The woman sitting before me is relaxed, smiling – I can easily picture her pottering through a day at home with her 2-year old son, Raphael. It’s a far cry from the fizzy blonde bombshell vicar-in-training who used to turn a few heads when she came to visit friends at the Anglican theological college I attended more than ten years ago. A lot has happened in Joanna’s life in those ten years – she was ordained into an inner-city London parish, was wrapped up in a high-profile legal case in which she challenged a doctor’s decision to abort a baby with a cleft palate (more on that later) and became the first chaplain to the London College of Fashion. Joanna is also now married and has a child. Her latest project has been writing her memoir, A Lot Like Eve: Fashion, Faith & Fig-Leaves (Bloomsbury) and she’ll be sharing her story at this year’s Greenbelt Festival in August.
Joanna says her strict Christian upbringing wasn’t essentially about faith, but rather a ‘terrifying experience of religion’. She describes her parents as ‘lovely’ and ‘faith-filled’, but somehow what she absorbed from her early experiences of church ‘was just about fear of this sort of terrifying God who I always had to keep pleased and…not make angry. I was always trying to obey all the rules’.
Life’s pressures far from lightened in Joanna’s teenage years, when it became apparent that she had a severe jaw abnormality. She was bullied due to her appearance and spiralled into depression, battling with whether or not God would be angry with her should she go ahead with a corrective operation.
Happily, a once deeply troubled Joanna is in an entirely different place today. Motherhood, she says, ‘has made me much more at ease with imperfection…I think my love for Raphael and my desire to see him become who he is going to be in the world has just allowed me to try less hard to be perfect and get everything right…it has enabled me to experience God’s love in a new way.’
In your teenage years you started to experience bullying, which sadly came from within the context of a church youth group. What was going on in that time in your life?
At around the age of 10, the bones in my jaws just grew in a very outlandish way. The top jaw protruded so I couldn’t close my mouth...I didn’t really have a proper chin, so it left me quite exposed.
It was when I hit a growth spurt and then went to senior school that I experienced this very vicious bullying wherever I went. I quickly learnt that I didn’t look acceptable...I got several letters from a boy in the youth group at church saying, ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself – you are so ugly.’
I began to shut down my expectations and my hope about life… To manage that disappointment, life became very small and cramped.
You had an opportunity for a potential operation to correct your jaw but you deliberated over whether that would be the right thing to do before God, didn’t you?
I was about 15 when I heard surgery being mentioned to my mum over my head in the orthodontist chair and I couldn’t believe it…I was filled with so much hope. And then we went on this long journey of putting my teeth back to their very worst possible position ready for surgery, and it took years. By the time I approached the major surgery at the age of 19, my faith and my sense of God was still quite mangled and distorted. It was that old fear that I didn’t want to do anything that was going to get me in trouble with God…
THIS MERCIFUL PRESENCE BROKE INTO THE DARK CLOUD THAT I WAS LIVING UNDER
If God wanted me to look like this, then I should just deal with that, and not have surgery because that was going against his will. It was a very crude kind of theological conclusion to come to. So I told my surgeon, ‘I am not going to have the surgery. I am pretty sure God doesn’t want me to go through with it.’ He was wonderful and he said ok, but he kept the date in his diary because he thought I might change my mind.
In those weeks leading up to the operation date I had a new sense of God, and this sort of merciful presence broke into the dark cloud that I was living under. I had this sense that God was saying, ‘Look, it is a gift and you can take it or you [can] not take it, and that is fine…I will bring you freedom, wholeness and peace whichever way you choose.’ It was so beyond my own theological computations, I thought, ‘Yes, that is God, that is God speaking.’ So I went through with it.
How has what you have been through left you in terms of the way you feel about bullying and the struggles that many teenagers go through with their self-image?
It doesn’t need to come from bullies. We have plenty of voices from the media and culture telling us what we ought to look like. It is out there on every magazine cover and every billboard we drive past, and so it is very difficult for us to escape that pressure to compare ourselves. That is where the healing really needs to come; it is in being able to see ourselves free, without comparison to anyone else. Actually we have this space in the world that we occupy: this body, this person to be. I really want to encourage young people to just enjoy being in that space.
When did God become a positive in your life, a friend?
That was a process. When I came through the operation, I was so beaten up by life and broken that it took a long time to get through the post-operation fog of depression. It was in that time that I began to have confidence to actually start saying what I really did believe, and to engage in conversations with my parents, particularly, and to say, ‘I just don’t believe that God is like this and I really want to know who God is.’
I think that was a sort of early conversation for me, and then later on I had this wonderful opportunity to go and live in a convent with 13 nuns. That was so transformative; these women were the most amazing faith-filled people.
How did that impact you?
I had grown up in a very noisy, evangelical environment where we were always being told that we had to stand up and shout our praises to God…it was so exhausting. And then I went to this convent where it was the opposite: it was silent…there was no pressure to be or do anything. There was no subculture that needed to be upheld…in the evangelical Church…you all have to play the same game and go through the same motions of looking like a good evangelical Christian. At the convent that was gone. You knew these women had done battle in heavenly places…being with them was very profound for me.
What are your thoughts on cosmetic surgery and ageing?
I have had cosmetic surgery so I can’t really diss it. It has changed my life. But I would say to women: ‘Don’t expect it to change what is bothering you inside.’ I had surgery but it certainly didn’t heal who I was; it didn’t heal the wounds. If you are expecting surgery on the outside to change everything, it will change some things, yes, but it won’t make you whole, all together.
What led you to decide to get ordained?
Before I went to theological college I had been a street pastor in the Cotswolds, and I worked alongside a group of guys who had really been very, very troubled in life. They were suffering from alcohol, drug and domestic abuse. One of them, Joe, was living in barns; he was always on speed, it seemed, and eating ice cream. I had a real fondness for Joe.
I GOT SHOUTED DOWN BY SO MANY CHRISTIANS
While I was at theological college, I had a phone call to say that Joe had died of an overdose. It hit me very badly, and it was at his funeral that one of his friends said to me, ‘I really hope you become a vicar, so that you can marry me and my girlfriend.’ I thought, ‘I really have to listen to that…I am going to have to pursue ordination.’ But all along it was very much because I wanted to do some sort of chaplaincy; I had this vision for being a priest but not in a church parish context.
During your early ministry you bought forward a legal case, challenging the lawfulness of the abortion of a 28-week-old foetus, which was carried out on the grounds of the child being seriously handicapped. The foetus had a cleft palate. You had lived through something similar, and you have a brother with Down’s syndrome. How did you become involved in the case?
A friend first rang me and said this has happened. I thought, ‘Goodness me, that is so shocking!’ because I have had exactly the same surgery that someone with a cleft palate would have later in life. That was really disturbing. I thought, ‘Are we actually saying that it is a serious enough abnormality that we offer terminations to women because of it?’ Then slowly the case grew and took on a kind of momentum and a life of its own…
I wanted to bring another story to the forefront and say look, it could be different; there is a story of hope here, actually, I have had that surgery. Let’s think about offering that story to mothers, rather than the very bleak kind of medical prognosis that perhaps doctors give.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Yes. Often those two stances are not seen as being compatible.
Is that something you would challenge?
Yes, absolutely. This experience of being able to have some moments of life with your baby, even though it may not be expected to survive, maybe more positive than aborting early; it is healing in its way. Feminism is about asking what is good for women, and how [we] can…have the fullest experience possible.
You went on to become the first chaplain to the London College of Fashion. How did that role come about?
I made it up. I thought the fashion industry really needed to have a chaplain. It is one of the most influential industries we have in the country, and it is really important that the Church is present, saying, ‘God blesses the work of your hands, and your vocation is a spiritual one.’ I got shouted down by so many Christians, saying, ‘It is just full of hedonistic, bitchy people. Why don’t you go and work with the needy?’ I just thought, ‘Can you hear what you are saying there? Really, are you actually saying that there is a group of people that shouldn’t have chaplaincy support, and shouldn’t have the Church and God brought into what they are doing?’ To me it just felt a natural fit. We worship a creator God, and design and creativity is part of our spiritual DNA.