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The new Bishop of Repton - Jan McFarlane

PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 December 2016 | UPDATED: 10:34 21 December 2016

Readings by local schoolchildren at the Welcome Service at Derby Cathedral in September  Photo: Diocese of Derby

Readings by local schoolchildren at the Welcome Service at Derby Cathedral in September Photo: Diocese of Derby

Diocese of Derby

Derbyshire Life meets the newly appointed Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane

Jan McFarlaneJan McFarlane

IT has been something of a homecoming for the new Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane. Born and bred in Stoke-on-Trent, she comes from a family who all worked in the pottery industry and confesses that she still does ‘that Staffordshire thing of having a cup of tea and looking under the cup for the trademark. It feels like very familiar territory here.’

The ninth of ten women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England (C of E), she breaks many moulds, not least in her education at Blythe Bridge High School, a comprehensive school where she received ‘a superb education where if we wanted to do something, we were encouraged in every way.’ Nor were her family churchgoers: her godfather took her to midnight mass every year ‘in a very high Anglo-Catholic church with a lot of smoke’, and she was given a Gideon Bible at school and discovered she liked the Beatitudes, but it went no further than that.

She went off to Sheffield University to do a four-year Bachelor of Medical Science degree, the training needed to be a speech therapist. Speech therapy seemed to her to hold everything together, and as her subsequent career in the Church has centred very much upon communication, she regards it as very useful training. She returned to Stoke and got a job with the North Staffordshire Health Authority, working mostly with stroke patients who had lost their speech and children who were deaf or partially hearing.

But whilst at university, she had been invited to church by a friend, ‘and couldn’t think of an excuse quickly enough.’ The service had a powerful effect on her, leading her to want to explore and finally embrace the faith. When she left Sheffield, she remembers asking the curate at her church how long he thought it would be before women could become priests.

The Welcome Service at Derby Cathedral in September  Photo: Diocese of DerbyThe Welcome Service at Derby Cathedral in September Photo: Diocese of Derby

‘I knew why I was asking,’ she says. ‘But it was all too scary and I had just trained for four years to be a speech therapist.’

Ironically, the local church she started attending turned out to be affiliated to the Forward in Faith movement, which on conscience grounds opposes the ordination of women. But the vicar was brilliant, she says with gratitude. ‘He asked me one day how work was going. I found myself saying, “Work is going fine but I think I am being called to be a priest.” I thought he was going to pick me up by the scruff of the neck and throw me out but he said, “I’ve been waiting a while for us to have this conversation.” He supported me all the way through the selection process and training, and we are still in touch to this day.’

So off she went to Cranmer Hall, Durham, to train for three years with a cohort that included Justin Welby, now Archbishop of Canterbury, and Libby Lane, the first C of E woman bishop. The women who were training at that time had no guarantee that they would be able to become priests. When the vote came in 1992, Bishop Jan remembers sitting with her three flatmates in front of a black and white TV, and not being able to work out how close the vote was. ‘I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t gone through,’ she reflects. ‘I thought of all the women who had gone before and gave thanks to them wholeheartedly for paving the way.’

She was among the first women to be ordained, in 1994, and returned to Staffordshire to be a curate. They were unusual times, she acknowledges. ‘We were a complete novelty and some people did look askance at us. But the person who helped most was Dawn French as the Vicar of Dibley. She was brilliant, and coming when it did, the programme was one of the first to portray the priest as kind of normal.

The Bishop of Derby welcomes the Bishop of Repton to her new post  Photo: Diocese of DerbyThe Bishop of Derby welcomes the Bishop of Repton to her new post Photo: Diocese of Derby

‘She broke down some of the stereotypes. I remember standing in Sainsbury’s in my dog collar, having just nipped out to get some milk, and Dawn French was on the front page of the Radio Times. The lady in front of me said, “Ooh, look, it’s that lady vicar. You don’t see them around very much, do you?” And then turned round and saw my collar.’

It was a matter, she says, paying warm tribute to immensely supportive male colleagues, of ‘just brazening it out and being as gracious as possible. Inevitably, those who were first didn’t want to rock the boat by being too radically different and there were no female role models. But I remember thinking, “If God’s calling me, it’s to be me; there’s no point in trying to do it any differently.”’

After four years in Stafford, she went to Ely, to be chaplain at the Cathedral, an awesome building where she loved the regular daily rhythm of morning prayer. Part of her role was to build up the relationship between the Cathedral and the media, and she was much enthused by engagement with the local press. She moved from Ely to become full-time director of communications for the Diocese of Norwich and chaplain to its energetic bishop, Graham James, and then to the troubleshooting role of Archdeacon of Norwich.

Seconded to live and work for a few months at Lambeth Palace to pave the way for a new director of communications there, she remembers, ‘I had a sort of attic room in the tower and could open the window and look across at Big Ben. The sense of history was powerful and the things we were dealing with in the worldwide Anglican Communion were very immediate, so I left on a high when the job finished, wondering what would be next.’

What was next was a diagnosis of breast cancer, which took her ‘from running at 100 miles per hour to crash into this enormous wall.’ A year of major surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed, during which she worked part-time. ‘I kind of thought I could go under the duvet and hide from everyone,’ she says, ‘but decided, actually, I’ve done all this work with the media so let’s go out there and talk about cancer.’

She refused to wear a wig. ‘My big theme was, if this is going to happen to one in three people, why are we hiding it all away and pretending it’s not happening?’ she says. ‘My lovely colleague, the Archdeacon of Norfolk, shaved his head right down too and the two of us walked into the cathedral together with bald heads. The Bishop told the congregation that if anyone had any reason to be frightened of archdeacons, now was the moment!’

In the middle of all that came the vote in 2014 in favour of women bishops and the consecration of Libby Lane. ‘I came away from that with my bald head thinking, I can just retire now, I’ve fought for 20-odd years and seen the first woman bishop put in place; I’ve done my bit,’ she says. But when the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, invited her to become Bishop of Repton, she knew with conviction that it was absolutely right.

The welcome has been warm and unequivocal. ‘I loved being in Norfolk but people in East Anglia are much more reserved and you take a while to get to know them,’ she reflects. ‘Derbyshire people are like Yorkshire people and Staffordshire people: they take you to their hearts.’ Part of her role is continuing to build good relationships with the media but she is equally passionate about what she describes as ‘helping people in the pews to just talk naturally and normally about their faith. To me the Christian faith is all about being fully alive in the knowledge that we are fully and unconditionally loved. It’s as simple as that.’

She was at home one day listening to a phone-in on BBC Radio Derby inviting people with unusual jobs to call. ‘I phoned in about mine and said, “I’m a bishop.” I thought, they’re not going to phone me back because they don’t think I really am, but they must have looked me up and they did. And we had a good chat about being a bishop,’ she says, pleased.

She is happily living in Swanwick with her husband, Andrew, initially known to the neighbours simply as Jan and Andrew and embraced as part of the community. He is a television cameraman and operates in a different world, which she finds very refreshing. She met him during her time in Norwich and told the bishop, ‘“Well, you did ask me to build relations with the media...” I know that his colleagues can’t quite work out why he’s married to a bishop but we have great conversations as a result and they are hugely supportive.’

At her consecration in June, she carried a shepherd’s crook rather than a crozier of gold or silver; her simple, silver pectoral cross with its fluid shape suggests living wood, and the three interlocking rings she wears are representative of the Holy Trinity. These symbols aptly sum up her ministry. Leisure time is spent walking the dog and venturing into the Peak District – ‘I’m having to practise my hill starts after Norfolk and remembering to pack a torch’ – and within weeks of arriving, she felt she was doing what she had always been called to do.

That’s despite the ‘imposter syndrome’, she says, of feeling, ‘Everyone’s come to see the Bishop. But actually it’s just me.’

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