for the strictness of her up-bringing. It was born, she acknowledges, out of a desire to protect her.

The contemplative tradition has also become precious to her: the book is dedicated both to her parents, and to the community at Ty Mawr.

"That silence is bliss after all the noisiness," she says. "We were told we had to shout our praises at God and shout our prayers at God, because David shouted in the Bible, and I was exhausted by it." Even now, she admits, she sometimes feels "uncomfortable" when having to pray out loud. "Being able to sit with something in silence feels much more rooted, and conducive for me."

Both Held Evans and Ms Beech-ing have described a desire to continue to be able to describe themselves as Evangelicals, but faced the ire of those who seek to police the boundaries of the tradition.

"I very much identify with the whole thing about being disowned," Ms Jepson says. She has already received angry letters in response to the serialisation of her book in the Daily Mail. But she says that Evangelical churches are "brilliant to grow up in, because they give you a grounding in biblical knowledge, and the idea that God is real, and to be engaged with".

SHE describes herself on Twitter as a "firebrand" and a "thorn". She is perhaps best known for winning a judicial review into a case where an unborn child with a cleft palate was aborted late in pregnancy. Today, she is particularly concerned about the abortion of those with Down Syndrome: currently, 92 per cent of women who receive an antenatal diagnosis decide to terminate the pregnancy.

Her brother, Alistair, has Down syndrome, and is described in her book as her inspiration, "a vision of life lived out in the light, nowhere near the cover of a fig tree."

"We are losing part of our community, and it's a vital part," she says. "I am raising awareness, and that is as much for women as it is for those babies who might be aborted. . . Are we OK with abortion being the thing we celebrate as a point of freedom for women and women's choice? Really, is that as good as it gets?"

Being a feminist who challenges abortion policy and practice cannot be easy. During the case, she received a card that read: "Jepson, you sit at the Devil's feet you evil woman." But her confidence appears to be all the more solid for having been hard-won in her adolescence.

Receiving hate mail, including a letter that claimed she had a "cold face", she felt "unhooked from an intravenous drip of reactive and useless commentary that had been feeding me untruths about myself. . . . I knew who I was, the doubts and hopes I held; and, deep down, what I was about."

It is a confidence that has continued to be put to the test. When she was appointed as the first Chaplain of the London College of Fashion, in 2006, further sneering headlines followed.

 IT IS possible to regard her story as a fairytale, that of an ugly duckling who blossomed to become the beautiful poster-girl for Anglicanism. But part of the power of her book is that it does not shy away from the fact that we live in a world in which our faces are a daily "litmus test". A world in which "being unpretty at 19 felt hopeless".

The author Chine Mbubaegbu has spoken about how she initially felt guilty about writing her book Am I Beautiful?, but overcame her fear that her topic was trivial and shallow when she realised the extent to which women's anxieties about their physical appearance can strangle their potential.

Jepson came to see her surgery as a "gift sitting in the open hand of a God I'd not encountered for a very long time. . . Someone understanding, and compassionate, and kind."

She explains: "I was in a place where I realised that God would make me free whether or not I had surgery. But I think the main difference was that I had this anonymity after the surgery . . . without any of the baggage that I had had to encounter for all those years.

"It was an entirely liberating, but quite light feeling, really. I think that that gave me the space to actually find peace with myself, because I was no longer having to battle the reactions of people in the world. It got everyone off my back, and I could attend to my wounds. I needed really, I think, to just rest and come home to myself."

HOME today is Wells Cathedral, where her husband, the Revd Nicholas Biddle, is a Canon, and where she has recently helped to create a children's liturgy. Their son, Raphael, is two years old, and she is clearly smitten with him.

"I was so surprised by how much I loved being a new mum," she says. "I just found the whole process so magical and wondrous. . . Through being a mum, I am experiencing perhaps a fraction of the kind of wonder and love that God has for us, that sort of dazzling desire for goodness."

The title of Ms Jepson's book reflects her sense that, like Eve after the Fall, we wrestle with "fear, shame, and blame". Like Eve, she has "reached for the cover of leaves that are close at hand" in an attempt to "claw and clamber my way back" to Eden, "believing that, somehow, if I could just be good enough, I would make it".

Her story is a reminder that we are in exile from Eden - a lesson she learned the first time words of hate were spat at her brother; but it is also a tale of forgiveness rather than revenge, and restoration.

When she arrived at theological college in Bristol, she put up a picture of herself, aged 14, "hoping to be beautiful, just for one photograph, her wide, train-tracked smile tilted up to the camera".

Her book brings that girl out into the light again.

A Lot Like Eve: Fashion, faith and fig-leaves: A memoir by Joanna Jepson is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £10.99).

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