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C of E is 'finding its voice again', says new Bishop of Hull

25 March 2015


THE Church of England is being "sharpened up" by its untrendiness, and has found its voice again, its second woman bishop said today.

Canon Alison White, named as the next Bishop of Hull, found inspiration in the city's successful City of Culture bid to express her confidence in the Church's mission.

"I want to . . . give confidence that we have something vital to contribute wherever we live," she said. "The video made for the Hull City of Culture bid has a great phrase I want to borrow: 'We've found our voice again.' And I believe we have something worth saying."

An Honorary Canon Theological at Sheffield Cathedral since 2010, Mrs White is currently Priest-in-Charge of St James's, Riding Mill, in the diocese of Newcastle, where she is also diocesan adviser for spirituality and spiritual direction.

Asked to elaborate on her message, she said: "We are at a very interesting point in the Church's life at the moment. . . Because, in some ways, it is not a very trendy thing to be a person of faith, to be a Christian, actually I think that sharpens us up, and makes us think: 'What are the treasures we have got? What is it unique about us that we can bring to this mix with others . . . who want to see our society be a better place for everybody?'"

Canon White has previously worked as a diocesan adviser in local mission in Durham, and as a Springboard Missioner. In her new position, she will have diocesan-wide responsibility as an "ambassador for prayer, spiritual and numerical growth, and ambassador for urban life and faith". Statistics from Church House suggest that church attendance in York is in decline, in line with the Church nationally.

Asked whether she felt daunted by her responsibility for reversing this trend, she said: "I would be a lot more daunted if it was numerical growth alone, as that sounds like recruitment, and I don't think we are in the business of recruitment.

"But if we can love God more, and listen more carefully, and pray more deeply and more confidently, I think we will see that surprising things happen when God's people pray. . . I think when we are really going for that, some of that numerical growth may just take care of itself more than we sometimes believe."

The call to the episcopacy was the latest in a series of surprises, she said. "I thought I was the most unlikely kind of person to be ordained by God. God, and other faithful people have seen it differently, so I am trusting that they are right."

Recalling her priesting in Durham in 1994, she said that the large numbers of women had meant that it had taken two days. "I was in the middle of all that number, and it was the most extraordinary sense of God fulfilling something of his love for us and through us. We were very hopeful of being able to show something of his love, widely and generously, and to say that anybody can be caught up in this. Anybody."

She admitted that, rather than looking ahead to women bishops, "to be truthful, at the the time, I just simply wanted to be faithful to what God was asking of me. . . I certainly always believed that there would be women ordained as bishops, because there are in various parts of the world. . . But I have to say I have never, ever, imagined that I might be called to this ministry."

She served her curacy as a non-stipendiary minister at Chester-le-Street, Durham, before becoming director of mission and pastoral studies at Cranmer Hall, and then director of ordinands in the diocese.                  

Asked about the position of women in the Church, and remaining barriers to their flourishing, she said: "I think we are going step by step into this. Women are the Church, just as men are the Church, and we need to find out how we do that better. . . I can't say that I think there are particular, generic challenges. I think we work on building relationships."

She went on: "There are lots more women who will be called into episcopal ministry, I am certain of it. And, in the best sense, it simply won't be newsworthy."

Canon White is married to the Assistant Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Frank White.

"This may seem excessive," she joked in a message on the York diocesan website. "You would think that one in a family is more than enough. Believe me, this has crossed our minds. Actually, I am married to Frank, and that is a gift. Both our lives have been made rich by this vocation to marriage, which we have been working on together with joy for over 30 years."

Her husband said on Wednesdy that she would be "an outstanding bishop". They will move to Hull.

While expressing excitement about the city's regeneration, Canon White acknowledged that "in our major connurbations, and, indeed, rural areas, we are talking about real poverty. . . I don't think we can rest while that can be said of us." She had been impressed by the "spirit of the place: people with tremendous courage and tenacity and good humour, and not taking any nonsense. How wonderful to be a part of that."

Shared conversations on sexuality are due to take place in York in May. "When we are really listening to one another, and hearing what each has to say, that means that we will grow in relationship with one another and, where that is happening, I think things that we are afraid of may become less fearful," she said. "My real hope is that we can do all that we possibly can to pray together, and work together, so that we live in unity with each other."

Asked what she would change, if she had a magic wand, about how the Church of England operates, she said: "The thing I long for most is that we would go deeper in our loving God, and working out what that actually means in loving our neighbours, both within the Church and beyond it. That is not a change, it's a going deeper."

Canon White grew up going to church "a bit", and said that she enjoyed it, and was "amazed at God". But her mother died young, and "I went off the whole idea in a very, very big way, and managed to avoid God. I did not stop believing, but I managed to avoid God until Durham, at university."

On Tuesday, asked about how her mother's death formed her, she said: "Our lives are so often messy. . . I really believe that God is found in the mess, and, somehow, nothing is wasted. Where things are tough, maybe we get to be a bit more compassionate about people who are in mess of one kind or another; and to know that the best we can offer sometimes is just to be there with them, because that is what Jesus did for us: to be there with us."

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