The big names in the Church of England have been out in force this Greenbelt, and as someone thinking slowly about the idea of ordained ministry, I’ve been watching with great interest.
Bishop Libby Lane, who had the honour of becoming the first female bishop in the C of E presided over Sunday’s communion, along with Bishop Pushpa Lalitha from southern India, and I was reassured to see +Libby relaxing with a cuppa in the Tiny Tea Tent after the service. Bishop Alan Wilson was also here leading a slightly different communion service this weekend, the eucharist hosted by Christian LGBT group OuterSpace.
Along with the fact that there are three ordained ministers among the family members I’ve been hanging out with, it’s safe to say I’ve been thinking a lot about church leadership this weekend. Being Greenbelt, there’s been plenty of talk about progress, about the future, about what we need from church leaders in today’s context.
So who better for me to catch up with than Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’ Church, Piccadilly? She was among the first generation of women ordained priest in the Church of England and the first female canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. So as a writer on gender and religion, it makes sense that she’s often asked to speak about women and the Church. This year however, there was little sign of the subject across Greenbelt’s programme.
I ask Lucy if this means we’ve all finally got over the issue. She thinks not. But the opposition she’s faced over the years and even still doesn’t seem to have to have deterred her: “I’ve only got one life – and what you do with your days is what you’re doing with your life. Of course I know that the Church is patriarchal, I’ve been ordained 20 years now, and there have been some pretty awful times. There have been arguments, and as the first generation of women priests we had to persuade people that we’re able to do what we felt called to do. At the same time there’s a real freedom in that. I listen to people who don’t agree, but they don’t prevent me. I’m free in Christ, I’m a child of God. My security is in being someone made in the image of God.”
At Greenbelt at least though, it seems we’re ready to listen to church leaders without focusing first on their gender. So what is it that we need from people in leadership positions in the Church? It’s a hot topic in the Church of England, because a new cohort of younger bishops and others in prominent positions have recently been sent on a mini-MBA style management course. Lucy notes that even the language I’m using as we speak, of leadership rather than priesthood or ministry, suggests a particular attitude: “The language of leadership belongs very much in the Protestant Church and the more evangelical bit of the Church. It’s unavoidable that priests do lead, but to me it’s not our primary function. I think what I’m there for is to issue an irresistible invitation to people, to live as people of God.”
As Lucy talks more about the role of priests, in discipling people and in sharing the good news of God’s new future, in inviting people to change the world, and in celebrating sacraments, it strikes me that this is an ancient role being played out in a very modern context. I’m curious to know how far she thinks today’s priests and church leaders should be subjecting themselves to the scrutiny of social media and other relatively new ways of engaging with the world. She agrees that “it is challenging to communicate deep, profound truths about who you are, about your spiritual life, about how God is evident and present in the world. Those things are often quite subtle, quite fragile, and they can’t be fit into 140 characters. Sometimes the beauty and complexity of what it means to be a person before God is very difficult to communicate when all you’ve got are soundbites.”
Although Lucy herself has so far chosen not to be on Twitter, her church has a presence there and she’s not against the idea. “I still believe very strongly in being in the same room,” she confesses, “which is very old-fashioned of me. I live on the net as much as anybody else does, I just think there’s something particular about people being in the same place which is very important.”
It’s a view I feel very sympathetic to, and I can see the Church needing to become champions of real, face-to-face interaction as more and more of our relationships take place in a digital space. But of course, that doesn’t mean the Church needs to live in the dark ages.
I’m equally encouraged by listening to Kate Bottley, the now well-known vicar of Gogglebox who found fame through a viral video of a wedding flashmob, talk about the ministry opportunities on social media. In response to the charge that she should be out doing ‘real’ ministry, like helping to poor and visiting the sick, she points out that plenty of people on Twitter need that kind of pastoral care too. Kate seems to use social media as a pastoral networking tool, linking up people who’ve seen her on TV who reach out to her with questions about baptisms and funerals, or for support and advice, with local clergy who can offer the care they need.
The message I’m getting is that the Church needs all sorts of people if it’s to connect with a dynamic and changing culture. We need some like Kate, clearly comfortable with TV stardom and crowds of admirers, who declares from Greenbelts main stage: “I’m a show-off. I love being the centre of attention.” And we need many like Lucy, who value the one-to-one personal relationships before gaining a great following.
I come away from hearing these two inspiring, ordained women convinced that however God chooses to use me, I am free to do it as myself – interacting with the world in the way that fits my personality, inviting people into relationship with God using my own language, and offering up my own leadership style for God to take and use. Thank God for that.the Church needs all sorts of people if it’s to connect with a dynamic and changing culture.
Image: Lucy Winkett, Greenbelt