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.