Katie Jarvis meets the intriguing and inspirational Bishop of Gloucester
Christmas last year: Gloucester. In the Quays, the Victorian market has been wowing shoppers with its vintage carousel – pink, green, burnished-gold horses that lift children aloft, like so many unicorns. On the festive ice rink, laughing teenagers in knitted bobble-hats and cobalt-blue skates swerve and tumble round a starry-lit Christmas tree, while a brass band thunders God Rest You Merry Gentlemen into the breath-condensing crispy-cold air.
In the streets of the city, panicked husbands are deciding between dustpan-and-brush (“Useful; she needs one!”) and a Swiss chalet snow-globe (“Waste of money but… might be safer”).
As the light dims, stars appear and a laden sleigh rises into the night, bottles of port are uncorked and poured behind closed curtains.
This is what Christmas is about. Next morning, as bleary-eyed parents pick up wrapping paper strewn at 5am, you might think the streets empty.
But…. No. Actually, no. For into the cathedral – into churches up and down the country – there’s a steady throng (just as there has been throughout the preceding weeks, when flickering candles and a crib tableau drew them in).
Within the cathedral, choir and congregation are merging voices in the most Christmassy of carols: O Come All Ye Faithful; some singers pitch-perfect; others doing the best they can. (It really doesn’t matter.)
Many of them turn as the bishop
– the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek (first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England; first female bishop in the House of Lords) – joins the procession up the aisle.
And suddenly, for many of those present, the moment – that moment – does something the arcades and the gift-stalls and the mulled wine (lovely though they are) have failed quite to do.
They’re not the only ones. The bishop feels it, too.
“I had been very tired the week before Christmas and a number of things had been quite difficult last year,” she tells me, as she recalls that instant. (We’re in a plain office, on a dreary late-october day – as unchristmassy as it gets; yet for me, too, there’s a lifting of the air).
“And as I processed into the cathedral on Christmas morning – and we were inevitably singing ‘O come, let us adore Him’; and as I was walking down the aisle, I just had that overwhelming sense of: Yes! This is what it’s all about.”
Not the fine robes and the funny hat, she clarifies. Not that at all.
“I absolutely felt that happiness. It’s so vivid: I can remember it now.
“Then the dean turned to me – it was the final verse – and said, ‘Happy Christmas, bishop.’ And I felt, ‘You’re absolutely right’.
Di – Bishop Rachel’s senior assistant – waves me a welcome into the office in College Green (which always reminds me of Diagon Alley; a kind of open secret. This is the corner of Gloucester that, as 60s developers stirred their cauldrons of concrete, quietly drew an invisibility cloak around itself). Would we like a drink, a friendly voice calls out.
“A bucket of tea, please!” Bishop Rachel calls back.
I’m pretty sure her diary must make A la recherche du temps perdu look a mere squiggle in a margin. There was just one remaining slot in that diary – I grabbed it – but she doesn’t make me feel harried or hurried. Instead, she waves aside the IKEA boxes (chairs, waiting to be unpacked; the old ones (I sense a shudder) have been banished) and we sit with our mugs of tea to chat about Christmas.
She looks beautifully groomed – a tailored tweed jacket; indeed, when Bishop Rachel made history, three years ago, as the first female bishop in the House of Lords, she commissioned a tailor of Gloucester – Julie Mortimer – to refashion a traditional bishop suit into something more suitably feminine.
But sartorial elegance is not the particular gift she has brought to the Church.
Instead, it’s willingness to show a certain defencelessness. An ability to say to people: You might be a woman in prison; you might be a refugee; you might be homeless, a drug addict, an alcoholic. But, do you know what? We’re equals. Because, in other circumstances, so could I be.
‘If you’re really going to love people, there has to be a willingness to be fragile; there has to be a willingness to be vulnerable’
“It’s really important that leaders show their vulnerability,” she nods. “I don’t want to stereotype genders because I think that gets really dangerous; but I hope that, being a bishop and a woman, one of the things I bring to this role is a willingness to be vulnerable. And that’s not about not being strong; that’s not about collapsing into a heap – ‘Oh, I can’t cope!’ It’s about saying, ‘Yeah, you need to see where life’s painful; where I might be struggling’.”
She’s had to be strong – and patient – in all sorts of ways. She never thought she’d marry: she was 43 when she tied the knot with Guy (also a Church of England priest). She probably never thought she’d be ordained – when she first joined the Church, there were no women priests.
And she certainly thought her original career – as a speech and language therapist – was her true calling. It was another Christmas – back in 1990 – when she discovered otherwise.
Faith had always been important. “But I had a real wrestling with God when I felt that God was calling me into the Church. I can still picture the night – interestingly, it was after a Christmas pantomime - absolutely feeling that God was saying to me, ‘I want you to be willing to put yourself forward’. I cried. I had this very tangible conversation with God, which is very hard to describe. And then there was a recognition of God saying to me, ‘I gave up everything for you. If you give this up for me, you will become more fully who you are because this is the path you should walk’.”
Christmas, she points out, is all about patience and humility. And vulnerability, too.
“God did not come to Earth as a splendid strong man, living in a wealthy palace. God came to Earth as a tiny fragile baby; and that says something to me about love. If you’re really going to love people and be with people and be in a relationship with people, there has to be a willingness to be fragile; there has to be a willingness to be vulnerable.”
It’s a confusing age, the one we live in. An age where – the advertising industry would have us believe – an extra mince pie, a topped-up glass of Chardonnay, a make-over and some glitzy apparel will make us all happy.
“But deep down, we all know that the message ‘If I bought that; if I just looked like that, I’d be happy’ are doomed to disappointment. If you ask people when they have felt the most happy, it’s nearly always a memory or an encounter with someone: the birth of a child or a wedding; a friendship, a family gettogether.”
That confusion has informed much of Bishop Rachel’s work, particularly amongst young people. She founded Liedentity, a project sparked by research (UWE/DOVE) showing that 60 percent of girls opt out of everyday activities because of body-issues; and half of all adolescent boys suffer similar body unhappiness.
“Young people are bombarded with a message that says: What you look like is your worth. It’s been shocking to hear what they have to say. But what’s been moving is that, when I get them around a table to ask: What do you really value in one another? They’ll start to say: ‘I really love it that you’re there for me as a friend’. Or: ‘You really make me laugh’. Or: ‘When I had a difficult time, you sat with me’. It will rarely be a message about being beautiful.
“There are nearly always tears because they won’t have heard those things before. For me that goes back to something deep within each of us: Am I good enough? Am I worthy of love?”
Something similar happened last year, when she and Guy spent Christmas Day with women in houses run by the Nelson Trust in Stroud, giving the most vulnerable (exoffenders; sex workers; addicts) a safe, secure environment.
“We made up a stocking each for them, because stockings were such a part of my own childhood. Just toiletries, a notebook, a diary, some chocolate; but you’d think, with some of the women, that we’d given them the world.”
Because so few of them receive presents?
“Ye-e-s-s,” she says, qualifyingly. “But this was not about a bishop coming to grace you with her presence, and to give you a gift in some sort of patronising way. This was: I want to sit with you round a table and drink tea; I want to say you’re valuable.”
‘I LOVE Boxing Day! That day when you wake up and think: I can stay in my pyjamas if it want to’
The year before that, she was at an open Christmas lunch for anyone who was on their own.
“Christmas always focuses our minds on the homeless; on the lonely. Crisis at Christmas has so many people who want to come and volunteer, which I think says something about those people as well.
“One of the big words for me is ‘WITH’; Emmanuel, one of God’s names, means ‘God with us’; But the ‘with’ of God is every day, all year round. So I do get slightly anxious that it becomes: There will be the Christmas goodwill. But what does that mean the rest of the year?”
This year, after the cathedral service, Christmas Day will be quieter than most for the Treweeks. Bishop Rachel’s parents will be with them – both in their 80s – so a family day is on the cards. Some December 25s are so busy, she and Guy will settle for cheese and port for Christmas dinner.
But she’ll be cooking turkey this year? “My husband might do that!” she smiles.
I wish them a quiet, peaceful, very happy Christmas – because 2018 hasn’t always been easy.
As Bishop Rachel will admit, she’s had a fair amount of vitriol – alongside much support – directed at her; it’s not that people have disagreed with what she’s said (or thought that she’d said; some media reports have been frustratingly inaccurate); it’s the unkindness with which some have expressed that disagreement, particularly on genderissues.
“I really don’t mind robust disagreement. But what I’m passionate about is: If I disagree with you, that does not mean we are not friends. Whereas, in the world out there, if we don’t agree with one another, we turn our backs.”
Nevertheless, she’s replied to every one of those comments (bar the few really ‘out-there’ ones); and she’s been gratified by some of the apologies she’s received.
“Whether it be people of different faith, different colour, different backgrounds, my passion is for people to disagree well, because I’m passionate about relationship. And that comes back to the manger, and what that’s all about.” Indeed: Christmas.
She talks about her own happy childhood Christmases, where she and her two siblings would hang up green stockings on the end of their bunk-beds, and awake to bulging seams – always with a tangerine, and a walnut in the toe.
What would she most like to find round the tree this year?
“Oooh! That’s a really hard one,” she puzzles. “…Nice chocolate would be in there. But I love [NB, Guy, I’m doing
this for you] – and this is going to sound so girly – nice bath and shower products because there’s something about time-out.”
Bubble bath - a present that would come into its own on Boxing Day. “I LOVE Boxing Day! That day when you wake up and you think: I can stay in my pyjamas if I want to!
“But if you ask me about a Christmas present that’s ‘political’, it would be that we would make major progress in getting rid of short sentences for women in prison; fully funding women’s centres; and enabling women to have their lives transformed through the work of women’s centres; looking at their lives holistically.”
She joins with the Nelson Trust in her strong opposition to jailing women who are no threat to society – particularly with short sentences – which often leads to long-term loss of housing and a resultant break-up of families, with children going into care.
“I think it’s a realistic Christmas present; next year it’s absolutely possible that we could achieve that. There’s a lot of mood in Government to see that happen.”
So let’s pick up on an earlier point. That once Christmas goodwill dissipates, what should remain?
“The beginning of John’s Gospel – which we hear every carol service – not only includes the words that God is with us, but that ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it,’ Bishop Rachel says. “The message is one of hope. “And there is such hope.”
The Church of England offers daily reflections, prayers and actions in the lead-up to Christmas. To participate, sign up at churchofengland.org/ follow the star
To find out where your local Church of England Christmas service is taking place, log onto achurchnearyou.com
The Right Reverend Rachel Treweek, The Bishop of Gloucester