Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage: An Interview with Bishop Rachel

by Hannah Barr, CofE ordinand, DPhil student in theology at Wycliffe  |  19th Dec 2018

This year is the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK and there have been many celebrations and commemorations throughout the year, including the unveiling of a statue of the suffragist, Dame Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square and in June, women marched in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and London, wearing the colours of the suffragette movement – green, white, and purple – to celebrate the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The February 1918 Act followed after years of campaigning from suffragists such as Fawcett, suffragettes including Emmeline Pankhurst and the members of the British Women’s Social and Political Union who campaigned under the slogan ‘deeds not words,’ and was also influenced by the contribution made by women during the First World War. The Act, although hugely significant, only gave the vote to 8.5 million women, around two-thirds of the total population of women and it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women in the UK were equally franchised.

In a year that has commemorated the legacy of women who campaigned tirelessly for equality and celebrated the contribution women have made in all spheres in society, as well as expanding the conversation to key issues of inequality and injustice facing women today, it is fitting to take time to celebrate and remember the women in the church who have responded obediently to God’s call wherever it might lead them, including all the way to the House of Lords. So to particularly commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK here at Wycliffe Hall, I spoke to Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, a former Wycliffe ordinand, and someone who has been inspirational for so many, to hear her thoughts of the centenary, her particular passions, and what her memories of her time at Wycliffe are.

There have been all sorts of celebrations and commemorations to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK, what has been your highlight?

My highlight was being at the unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. I had the immense privilege of getting a personal invitation and I sat in the front row feeling just very humbled and just to see amazingly that first statue – can you believe it? – the first statue of a woman that’s ever been outside Parliament, which is shocking, but it was great to be there.

On the day, +Rachel tweeted, ‘Quite emotional being at unveiling of Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. The first woman represented here among so many men. Hopefully not the last.’

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women in the UK today?

A very broad thing: perception. I still think we have out there lots of things in our culture where it’s about how women should look or how women should be, I still think that there’re some real underlying things in our culture. So, people still have this view over whether mothers should or shouldn’t work, those sorts of things. I still think there’s something where we deal with a lot of expectations or cultural norms so even the fact that we have lots of discussions or hear in the news that, whether it be about equal pay, or whether it be about how many women are in particular posts, I don’t think that should be normal. There are lots of cultural norms still and lots of perceptions around how women should be, and of course we’re all different! But that’s quite a challenge! We have to be fully ourselves.

You’ve created the Liedentity campaign and you’re passionate about the experience of female prisoners, why are those two issues so important to you and what would you love to see the church doing in those areas?

Liedentity is about all young people, the media has picked up very much on girls but it’s also a real issue for boys, and the message that the world gives particularly through social media and advertising, that our worth comes from our appearance. And I want to be really clear as a Christian that we’re made in the image of God and our worth begins on the inside, not on the outside, so I’ve talked a lot about inside out, and actually, who we are as individuals who are precious, unique, loved, and valued, and who work out our identity and relationship with others, so that’s a real passion because I want to combat that really strong message out there from the world, and also there’s lots of people saying that, I’m not saying anything new, that appearance isn’t everything, I haven’t heard any senior people in the church say it, so it seems to me there’s a gap and because I think that we need to be in all our desire to engage with young people, we need to start with what their own concerns are, and for me one of the great things has been being with young people and listening to them and showing that the church is interested in them.

In Gloucester here we have a women’s prison and we have an amazing women’s centre run by a charity called the Nelson Trust, who do amazing work with women in the community and so they could actually stop women going to prison, and they do in lots of cases, so because I can see the transformation in those women’s lives and I go into prison, some of them are really vulnerable, half of them shouldn’t be here, and the stats that 50% of women in prison have been abused themselves either as children or as adults, it seems to me it’s about justice, it’s about healing, it’s about transformation, and although there are loads of campaigns on this it resonates with the Diocese and I think it’s something that we could quite easily address… I have seen firsthand how vulnerable those women are and I’ve seen firsthand how their kids get taken away from them when they go to prison, for things like shoplifting and they go to prison for eight weeks and then they don’t get back to their kids and it’s just creating spirals of brokenness and for me as a Christian, I believe in a God of transformation and healing and I believe we can really be speaking into that.

I would love the church to see, with Liedentity how it is being taken up with youth workers, with Christian teachers, Christian parents and grandparents, looking at how they give a different message and for women in prison and vulnerable women in communities, how our churches might get involved in different ways.

There is a Messy Church version of Liedentity you can do called ‘Real Me Messy Church’ which is fantastic way of introducing children to the profound truth that they are unique, precious, and loved just as they are.

Why is it important that we have women in visible positions of leadership? Why is it important to see women having power?

Because I believe every human being is created in God’s image equal, I think all our structures of society, and government, and particularly our churches should be reflecting the diversity of who we are as human beings. So, that’s men and women, that’s people of all different colours, of all different ages, that’s people with different disabilities, it’s everything and I think it’s about not only what we bring to that as people, it’s about how we work together, then I see God reflected. So something about the visible presence as well as what we bring to that as who we are, but I think the visuals are really important at the moment. I think whether it’s in publicity, or when you go to a training event, or they go to church, at the moment, people are not seeing that diversity reflecting the face of God.

You became the first female Lords Spiritual in 2015, what has been the highlight of that role for you and what has been the biggest challenge?

There have been two highlights for me. One was actually being introduced into the House of Lords, and it was a bit overwhelming because I think I hadn’t quite realised quite how historic it was but I think that was an amazing privilege and I don’t think that’s all about me, it was about a woman and I have to recognise that I was standing in those shoes. And the other one for has been when I managed to secure a debate in the House of Lords in September this year on women’s centres as an alternative to prison for women and just being able to secure that debate and be given a slot to hold that debate was just fabulous.

Biggest challenge is getting there! Because you’re running a diocese as well and still in the early years of that, actually being present there enough is probably my biggest challenge, being able to be there for enough time to play a significant role.

It is still quite hard sometimes being a woman in leadership in the church, how do you deal with it? What gets you through those days when it feels like you’re knee-deep in sexism?

It always begins with being confident in Christ in who you are, I really hold onto, if I get lots of criticism or stuff thrown at me, that doesn’t make me any less significant and if I get lots of stroking and being told how wonderful I am that doesn’t make me any more important and actually I am who I am in Christ and I have to really spend time in prayer and stay rooted and grounded in God, and if that goes, everything else begins to go, and you begin to deal with it in very unhealthy ways. You really can say ‘my identity is who I am in Christ.’ And this all sounds quite spiritual, but if you have people you can laugh with, and share with, be known with, and I always think chocolate helps!

I read your moving letter to your 20-year-old self, what would you say to your Wycliffe ordinand self?

Don’t be anxious that you are a single woman, and that the church is not yet sure whether you are really called to be a priest because God has called you and go on becoming who you’re created to be. Don’t weep over the fact that you are not a wife or a mother. Rejoice that God has called you to be yourself. Be fully yourself because God has called you and God knows the adventure is ahead, so don’t be fearful, be excited, let go into God because there’s an adventure ahead and you don’t know what that’s going to be.

What’s your favourite memory from your time at Wycliffe?

Some of them would be social things, so I remember being in the common room and having spontaneous games evenings and we’d end up playing charades and just being together, despite all our theological differences just laughing together. If I had to choose one thing etched in my memory it would be sitting in the common room, watching the General Synod vote on whether or not women could be ordained to the priesthood. And hearing the announcement, and as it was we had to receive it in silence but that immense sense of joy and peace and hope, that was amazing. And being in that common room where probably the majority held views the other way, but there was something very godly about that, there were tears, some of them were tears of joy, some of them were tears of sadness and anxiety, and yet we were all in there together as one community and it did feel like that.

What would be your top three pieces of advice to the female ordinands at Wycliffe today?

One is rejoice in who you are and go on becoming who you are. Don’t let what people say in response to you feel that either diminishes you or increases you, because you are who you are. And what is it that gives you life, and ensure that you spend time on that, so if that’s swimming or dancing, whatever it might be, check that you in your life at Wycliffe, you do that thing that gives you joy and makes you feel fully alive and check that’s built into your week. Don’t let your week be shaped by what people think it should look like, check that the life-giving thing is your week.

 

As part of +Rachel’s work in the political sphere, she has been involved in UK Parliament Week this month, an annual festival that engages people to explore what Parliament means to them and empowers them to get involved. In her reflection, she writes, ‘It was never my intention to be a bishop, let alone sit in the House of Lords, yet at particular times during my life-adventure with God, there have been key moments of calling which have shaped the next chapter and brought me to the place where I am now. And in all this, I am acutely aware that I have only been able to take these steps because of the courage, prayer, voices and action of so many people over so many years. In this centenary year, I am grateful for all those men, women and children whose words and deeds throughout history have paved the way both for women to vote and also to respond to their calling, not least in the Church.’ There are a whole host of resources available, including one specifically for church groups.

My time spent speaking with +Rachel left me with three thoughts in particular. First, a deep sense of gratitude for the example of her leadership and all those women throughout history who have paved the way for women, whether it be from voting to the priesthood. Second, I felt deeply empowered. It is so easy for women in the church to feel like they have been called as a woman first and foremost, but what really struck  me in +Rachel’s words were the call to be fully herself, that is the person God called and as I shared those words with some of my fellow female ordinands, it was like a lightbulb moment for us, God has called us because of who we individually and uniquely are, that we are women is just a bonus! Finally, when I finished speaking to +Rachel I just had this overwhelming desire to spend some time with Jesus; it’s the after-effect of spending time with someone who exudes God’s love. +Rachel is not just a role model for all the firsts she has made as a woman in the church but for how she daily lives out her calling to be fully herself in Christ.

 

Lord God,

Thank you for all the remarkable women throughout history who have fought for your equality and your justice. Help us to always respond to your call to justice for women in the UK and around the world. May we be fully ourselves in Christ, ready to say ‘yes’ to your adventure, and to be faithful to your call on our lives.

Amen.

 

by Hannah Barr

Find out more about Hannah and her work at:  https://ablazeoflight.com/