The Reverend Libby Lane, the new Bishop of Stockport.
Show Hide image

Meet Libby Lane, the Church of England’s first woman bishop

After decades of wrangling, the Church of England has finally appointed its first woman bishop. Caroline Crampton went to meet Reverend Libby Lane, the new Bishop of Stockport.

Libby Lane is having a strange day. Laughing slightly awkwardly as she stands in a flower bed in the carpark of the YMCA in Crewe, she is waiting for someone to bring her a hard hat so that she can crouch down in the dirt and be filmed laying a brick. The white headgear finally arrives (“it’s a bit pontifical!” someone jokes) and she jams it on before squatting down and giving the assembled photographers what they came here for – a shot of the Church of England’s first woman bishop getting her hands dirty.

This has all happened very fast. Just over a month ago, on 17 November, the general synod adopted legislation that allows women to become bishops. Four weeks later, Lane was appointed as the Bishop of Stockport. The position has been vacant since May, and I’m told that although three “excellent” and “well-qualified” male candidates had been interviewed earlier in the year, none were felt to be right for the post. Fortuitously, the new legislation last month meant Lane suddenly became eligible, and after completing the interview process, she got the job. After all, this is home turf for her – as she has been the vicar for the nearby St Peter’s Hale and St Elizabeth’s Ashley since 2007, and since 2010 has served as Dean of Women in Ministry for the Diocese of Cheshire.

After the brick-laying, we head upstairs to the YMCA’s gym, and the media get to enjoy the spectacle of Lane chatting to a perspiring man while he runs on a treadmill, while others continue to lift weights in the background. When we think of historic moments and the Church of England, the image of heavily embroidered robes and fancy candles come to mind before dumbbells and sweatbands. But this time, we’re being directed away from the Church’s traditional, ceremonial aspect in favour of its more modern incarnation.

Despite the lack of incense, this is still an historic moment. Lane, who is slightly reeling from a hectic day of media attention, is very aware of the significance of her appointment. “I’m feeling very thankful,” she tells me. “I’m very conscious of the countless women and men – recognised and unrecognised – who have gone before me, who have worked and prayed and looked forward to the day when such an announcement as this would be made.”

The first women priests were ordained in the Church of England just 20 years ago, in March 1994. Later that year, Lane herself was ordained (alongside her husband, who is now a chaplain at Manchester airport – they were one of the first married couples to be ordained together). In a sense, her church career has run in parallel with the Church’s changing attitudes to women. “I was among those women who were selected and trained and ordained exactly in parallel with my male peers,” she says. “It’s happened now with the ordination of women to the episcopate that I’ve served for 20 years, and have come to the point in my ministry where the church has discerned that perhaps I have the capacity for [being a bishop] at the time when the church has moved to doing that.”

Part of the reason that Lane’s appointment is significant is because of the fraught nature of the debate about women bishops within the Church of England. Over the past two decades it has become increasingly polarised, with both traditionalist Anglo-Catholic and evangelical factions resisting the change, even though other churches in the Anglican communion had already taken the step (there are women bishops in Ireland, the US, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere). In November 2012, the legalisation passed two of the synod’s three electoral houses, but was rejected by the House of Laity by a tiny margin. Eventually, revised proposals succeeded in 2014 and became canon law last month.

Although Lane didn’t have a high profile role in the campaign – she describes herself as a “low-key supporter” – she has, naturally, followed the debate closely. “We’ve looked forward to this day in principle,” she says. “I’m a little daunted by the realisation that actually that first women turns out to be me, though.” Acknowledging that there will be greater scrutiny of her as the first woman bishop – after today, she feels it has started already – she is relaxed about meeting expectations. “I can only be who I am, I can only bring to this the particular skills and gifts and experience that I have, and do that with integrity and honesty. Really that is all that I can offer.”

However, she is confident that she won’t be alone for long, reflecting the enthusiasm of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others for the change. “Although I’m the first, I’m sure it won’t be long that I am the only,” Lane says. “Obviously these things are done with enormous discretion and the church works hard to ensure that it matches the particular needs of any vacancy with the gifts and experience of individuals, but now that the opportunities are open to women and men it won’t be long before there are more women.”

It must be hard, though, to know that there are those who share your faith but consider you inadequate to be in charge. Lane, however, is magnanimous in victory:

“The service order for the consecration of bishops has in it a prayer for those who have been consecrated that they might use their authority to heal, not the hurt, to build up and not to destroy, and I’m very conscious of that call, for bishops to be a focus of unity. I think the church is a better place for having dissenting voices being heard, and I’m committed to the church’s principles of the flourishing of all Anglicans, whatever their church tradition or theology.”

She won’t be drawn into criticism of the opponents of her elevation. There’s a place to be found in the church for those who can’t work with her, Lane says, or “those who can’t accept my ministry of oversight”, as she prefers to describe them.

2014 has been a year when the Church of England has once again flexed its political muscles. Welby has followed the example of his predecessor, Rowan Willams (who made a notable political intervention against the coalition in the New Statesman in 2011) and tackled questions of social inequality and poverty. Most recently, he has intervened on the subject of food banks, urging politicians to confront the fact that increasing numbers of people are forced to rely on them to stave off hunger. Church attendance may be declining, but as the head of the UK’s established church, Welby’s words still carry weight.

Lane shares her boss’s passion for social action. A bishop’s role, she says, is to help the voiceless be heard. “The Church of England is in every community, and is made up of people who are every community. We do have a voice that is the voice of ordinary people in the country, and where bishops are able to make that heard then there is an opportunity that I hope I can play my part in.”

She declines to be more specific about her own political ambitions, though. As a suffragan bishop, Lane won’t be eligible to sit in the House of Lords, although legislation is being prepared to remove the barrier to senior women bishops taking up their seats in the future. But there can be no doubt that she is already a political figure – just by accepting the post, Britain’s first woman bishop has made a statement about the Church’s future capacity for change.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution