Why is Libby Lane the first woman bishop appointed by the Church of England? She was one of the first to be ordained as a vicar 20 years ago when the Church approved women priests, and today she was unveiled as the Bishop of Stockport. But she was not one of the favourites, and so Bishop Libby was as much of a surprise as her appointment, which the Church kept under wraps until late last night.
When we meet in the Crewe YMCA, she has just been touring the building surrounded by a small cloud of cameras and journalists and is preparing to say goodbye to her congregation at a party this evening. They only found out this morning that she would be leaving them to become a bishop. When we talk about the church at St Peter’s Hale, Lane seems a little emotional as she is clearly sad to be leaving them behind, but for the rest of the interview, she is as polished as any politician I’ve ever interviewed.
The first ever woman bishop, appointed after years of campaigning and fighting in the Church of England, is so keen not to cause any more fights that she tries to avoid saying anything particularly striking during the interview. She refuses to put herself on one side or another when I ask whether she sees herself as a liberal, a conservative, an evangelical, or something else. Speaking in that special Anglican way – a slightly slower-than-usual pace of words that linger a little longer over vowels, especially ‘God’, which becomes ‘Go-od’, and thoughtful-sounding pauses – she says:
‘I would describe myself as a Christian and as a passionate Anglican and that’s how I would describe myself. I have been formed and shaped by a whole breadth of the Church of England’s tradition and experience and been really enriched by that and I want to hold onto that breadth and the richness that I have got in Christ and all the traditions of the Church.’
I’m not sure what that means, other than that she’s very keen to get on with everyone in the diocese, so I try to find out whether she has a liberal or an evangelical approach to the Bible. Does she believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture or applying context to tricky issues?
‘I read the Bible every day, I shape my preaching around Scripture, I love the Bible and it is what shapes my life. I hear God’s voice in it speaking to me and shaping my life and through it I think God’s intentions for the world, the Bible really matters to me. But so do the Church’s liturgy and sacraments, so does the Church’s teaching through history, rich history of prayer and spirituality, I am hard to label and I’m happy with that.’
If Lane applies a label to her beliefs in private, she clearly doesn’t think it’s wise to tell the world about it at the start of her ministry as a bishop. The website of the church she is now leaving, St Peter’s Hale, explains the Christian faith in a rather gentle way, saying that Christ’s ‘life, death and resurrection holds the key to knowing and loving God and to making sense of life, before and after death’. Perhaps her sermons are clearer.
Bishops have always clashed with governments, and recently the Church of England has had a number of high-profile debates with ministers about certain social policies, particularly welfare reform. Lane is a suffragan bishop and will not sit in the House of Lords, with the first Anglican woman to sit in the Upper Chamber coming next year. But she sees it as her duty to ‘challenge’ politicians on policies that she sees hurting those she serves. ‘Where my voice can articulate the voice of the church in its whole breadth, then I will, she says. ‘I think speaking of the experience of the people that we are and the people that we serve is incumbent on all ministers, and that includes challenge as well as encouragement.’
She has, along with other women who have felt called to full-time Christian ministry from a young age (her first inkling that she wanted to work in the Church came when she was 15 and she told her own vicar when she was 20 that she was thinking of following in his footsteps), been campaigning for many years for this day to come, and must have got into a few scraps with those who oppose it on theological grounds. She tries to be polite about these people, while saying ‘there have been people inevitably, colleagues, and people within the communities that I have served for whom this has been disturbing, unsettling and distressing’.
She claims that her own conviction that she was called to work in the Church is enough to help her deal with CofE colleagues and parishioners who wish she didn’t have the job she now does. But come on, she must have had a few fights with people over the past 20 years since the Church started ordaining women?
‘I’m very happy to engage with robust… engagements… but, um, I would hate to get to a place where I thought I was always right or that I knew everything. So the fact that people disagree with me is actually a positive thing and it continues to help me to learn to grow.’
The furthest Lane comes to saying that the opponents of women Bishops need to do anything now that she’s in post is that ‘there are people who do carry hurt and scars and those must be honoured and recognised’. She’s keen to work with any churches under her authority as Bishop of Stockport who disagree with women in authority in the Church, and will ‘ensure that they have the support and the oversight that they are entitled to, so that they can flourish and I will continue to serve them as their bishop, praying and resourcing them as much as I am able’. That word ‘flourish’, by the way, is an official part of the Church’s attempt to accommodate those who disagree with its new official position on bishops and gender. But as I explained in the Spectator recently, some conservative evangelicals feel they will eventually be forced to leave the Church, rather than flourish.
But Lane likes the fact that the modern Church of England is a very broad one indeed. She says ‘I think that part of its strength is that we strive to hold people together in Christ and that we don’t all agree with each other. I think we are stronger because dissenting voices are heard’. She, though, clearly doesn’t want to add to the noisy debate in the Church at the moment, and is quite happy instead to blend back into the noisy YMCA to talk to more of the people who work there. Which makes her the perfect first woman bishop in many ways: the only thing that appears to be controversial about her is her appointment, which was the subject of so much fighting in that broad church.