Rachel Tre­week

Katie Jarvis meets the in­trigu­ing and in­spi­ra­tional Bishop of Glouces­ter

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: Katie Jarvis PHO­TOS: Antony Thomp­son

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

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