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Called on to build a new kind of bridge

30 January 2015

Two days after her consecration in York, Gavin Drake meets the new Bishop of Stockport


THE Cheshire village of Hale is more like a town than a village. Its main high street certainly has more banks than many smaller towns - albeit very small branches; and the Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Co-op superstores would, elsewhere, be considered convenience stores, going by their relative sizes. But there is bustle.

A hundred yards from the end of the High Street, however, the bustle stops as you reach St Peter's. The vicarage, next door, is in a quiet side street that has the atmosphere of a tranquil rural village in Middle England rather than one of the overspill conurbations in Greater Manchester.

The poster on the church noticeboard encouraging people to pray for their - now former - Vicar is the only outward sign that this is the parish whose priest was chosen to be the first female bishop in the Church of England.

Two days after Monday's consecration in York Minster, the Rt Revd Libby Lane is back at what will remain her home for just a few more weeks. And, in the relative calmness of village life, she has had the opportunity to reflect on the enormity of Monday's service.

"It was a really wonderful occasion. I mean, genuinely, I really enjoyed it," she says, "I felt in very safe hands. The Minster have been remarkable in pulling that service to- gether in the timescale they had, and the pressure they had with numbers, and expectation. They have been so helpful, gracious, and enthusiastic about it."

Unlike, perhaps, most candidates for consecration, the new Bishop had the benefit of being familiar with many of those whose job it was to put the service together. She even knew, at least to some extent, most of the bishops involved in her consecration, because of the part she played as a "participant observer" at the House of Bishops, a part also played by the Dean of York, the Very Revd Vivienne Faull.

The Precentor, Canon Peter Moger, is in Bishop Lane's cell group; and the Archdeacon of York, the Ven. Sarah Bullock, who preached the sermon, trained alongside her, and the two are godparents to each other's children.

"IT FELT like the Minster was on my side, and I had no anxieties at all about the service," she says. "We drove in on Monday morning to York, and, from a mile out, as we were driving through, we saw the people we knew heading towards the Minster, which was just lovely, seeing all those people coming together.

"Consecrations are both very profound and remarkable, and yet, actually, really very simple. They are wrapped up in a lot of pomp and circumstance, which I quite enjoy, but they are, at heart, fairly straightforward.

"Does the Church believe you are called to this? Do you believe you are called to this? We consecrate you to do this alongside us. And then we put all that in the context of the eucharist, which is, actually, the good news that we're about."

Not everyone at the service was in favour of her ordination, but Bishop Lane says that the sound of a dissenting voice made the service more "genuine".

"I keep saying - and I don't say it because I am meant to, I say it because I mean it - I think we are a better community for being a place where those who have dissenting voices are heard. I think it is more honest, and I think it is closer to the Kingdom. I think we are better for having a place for those who say: 'This is the place that I want to be; but I don't hold with that.'

"I'm not going to pretend that that was an easy moment, even though it was anticipated. Actually, I think that that demonstrated something about who we understand ourselves to be, and made clear that we decided as a Church that this was where we were to be and this is who we are. That all orders of ministry are equally open to men and women, but that those who can't, in conscience, engage with that are faithful Anglicans. They have a place.

"And so, having that articulated very publicly on Monday manifested what we as a church institution at Synod, when we passed the legislation with the guiding principles, we said that this is who we were; that there is a place to voice dissent.

"Although it wasn't a comfortable moment, the occasion would have felt like it had less integrity if there hadn't been space for that to happen."

THERE has been controversy, because some of the bishops who took part in the consecration are going to exercise "generous restraint" at next week's ordination of the Revd Philip North CMP, an Anglo-Catholic, as the new Bishop of Burnley. Bishop Lane says that she will be attending the service, and will do so at the invitation of Fr North.

"There were bishops present at my consecration on Monday for whom that is their position. They were very clear that they wanted to be there, if that wasn't going to cause difficulty for me, and I am honoured that that is where they wanted to be. Their presence was as much a kind of affirmation, and a delight. That's a sign of the Church's strength, and commitment to mutual flourishing.

"I will be at Philip's consecration on Monday, at his invitation. I've met Philip, and, as those bishops who were present at my consecration - although they didn't participate in the consecration -were able to say with integrity, when they were asked, it is their will that I was consecrated, I will say with integrity next Monday it is my will that Philip is consecrated. I believe him to be called to this ministry. We don't agree on everything, but this is the Church that we have both been called to serve in." 

BISHOP LANE's call to ministry came in her teens, and was "intertwined" with her journey of faith "for as long as I can remember". But, at the time, the idea that women could serve in the ordained ministry was not one that was widely held.

When she was at the Keswick Convention, at the age of 15, she responded to an invitation to those who felt called to full-time Christian service to come forward for prayer. What she had in mind was to follow the family tradition of working as a civil engineer, helping to build roads, bridges, and infrastructure in the developing world, as part of a missionary calling.

From very early on, she says, she felt that the least she could do with her life was "to offer it back to Christ in response to what he has given for me. . .

"My own Christian faith has always had in it that sense of - if this is what I believe of Jesus, that he took my flesh and lived our life, and gave himself for me on the cross; and that sacrifice has made me new, and forgiven my sins, and given me the hope of eternity by the power of the resurrection - what else can I do but give everything that I am and have in his service?

"As a child, and as a teenager, I was never quite clear what shape that would have, but that has always been part of my relationship with God."

During her sixth-form years, it became apparent, she says, that it was not her vocation to be a civil engineer. She studied theology at university, still not considering ordination as a calling. It was while she was at university that the Church of England decided to ordain women as priests, and a female deacon was appointed chaplain of the neighbouring college.

In that context, she felt that ordination might be something that was "integral to my identity. God's call on my life began to take shape."

She was ordained, alongside her husband, in 1994, in the first wave of ordinations of women priests. And now she has become the first woman to be ordained a bishop. "My own journey has coincided with the Church's journey," she says.

More than 20 years since that ordination, she describes the "twin joy" of being called to exercise her ministry in diverse contexts, alongside the "much more intimate delight of the joy of being with individual people as they explore, discern, and become aware of the presence of Christ in and around their lives.

"Whether it's a tiny child being caught up in prayer, and worship, and wonder, or somebody towards the very end of their life discovering Christ in their final footsteps, is an equal delight. . . Being able to be alongside individuals at moments of transformation in their lives is an astonishing privilege."

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