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Surprised by Libby Lane

A woman’s appointment to the Church of England’s episcopate was much-anticipated, and yet when the church chose the Rev. Libby Lane on December 17 it was a surprise on two counts. First, she was absent from lists of names touted by religion writers, bloggers, or bookmakers. Second, no one expected an announcement quite so soon.

We have here an indicator of how much of the public discourse about the Church of England is London-centric. Lane, vicar of Hale in Crewe, Cheshire, and dean of women’s ministry in the Diocese of Chester, is by no means a token choice. Highly respected, she was one of eight ordained women elected as participant observers in the House of Bishops in November 2013. This arrangement was another sign of Archbishop Justin Welby’s serious intent to usher the Measure through the maze of General Synod’s convoluted processes and to consolidate it.

With the Measure approved by Parliament and given Royal Assent, there seemed to be a consensus that the church should await the new year before choosing the first woman for its episcopate.

Attention in church affairs was elsewhere and Parliament was due on December 18 to debate a bill fast-tracking appointment of newly consecrated women to the House of Lords. The customary requirement is that 26 bishops sit in the House by seniority of consecration.

The Midlands see of Southwell and Nottingham is next in line for a appointment of a full diocesan bishop by the Crown Nominations Committee. When the bookies’ favourite, Jane Hedges, Dean of Norwich, ruled herself out of contention, next for the bookies was Rachel Treweek, Archdeacon of Hackney in east London. She is widely considered nearly an ideal fit.

So how was it that Libby Lane pipped many possibly better-known names at the post? Answer: a nifty piece of footwork by the Rt. Rev. Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, and his local appointments committee, swift action by the two archbishops in concert, and deft media management.

Appointing suffragans is far less complicated than full diocesans. The suffragan see of Stockport has been vacant since May 2014 following the translation of Robert Atwell to be Bishop of Exeter. So when the local search committee unanimously agreed to choose Libby Lane, it was a case of “sitting” on the appointment for just over a month while the matter cleared Parliament and Royal Assent.

Chester being in the northern province of the church, the appointment needed swift action by both Archbishops Welby and Sentamu to secure approval by the Queen, something she was happy to accede to speedily. One the eve of the announcement there were press reports that a woman would be named for the suffragan see of Storkport, but the name was not forthcoming. Media managers worked effectively to ensure that the name was not leaked. York Minister is the consecration venue on January 26.

Quick on the heels of Downing Street’s announcement, Prime Minister David Cameron said this was an “important day for equality.” Archbishop Welby, who was a contemporary of Libby Lane’s at Cranmer Hall College, Durham, said: “Her Christ-centered life, calmness, and clear determination to serve the church and the community make her a wonderful choice.

Bishop Forster said: “Libby has had a varied and distinguished ministry, and is currently a first-rate parish priest. She has already demonstrated her ability to contribute nationally through her representative role in the House of Bishops, on behalf of the northwest England dioceses.” It stands to Lane’s advantage that she is well-known and well-liked in the area she will serve and she previously did parish work in Stockport. Bishop Atwell, from his experience in the diocese, described her as a “bridge-builder.”

Vicki Wells, churchwarden at St Peter’s, Hale, where Lane has served for the past seven years, said: “Our congregation has increased threefold since she came here. It speaks for itself.”

Amid what is seen as a happy pre-Christmas tonic for the C of E, which took lots of public criticism as the bishop debate dragged on, Reform, the conservative evangelical network, was a lone contrarian voice. “Though it grieves us it comes as no surprise,” said Prebendary Rod Thomas, Reform’s chair.

Behind the scenes, Archbishop Welby has lobbied and worked with great energy to win the case for women as bishops. His right-hand agent was Canon David Porter, a seasoned negotiator whose work in Northern Ireland crafted a peace formula there. Porter needed to overcome misgivings of conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. He did so by gathering key players in one room to hammer out a compact their constituents could support, having blocked earlier legislation in the synod in November 2012. Welby has said that he hopes the House of Bishops will have a 50/50 male-female balance within 15 years.

The bishop-designate is a mother of two grown children. She and her husband, George, were among the first couples ordained together 20 years ago. He is coordinating chaplain at Manchester Airport. She went to school in Manchester and studied theology at St Peter’s College Oxford and has served in a number of roles across northern England, in the Diocese of Blackburn. She took time out from ministry when her children were young. She plays the saxophone and supports Manchester United football club.

In one of her earliest media interviews she told The Spectator: “I love the Bible and it is what shapes my life. … But so do the Church’s liturgy and sacraments, so does the Church’s teaching through history.”

“I am hard to label and I’m happy with that,” she added.

Senior people in the C of E are keen to ensure presence of more women among the ranks of bishops, so there is a strong possibility of more such appointments in quick succession.


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