On the 26th January, 2015, Elizabeth Jane Holden became the first woman Bishop of the Church of England. Her consecration came more than 20 years after women were permitted to become priests.
The Archbishop of Canterbury heralded the moment as ‘a completely new phase of our existence,’ but many opposed the appointment.
First Women spoke to Bishop Libby about her experience of heralding such an important shift in what has always been a traditionally male-dominated institution.
‘Change brings reactions – good and bad. Prepare for both.’
We were extremely conscious of what would happen once my appointment was made public. The church is an institution that has practised in a particular shape for many years and it was going to be embodied differently for the first time. Yes, it would draw attention and create lots of positive goodwill and encouragement – it would also provoke discomfort and scrutiny. Before the announcement, no one was allowed to know – I needed permission to tell my husband! Between knowing of my appointment and it being publicly announced I did take some time and got some expert help in getting myself ready.
‘Consider how what’s happening for you also helps others’
I was touched by the extent to which those outside the church felt excited and affirmed by my appointment and were moved to share that with me. I received hundreds of letters and emails from men and women. For 3 months, not a single day passed that no matter where I was, strangers would come up to me and say, ‘you’re that woman bishop aren’t you?’ – and whom often went on to say, ‘I’m not religious but I’m glad.’ Perhaps it’s because my appointment as the first woman Bishop said something good – not just about the church, but what was happening in our society – and they felt affirmed by that too.
‘Scrutiny is a challenge’
But it is an opportunity too.
‘I resource myself with prayer’
If I can cope and thrive it is because I understand that I am resourced by God in Christ. That relationship is what matters, as is being able to articulate what I am having to work through with Him. The idea of having someone beyond yourself to share it with and hear you is good news – whether you name that as specifically something Christian or not. Give yourself space and time to percolate. My husband and family are also a wonderful support – as are my colleagues.
‘Don’t expect too much from yourself’
Trust other people if they appoint you to a position. Trust the process that got you through and that others chose rightly. You will expand to fill what they envisage for you. I also trusted that God was in it [the appointment] and would see me through it. God has faith in you – whether or not you have faith in him!
‘See your achievements in context’
It would be hubris for me to think I’m responsible for good outcomes and yes, that is a faith statement, but it’s a human statement too. I have a part to play of course, but it’s not all down to me. My institution has carried more of the struggle to this place than I have had to; others have borne the brunt to make my path clearer. That there was something lacking in the senior church was recognised by the men, long before anything was able to be done about it.
‘Yes women bring something unique to a role – but men do too’
I’m not sure that it is because I’m a woman but I feel I bring the capacity to be content with ‘good enough’. The capacity to be grateful and to remember to explicitly articulate gratitude to those around me. The capacity to be still – to be at peace – internally. As a result I hope to positively affect those around me. But all the men who have held this position before me have been individuals bringing their own gifts too.
‘Honour the privilege you have by delivering on it’
My appointment and profile brings a responsibility to take seriously that I am a role model. I am conscious that there are women for whom this has been a sign of hope, opportunity and change. But I also remember that I am a reflection of the whole institution of the church and how it has grown, for all its failings and foibles and more importantly a reflection of the light of Christ – I do not want to block that or cast unhelpful shadows.
Work from the body as well as the mind
I trained as a dancer for 15 years, so I bring an embodied aspect to all I do. This means I am very conscious of how being embodied – both being created and being physical – is good and shapes our interaction with the world and our relationships. That’s not to say I’m not anti-rational or anti- intellectual, I am very much both. But there is something about integrity, being fully human… an embodied as well as spiritual and intellectual being.
I have a strong sense of being part of a continuum
…of what has come before and what will come after me. I am only ever part of the whole. I was able to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and I am prepared for others to climb via me to the next summit. I do not think I am extraordinary. Yes, I have experience and competency but I simply see myself as part of an on-going journey.
Interview by Deborah Willimott