WHEN the Bishop of Warrington, the Rt Revd Beverley Mason, had surgery for skin cancer four years ago, she had to ask herself, “How much invasive treatment am I prepared to go with?” There was a possibility that she might have to lose half of her face: her eye, jaw, and cheek.
Having had surgery, she also had to confront public reactions to her changed appearance: an infection of her skin graft looked “hideous”. While shopping with a friend, she found that “people were pointing, crossing over aisles to get away from me. . . Some would look with disgust, some with sorrow and compassion. But the first responses were typically people putting their hands to their own face and gasping.”
It was an experience that inspired her to support Changing Faces, a charity “for everyone with a scar, mark or condition on their face or body that makes them look different”, and to take part in its Facial Equality Week last week, by speaking to young people at Wigan Deanery High School.
“It just made me so acutely aware of people who are living with permanent facial difference,” she said on Monday of last week. “It raised questions for me about importance of the face, and what happens to us when we look in the mirror and do not recognise our face. What does it do to our relationships with people who look at us, and they are clearly looking at someone they don’t recognise anymore? . . . Part of this loneliness that people experience is ‘will I ever be touched again, kissed again? Can somebody love me?’ These are deep, deep, questions.”
Her “journey of reflection” has convinced her that the “radical inclusion” championed by the Archbishops must extend to those affected by facial difference: “This is an area in society where people are so marginalised, and it leads to isolation, utter loneliness, loss of self-worth and depression and poor mental well-being,” she said. “It’s about changing attitudes, perceptions and first responses.”
Among the issues she discussed with pupils was the impact on employment. She was aware of people who had been told that their difference meant that they were not right for the sector to which they had applied, including working as a receptionist.
Changing Faces provides guidelines for employers, teachers, and health professionals, and has been challenging the film industry through its “I’m Not Your Villain” campaign, which calls on it to stop using scars, marks, or burns “as a shorthand for villainy”.
Bishop Mason said that she had been impressed by the response of pupils in Wigan. One young woman had said that she would boycott a business that treated a candidate with facial difference unfairly.
“We can train ourselves to think differently, look differently,” Bishop Mason said. “It’s dealing with our own first responses, our biases, and people within the Church need to be savvy as everybody else.” An important Scripture was Psalm 139: “a lovely song of love, God’s love for us, and recognising that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”