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‘Don’t mess up’ is challenge for Islington’s first female bishop

‘People are sometimes surprised you’re a woman… but hostilities are kind of rare,’ she says

10 May, 2019 — By Calum Fraser

Dr Joanne Woolway Grenfell with St Mary Magdelene Academy pupils and headteacher Victoria Linsley

ISLINGTON’S first female bishop said she feels the pressure not to “mess up” as she talked about her years spent building relationships with churches that are “hostile” to women’s ministry.

The Venerable Dr Joanne Woolway Grenfell was appointed Bishop of Stepney, which covers Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, on Tuesday after her new role was confirmed by Downing Street.

Dr Woolway Grenfell, 46, walked around St Mary Magdelene Academy, in Holloway, on the day she was appointed and spoke to the Tribune about the challenges she has faced as a woman in the clergy and how she will open up the church to young people.

The mother-of-three said: “I am conscious of there not being a huge number of female bishops and I feel the responsibility of that – don’t mess up!

“But I also feel a huge sense of excitement that you can have inroads into different conversations with different groups in society. I have had conversations with people as a woman that I might not have had as a man.”

Her appointment brings the number of female bishops in the Church of England to 22, four years after the first woman, the Rt Rev Libby Lane, was appointed.

“People are sometimes surprised when you’re a woman,” Dr Woolway Grenfell said. “You just have to be patient while people make that shift in their head about what they expect. There has been some occasional hostilities, but it is kind of rare.

“There are some churches that don’t accept women’s ministry and I have tried really hard to build a positive relationship with them and work out what the best relationship is we can have.”

The new Bishop of Stepney was an academic at Oxford University before she took the cloth.

She said: “I would want to see the church in the next five, 10 years and beyond be more diverse in its leadership.

“I would like to see many more young people involved in the church and in leading positions. We need to listen to young adults and work out what their need for community is and how alienating they find the modern world.

“It provokes sadness in me that as a community we find it harder to look after each other, even though means of transport and com­munication are better than they have ever been before.

“Isolation and loneliness go across generations. There are an awful lot of elderly people being isolated as well as young people moving around for jobs and education who might find it quite difficult to get involved in the community.”

Dr Woolway Grenfell will work within the London diocese, which is led by Bishop Sarah Mullally, the most senior female bishop in the church.


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