First woman bishop ‘grew up believing that anything was possible’

After breaking the stained glass ceiling the soon-to-be Rt Rev Libby Lane tells the Telegraph she will say a prayer for those who oppose her

Hers is a career path which captures how the battle for women’s equality has slipped from the barricades to the boardroom within a generation, as well as illustrating how the Church has slowly begun to transform itself.

The soon-to-be Rt Rev Libby Lane will be the first woman to be consecrated as a bishop in the Church of England.

This is a landmark moment, not only for Anglicanism but also in the social history of Britain. It has been made possible not only by the battles fought by others before her – but also by the advances made by her own generation.

Although the new suffragan Bishop of Stockport will be held up as a symbol of change, she is part of a generation of women who grew up believing, as she puts it, that “all things are possible”.

“I haven’t found that I have had to fight or struggle to have my voice heard in the places where I have exercised ministry,” she says when I meet her shortly after a hastily convened press conference in Stockport Town Hall as her appointment was announced by Downing Street.

“The individuals in the Church and the institution of the Church have given due regard to me and my ministry.” But, she adds, with a pause: “I realise that I have been enormously blessed in that and that is not everybody’s story.”

She has, according to her immediate boss, Rt Rev Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester, stood out for years as a cleric of huge ability and drive. She would have been “snapped up”, he says, by another diocese if he had not moved quickly to fill the vacancy.

Confident but careful in what she says, she was clearly chosen with the knowledge that she was likely to be the first woman bishop. In a Church with more than its share of “loose canons”, she seems unlikely to stray far off the core message. But she carries a sense of quiet authority free from the airs some might detect in one or two of her older male colleagues.

Without playing down the momentousness of her appointment, she offers a hand of friendship to the traditionalists who fought hard to stop women becoming bishops. It is a style with more than a passing resemblance to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. She even repeatedly uses his catchphrase, speaking of all sides “flourishing”.

Mrs Lane came to the Church independently. Her parents were not regular churchgoers and her spiritual journey began when, at the age of 11, she started going to church with a friend. But her path to becoming our first female bishop has nevertheless been heavily influenced by her family.

“They have taught me an enormous amount and gave me the expectation that all things are possible,” she explains. “When I got married, my dad, in his speech, referred to a JFK quote that some people look at the world and think ‘why?’, others look at the world and think ‘why not?’. That sense of possibility I got from my family.”

But her way to the episcopate also encapsulates how the established Church has evolved in the past 20 years.

She was among the first group of women to be ordained when the decision to end the Church of England’s all-male priesthood came into force in 1994.

Among her fellow students at the evangelical-leaning Cranmer Hall in Durham was another future cleric set to herald big changes in the Church, the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

She had met her husband, the Rev George Lane, 46, a few years previously as an undergraduate at St Peter’s College, Oxford, and they were the first couple to be ordained into the ministry in the Church of England together. Their mail is addressed to “The Rev and Rev”.

Both Revs speak of their careers as a partnership, neatly dovetailing over the years. “My husband and I were ordained together 20 years ago and we have, throughout our ministries, supported and encouraged each other,” she adds.

After the births of their children Connie, now 20, and Benedict, now 18, Mrs Lane stepped back from ministry to become a full-time mother for the following eight years. And it was as “the vicar’s wife” that she first came to the Diocese of Chester.

But the roles were effectively reversed almost eight years ago when Mrs Lane took over as vicar of St Peter’s, Hale, and St Elizabeth’s, Ashley. Around the same time her husband moved to become an airport chaplain in Manchester.

“This is uncharted territory for the Church of England but it is also uncharted territory for the two of us,” he remarked. “I have been the ‘vicar’s husband’ for the last eight years of my life and for the eight years prior to that Libby was the ‘vicar’s wife’.”

“Nobody has written the book about the role of the bishop’s husband,” he adds with a smile. “But I will wait for that contract.”

When I ask whether having been a priest all her working life – with little other experience – is an advantage or a disadvantage, she is straight to the point.

“I think it is who I am,” she says simply.

“All priests bring their own unique individual life experience and particular gifts and skills and experience to the ministry that they exercise. My calling came as an adolescent and was affirmed and encouraged by the Church and so I was ordained in my mid-20s at the first moment that women could be ordained.”

“I was in that cohort of women who were trained and deaconed and priested alongside their male colleagues in ’93 and ’94,” she continues. “I bring all my life experience to my ministry both as a vicar and a parent and as a wife and a friend and that’s all that I can do, I can only be who I am.”

Yet her appointment follows one of the longest-running and most bitter rifts within the Church of modern times. Even as congratulations flooded in, the response from the conservative evangelical campaign group Reform, which led one of the main strands of opposition to the change within the General Synod, was muted. The decision to appoint women as bishops was, the group’s chairman, the Rev Preb Rod Thomas, said, “against the biblical model of good Church leadership”.

But the new bishop is just as insistent that such opposition to women in the Church’s senior ranks should not be discounted. In her public remarks as her appointment was announced, she acknowledged that while many would be celebrating, others would be “distressed and disturbed”.

“I think the Church is stronger for being a place where dissenting voices are heard,” she later explained. “I am committed to the Church’s principles of a flourishing of all faithful Anglicans whatever churchmanship or theology they come from. And I’m committed within my own ministry to working with those of every tradition and every theology to grow their churches to build the kingdom of God to be agents for change for good in their neighbourhoods.”

But what of those who simply refuse to work with a women bishop?

“I will still be praying and resourcing and supporting those people and places and churches,” she insists with a smile.

Yet much as her progress towards breaking the “stained glass ceiling” is the fruit of social and political changes stretching back at least a century, it was also the result of something much simpler.

“I was invited to join a youth group by a friend at the church in the next village from where I lived and so I began going to church on my own at the age of 11,” she explains. “From the moment I turned up, that church community welcomed me into their extended family and their love for me loved me into faith. I went to church the first week and enjoyed myself being there and so I went back the next week and the vicar and others in the church remembered my name. Actually that was very significant that adults took me seriously enough to remember who I was and to call me by my name.”

It was a simple observation but perhaps could stand as the first lesson her appointment teaches to England’s dwindling congregations.