For many months I had a ready answer for those who were naïve enough to ask whether the new Bishop of London might be a woman: ‘Absolutely not’. The church’s current appointments processes, though recently improved, could not possibly give birth to such a brave decision, I said with confidence and resignation.
Gathered in the Chapter House of St Paul’s Cathedral this morning was a group of expectant clergy from across the Diocese, among them women and those who do not believe that women should be ordained. We knew what we were there for, but as the news broke via the Downing St website ahead of the new Bishop’s arrival there was a stunned silence which lasted several seconds. As reality dawned with smiles and exclamations there was also a palpable awareness of those present for whom this would be deeply uncomfortable. The standing ovation lasted several minutes when The Rt Revd Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of Crediton, entered the room.
Sarah’s calling to follow Christ first expressed itself through a vocation to nursing. In 1999 she became the youngest person to have held the post of Chief Nursing Officer at the Department of Health and in 2005 was awarded the DBE for services to nursing and midwifery. Ordained in 2001 she was a parish priest in the Southwark Diocese before being appointed Canon Treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral and then Bishop of Crediton in 2015. I have worked with Sarah on a national development programme and know her to be a person of grace, wisdom, humanity and deep faith. She is an inspired choice for this role. She tells us she is ‘delighted and slightly terrified’. All day I have been humming ‘There is nothing like a Dame’.
For the past two years I have shared an archdeaconry with The Venerable Luke Miller, a traditionalist who has chosen to stay in the mainstream whilst not believing that women should be ordained. Together we try to model the possibility of a church with room for all. Now we will do this alongside Bishop Sarah, about whom Fr Luke has said ‘I believe we can make this work. If we can it would be a gift to everyone in the Church of England’.
Bishop Sarah’s gender is not the only thing that makes her appointment to a senior post remarkable. She is not married to a clergyman, she was not educated at an Oxford or Cambridge College, she trained at a regional institution not one of the hallowed residential theological colleges. Those of us who long for the full integration of female clergy and all other people who ‘look different’ from the majority, who bring new gifts, insights and experience, are thrilled by what has happened in London. In this most vibrant of cities we dare to believe that God has done a new thing. It feels exciting, fresh, full of hope. The hope expressed by Bishop Sarah herself that in our churches ‘everyone can find a spiritual home’.