Should the General Synod of the Church of England approve the introduction of women bishops in July, Vivienne Faull, the dean of York, is at the top of almost everyone’s list of eligible candidates. If she were not a woman, she’d have been a bishop years ago. Her mixture of competence, energy and honesty would propel anyone to the top of the Church of England, and her CV ticks all the right boxes.
Faull has been the chaplain of an Oxbridge college, run two cathedrals, sat on some of the church’s most important committees – but she remains a woman, and cannot until December at the earliest be named as a diocesan bishop. She was among the very first generation of women to become priests, and has slogged through 20 years of institutionalised misogyny as a result.
Attitudes have changed. When she started it was not unknown for a woman to be forbidden to take funerals because, she once explained: “The local population took the view that if a woman led the funeral service, how would you know that you were properly dead?”
Yet she was aware early on of her vocation, and spent years as a young woman working in India for a missionary society after graduating from St Hilda’s College, Oxford, with a degree in history. “Both my mother and my school headmistress felt I would be wasting my education by going into the church,” she told one interviewer. This chimes with the experience of one of her younger contemporaries, one of the first women to teach at a theological college in the late 1980s, who recalls: “I have never worked anywhere where women were so invisible.”
Nonetheless, Faull persevered. On her return from India she worked on Merseyside before training to became a deaconess – then the closest a woman could come to the priesthood – in 1982. She did so at St John’s Nottingham, a largely evangelical college that not trained women before, and she studied exactly the same course as the men. In 1985, the future archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, then the dean of Clare College, Cambridge, and still in his radical period, made her the college chaplain. In 1994, as soon as it became possible, she was among the first wave of women to be ordained as priests.
By that time, she had left Cambridge to work in cathedrals – first Coventry, then Gloucester. In 2000, she became the first woman appointed to run any English cathedral when she was promoted to provost of Leicester Cathedral, a small, unfashionable place.
There, she developed a reputation for sure hands coupled with forthrightness. Talking to the Guardian in 2008, she said: “Do I want to be a bishop? I don’t know. There are sacrifices bishops have to make on private life. You have to count the cost – every woman does. But if I was asked, I would consider it.”
It was not really a surprise when, in 2012, she was named dean of York Minster, with a staff of 160 and 600 volunteers to co-ordinate. Any man of her skills would have been a bishop 10 or 15 years earlier.
For 10 years Faull has been a member of the high-level commission that explores theological agreement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. She believes the Roman Catholic church will eventually introduce women priests, but this seems not to have affected her relations there. In fact, the combination of force and tact that enables her to disagree firmly but without heat or hostility is one that shines through her career.
Faull is one of the six women co-opted into the meetings of the House of Bishops by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, after the previous attempt to approve the ordination of women bishops ended in fiasco in November 2012. Although there are now three other women running English cathedrals – and a fifth, the Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, has just been appointed the next dean of Norwich – Faull remains the most senior, and the pioneer.
When the committee that chooses bishops next meets, in December, there will be at least six vacancies to fill, and if women are eligible, then it is inconceivable none should be chosen. In fact it’s more likely that two or three will be – and if they are, she’s almost certain to be among them.
“I do hope they don’t insult her by offering her a suffragan [assistant] bishop’s job,” says the Rev Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, another prominent campaigner for women’s rights in the church.
Faull’s views are broadly centrist to liberal. She looks forward to the blessing of same-sex partnerships, although this is an issue on which conservative evangelicals are threatening to split the church. In an interview last year, she distinguished between blessing partnerships and celebrating gay marriage, “an issue … the church will take longer to debate and resolve”.
She said that “within a generation, I do feel same-sex marriage within some of the church (if not the Church of England) will be available, and the opportunity for same-sex partners to share and flourish in the life of the church.” Faull’s finely judged intervention would mean the churches that allowed for same-sex marriages would still be Christian churches – something the homophobic parts of Anglicanism would utterly deny – while not committing the Church of England in any particular direction.
Her experience in cathedrals has been a little out of the mainstream of ordinary Anglican parish life – in fact, like many high flyers, she has never actually run a parish. This is partly because cathedrals have some of the few Church of England congregations that are reliably growing, even in cities such as Leicester, where the Christian population is shrinking.
During her time there, Leicester moved steadily towards becoming the first English city with a majority minority population. In 2009, she said: “In the cathedral when I arrived 10 years ago, the congregation was almost entirely white. It’s now about 30-40% non-white. We have significant numbers of Asian Christians, and the indigenous congregation has accepted that – most of them gladly, some of them nervously. Other parish churches have had more of a struggle. There is a great sense of loss and of bereavement for some people.”
In Leicester she helped the gradual transformation of the cathedral into a place where people of all faiths could feel at home, and ensured that it was the centre of two multi-faith gatherings protesting against the BNP when it marched in the city. But her conversation was frank and she had no illusions about the difficulties of the transition. In York, her bishop, of course, is the Ugandan-born John Sentamu, archbishop of York, the most senior black person in the church.
Despite a career spent working against the misogyny of the institutional church, what is striking about her manner is the lack of rancour. Of all the senior clergy of the Church of England, she is arguably the least theatrical. This is not the same as being shy. Some bishops are theatrically introverted and scholarly; others, such as Sentamu, are hugely gifted showboats. Even Welby makes a considerable – and effective – production of being ordinary and humble.
Faull is quite as frank as Welby about the church’s problems but there is rather less self-consciousness there. Perhaps this is simply a function of being a dean rather than a bishop, though Welby was dean of Liverpool before his promotion to Durham. But when she has a grown-up audience, she talks and thinks like a grown-up too. It’s not a bad quality in a bishop.
Name: The Very Rev Vivienne Frances Faull, dean of York.
Born: 20 May 1955.
Status: Married to Michael, a physician.
Career: Educated at Queen’s School, Chester; St Hilda’s College, Oxford; also at St John’s College, Nottingham and the Open University; taught in India 1977-1979; youth worker at Shrewsbury House, Liverpool, 1979; ordained as a deaconess in 1982, worked at St Matthew and St James, Mossley Hill; chaplain at Clare College, Cambridge, 1985-90 (became a deacon in 1987); chaplain at Gloucester Cathedral, 1990-94; ordained as a priest in 1994; canon pastor and then also vice provost, Coventry Cathedral, 1994-2000; provost (the first woman provost in the Church of England) then dean of Leicester 2000–12; member of the General Synod, 2003-12; dean of York 2012-present.
What she said: “As I’m at the heart of writing legislation on women bishops I’ve been having many discussions for the past 20 years, but they have moved on in tone and subtlety. I’ve experienced encounters where people have thought I’m less of a person in the sight of God. It is not confined to gender. The discussions now are more creative and profound; I find it more intellectually challenging and fulfilling. Do I want to be a bishop? I don’t know. There are sacrifices bishops have to make on private life. You have to count the cost – every woman does. But if I was asked, I would consider it.” (2008)
This ‘Guardian’ article by Religious Correspondent, Andrew Brown, gives convincing evidence of the fact that there is at least one very qualified woman waiting in the wings – or should we say the cathedral cloister – to take up the undoubted challenge of being ordained a bishop in the Church of England in December, or whenever that Church decides to act upon the clear indication of the General Synod to do so.
The Very Rev Vivienne Faull seems well suited to the role of episcopal leadership in the Church of England, at this time in its history when women are being acknowledged as at least as practised a men in the ancient art of spiritual discernment. Those who doubt the authenticity of female clergy or bishops in the Church – notably, the oxymoronically-named ‘Forward in Faith’ – (some might say ‘Backward in Fear’) sodality – have already been told by the leadership of their minority constituency that they can in all conscience vote against the ordination of women bishops at the upcoming General Synod, even though the leaders exclaim they do not intend to torpedo the Measure as it now stands.
This sort of duplicity in the Church of England – exemplified powerfully by the House of Bishops statement that, while embracing Gays and their loving, monogamous same-sex partnerships, they could not allow any official Church Blessing upon such arrangements – will not faze the Dean of York, whose diplomatic skills have allowed her to survive the many obstacles in her path towards the situation she now occupies as a senior female Church Leader in the U.K.
Let’s hope that the double-mindedness of the minority ‘Forward in Faith’ group in General Synod will not prevent this doughty servant of God’s Church from the episcopal preferment that her gender group deserves.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand