Will Jane Hedges be the C of E’s first woman bishop?
The Dean of Norwich is one of the favourites if the General Synod vote swings in favour of making history
But not, of course, to the rest of the Church of England, which didn’t agree to female ordination until 1993, by which time Hedges had worked in a bank, got a degree, married and started a family. And it has now spent another 20 years debating whether women can be bishops – with a definitive vote, expected at the General Synod in York on Monday, said to be on a knife-edge.
If the measure does go through – and the Archbishop of Canterbury is said to be considering “radical” steps to force acceptance if it is blocked – 58-year-old Hedges is among those hotly tipped to be the Church of England’s first woman bishop. She is one of only six female cathedral deans in the country (the highest rung on the ladder to which women can aspire).
“Oh no!” she protests at the possibility of promotion. “I’ve only been dean of Norwich Cathedral for six weeks. I’m just getting started here and plan to stay for a good long time.”
She has spent the past eight years as one of the canons of Westminster Abbey, and is still unpacking boxes in the ancient, flinted home that comes with the job in one of England’s most picturesque cathedral closes. Her husband, Chris, a teacher, gave up his job to make the move with her, while her two sons, Jonathan, 23 and Adam, 21, remained in London, where they are studying.
One of the most remarkable features of the long-running saga over female ministry in the Church of England has been the patience and modesty of a generation of very able ordained women, who hide their lights under a bushel for fear of upsetting those who believe they shouldn’t be allowed near an altar. Hedges is no exception.
“You have to step into their shoes,” she says of those who oppose her vocation. “These are people who have grown up in another tradition.”
The same instinct enables her to shrug off those who have rejected her personally as a priest. “Two jobs ago, I was in a rural parish in Devon and a small number of parishioners would not receive communion from me. One elderly lady very quickly came round just by seeing me at the altar and realising that it didn’t matter what gender I was. ‘I must tell the others,’ I remember her saying.”
Another woman took much longer. “It was only when I was about to leave, two years later, that she changed her mind. I found it very moving. People do change, you see, and they will over women bishops. If I look back 20 years to women’s ordination, the level of opposition very quickly settled down. It has only been the debate about women bishops that has brought it up again.”
Odd, I can’t help noticing, that both her doubters were female. “That’s often been the case,” Hedges concedes, a note of sorrow in her voice. “But where a generation of women has grown up to think of their priest as ‘Father’, it leaves a mindset that can be hard to change.”
But it isn’t only older female church-goers who have proved resistant. “Yes, there are young women among the opponents in the General Synod,” Hedges acknowledges. “They come from the more conservative Evangelical part of the Church and have a view that sees men as being in authority. It is all about headship – as far as I understand it.” It is the one time her mask of tolerance slips.
Dealing with those who oppose her ministry is also part of her daily life in Norwich. Though elected to her post unanimously, she works with one cathedral canon who is in the “anti” camp. “He takes the traditional point of view, but so far we have worked very happily side by side. He’s been very helpful to me and I’ve been relying on his wisdom.”
So do they confront their theological differences, or sweep them under the carpet? “We do talk about them. It’s about mutual respect, understanding the other’s position. The Church has an important lesson to teach the world about how that can be made to work.”
It all sounds so reasonable, but doesn’t this impressive, accomplished woman get a bit miffed at having to justify herself simply because God made her a woman? “Sometimes, a little bit,” she concedes, reluctantly. “I used to get much angrier when I was young. But with age comes a widening of horizons and, hopefully, more understanding.”
Being so nice is both the best of the Church of England and the worst. It enables it to be a truly broad church, but, equally, can make it seem spineless.
When, in 2012, the General Synod rejected women bishops because of the blocking votes of a tiny handful of lay members, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, momentarily lost his cool and accused his Church of being “wilfully blind” and “losing credibility”.
“It was quite disastrous,” Hedges agrees, “and I think there was surprise in the Synod that there was such an outcry. It was a wake-up call. How could we then try to talk about equality, about justice, as we reached out to the community, the really important thing we should be doing, rather than diverting our energy to arguing about women’s ministry?
“In some ways I see that national outrage as encouraging. It meant that people still took the Church of England seriously enough to be cross.”
She is absolutely determined to think the best of everyone – perfect qualifications, then, for being an Anglican bishop.