In this wide-ranging conversation with Megan Cornwell, The Bishop of Gloucester unpacks her views on women in leadership and interpreting the Bible for today
Long before Rachel Treweek shattered the so-called stained-glass ceiling by becoming the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England, she was challenging the status quo. As a young girl growing up in leafy Hertfordshire, the church she attended – a local traditional Anglican parish – had an all-male robed choir. With a keen sense of her own worth and talents, she asked the priest if she could join, and the rest, as they say, is history. Quite literally, in the bishop’s case, as she went on to become the first woman clergy to sit in the House of Lords years later.
Despite her enormous achievements, Bishop Rachel comes across as warm and down to earth. She says she would have “rolled around laughing or probably run a mile” if she had known that one day she would become a bishop, and admits that her role can sometimes be a “lonely” one. The married 56-yearold (her husband is also a CofE priest) is passionate about evangelism and seeing church expressed in new ways in the Diocese of Gloucester, where she oversees more than 300 parishes and 117 schools. The team she leads is in the “exploratory stage” of taking church to sports centres and community hubs with the aim of reaching those who are “not going to cross the threshold on a Sunday morning”. She uses the phrase “gossip the good news” several times in our interview to describe her view of simple but effective evangelism, and she’s determined to see Christians delivered from being “anxious disciples”.
Despite a reticence towards divulging her position on one of the more controversial areas of church life (she declined to answer a question pertaining to Church doctrine on marriage during our conversation), Bishop Rachel is generally open and forthcoming. She speaks clearly and with deliberate pauses – as one delivering a sermon – and she chooses her language carefully, perhaps a vestige of her past as a speech and language therapist. She is concerned about readers thinking she doesn’t take scripture seriously enough, but she’s determined to understand the Bible in its original context before applying it to our 21st-Century world. This is the tension that she holds as a bishop in the established Church grappling with the complex ethical issues of our time. Whether it’s women in leadership or sexuality and faith, for Bishop Rachel it’s also a question of learning to disagree well.
At what moment in your childhood did you think: I’m going to follow God and trust him?
It’s been a gradual journey. I can remember in the playground in my first year at primary school talking to Jesus as my friend. I also remember a time in my teenage years when someone spoke about Jesus dying on the cross, and I’d obviously heard about that, but I suddenly remember thinking: “Oh, that’s a bit strange”, and wanting to know more. I had a moment when I definitely prayed and thanked Jesus for loving me that much he was willing to die for me. It’s interesting that Jesus’ death and resurrection hadn’t really featured in my childhood friendship with Jesus. I think that’s fine; it’s about the big landscape.
You worked as a speech and language therapist for seven years in your 20s, but moved from there into ordination. When did you feel that you were being called to the priesthood?
While I was a speech and language therapist my faith carried on growing, and I became involved with a church that met in a community centre. As I got more involved there, I began to have a sense that perhaps God was calling me to be working in the Church full-time. If I’m truly honest, I thought that would be about now, in my 50s, but I plucked up courage to go and speak to the vicar. He just sat there and said: “I’ve been waiting for you to come and say that.”
After that conversation I literally had a wrestling experience with God. I can still picture it to this day; I was lying in my bed in the flat I was in at the time and I could hear God saying: “I want you to explore this avenue.” And I was crying, I was struggling, I was trying to convince God that it was much better that I carried on working in the NHS as a Christian. I’d begun doing some training as a family therapist at this point, which is all to do with relationship and connection, and I was saying to God: “I’m sure that I can serve you much better with families in this way.”
I sensed God saying: “I gave up everything for you and if you are willing to do this for me, it won’t actually feel like sacrifice because it will be about you continuing to become the person I have created you to be.” And I can honestly say from that moment on I felt peace. Of course, I should add that at this time women could not actually be ordained priest in the Church of England, so [it was] quite hard for me to imagine what exactly God was calling me to. But I knew that it was about taking the next step.
In 2015 you became the first female diocesan bishop. That must have been an incredibly exciting moment for you.
I can honestly say that at the time I was often saying in interviews: “I don’t feel like a trailblazer, I feel as if I am responding to God’s call to take that next step in becoming the person God’s created me to be and calling me to be.”
And then I found myself catapulted into the House of Lords as the first female bishop. And I remember that day, and it was very historic, there were a lot of people in the public gallery, but for me it was just taking each day as it came. But I do look back and think: “Gosh, that really was quite momentous, and how come it was me?”
This month marks four years since you became a bishop, yet there’s still a lot of animosity towards your very position, isn’t there?
Personally, I can’t see in scripture that those views are valid, but I accept that others can. I think it is about how we have those robust conversations and yet still live that love of Christ that we’re called to live.
I have probably experienced most powerfully what it means to be the body of Christ when I have been with people, often through the debate over whether or not women can be bishops; when we have wept together, when we have argued vehemently and yet said: “Actually, we know that we belong together and we’re going to do all we can to walk side by side.” And that’s often where I have felt in many ways the closest to God, and felt that real pain that Christ felt and feels in a divided Church. We are still the body of Christ and the eye cannot say to the foot, or to any other part of the body, I don’t need you.
You have in the past talked about not referring to God as “he”. You’ve said that it could alienate people who don’t know much about Church. Is this a case of trying to bend Church to society or is there a theological basis for that argument?
The very first thing I want to say is that I did not say we should not refer to God as “he”. What I said is that, completely rooted in theology, we are all created in the image of God. That means that you and I as women, and little girls and teenage girls, they are created in the image of God as much as boys and men. And perhaps because of my background as a speech and language therapist, I’m very aware that language shapes culture and shapes our perspective, so when I only hear God referred to as “he” it does concern me. I’ve had conversations with young people who have a view that God is an angry white man in the sky, and we need to work hard as Christians to challenge some of that.
I very, very rarely refer to God as “he”. If you listen to my sermons, unless I am quoting someone else, I will simply refer to God as “God”. It is not difficult, it does not sound false, people don’t even know, usually, that I’m doing it. I’m also very content with referring to God as “she” or God as “mother” and as “father” and there is plenty in scripture to support that. Of course, when Jesus walked on earth it would have been very strange to have referred to God as “she” in that culture, and yet Jesus related to women in a very countercultural way and did use some very female imagery, not least of the mother hen gathering her chicks.
What would you say to those evangelical churches that exclude women from eldership positions?
I would say: “Please grapple with scripture. Don’t just say to me: ‘We are Bible-believing Christians.’” So am I. Do some really, really hard study, be willing to do that with other people who hold a different view from you, and ask yourself what it means for all those women and girls in your church to be able to become the people God has created them to be. Some will hold the same view as those leaders, others won’t, and we need to be listening and challenging one another.
Another big debate going on within the Church at the moment is around same-sex marriage. In a similar way to the journey the Church has been on with women in leadership, is this an area where the Church needs to catch up?
I want to start off by saying that God is at work in our world; the Holy Spirit is at work, and so I think we need to be listening to conversations that are going on in the world. Of course, we are called to be countercultural, but we need to be listening to where God might be prompting us.
We have to wrestle with scripture as the early Church had to. We have to ask: “Who is God calling us to be as the Church now, here in this generation?” We are called to proclaim afresh in each generation the gospel of Christ.
One of the ways I think the Church can truly be prophetic in our world in this whole area is to say: “How do we have those conversations well that allow people to disagree?” I do want to say that we have all been created equal and everyone is welcomed by God, everyone is invited to an encounter with Jesus Christ, whatever background, whatever our sexuality. And so, do I believe that the Church needs to be…I’m not sure I would say ‘catching up’? I think that might not always be the right word – but listening deeply and saying: “Where have we been unjust? Where have we been unwelcoming? Where have we forced people to live secret lives and not be who they are?” These are all things that I do feel passionately about.
It’s time that as a Church we are saying: “God welcomes all.” The Church has not changed its doctrine on marriage; that is a big discussion in all of this. Whether that will happen, there is a whole process to be lived, but I do want to say, as a Church: God calls each of us to live in loving and faithful and good relationship and the Church needs to be putting that at the heart of all that we are and do.
To hear the full interview, listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on Saturday 15 June or download The Profile podcast