As the first female Church of England bishop begins her job, a fellow pioneer talks about why there aren’t more — and tells how Oxford shaped her own path.
By Helen Massy-Beresford
The Church of England has just consecrated its first woman bishop, the Right Reverend Libby Lane. Here Vivienne Faull, who has followed her own pioneering progress through the priesthood, talks about how Oxford has shaped that path — and why there aren’t already more women bishops.
What made you apply to Oxford?
I thoroughly enjoyed history lessons at A-level and it was the inspiration of my history teacher, who was also my headmistress, and an Oxford graduate, that made me apply for history at St Hilda’s.
Were your studies your main focus?
We’re talking about the 1970s, when the reason that you went to Oxford, certainly for the vast majority of us, was to study. We had no debt, but very little money. So what we were anticipating at Oxford was the opportunity to study and meet people who would enable us to develop our intellectual skills. Arriving in 1974 in the year of the three-day week, all sorts of real crises in the nation and a time of acute economic depression, life was pretty tricky for those trying to run the University and those studying.
Was being part of the religious life of the University important to you?
I became involved fairly quickly at St Aldate’s. That was a huge and transforming experience because I came from a village church and all of a sudden there was a church with a thousand people on a Sunday morning. I also sang in the chapel choir at Corpus in the evenings.
How did your experience at a male-dominated Oxford prepare you for life as a woman in the Church?
I think we gained a lot of self-confidence through the experience of being undergraduates and a minority at Oxford. I think one in ten of the historians of my generation were women — just the experience of walking into Exam Schools and feeling that everybody else was taller than you and you couldn’t see through the crowd, and the experience of lots of tutorials with male colleagues, gave us a tremendous sense of confidence in our own identity. That has been invaluable.
Did the Oxford experience have a long-lasting effect on you?
My sense of understanding people on the margins began at Oxford and has continued today. People who don’t easily have to access to places where decisions are made become an important source of truth about institutions. I tend to want to know what the people on the margins are thinking and feeling. That does influence what I do.
How did the culture of St Hilda’s influence you?
St Hilda’s was fascinating in that it was a great mix of talented people. It’s an extrovert college and that was also crucial in my formation.
What’s your impression of Oxford now?
It’s very interesting going back to a city that has become in some respects an outpost of London and of a wider, global community. When I was undergraduate there was big industry there, as there still is. You’ve got the colleges that are beautiful and secluded environments, but the city itself is quite gritty. That, I think, is significant for those who live and study there, because it doesn’t easily offer an escape from the issues that face us all around the world — issues to do with justice, poverty and inclusion for all and economic and social development.
Your career has been studded with female ‘firsts’ — ordained with the first intake of women to the Church of England, the first female chaplain of an Oxbridge college, the first woman to run an English cathedral as Provost of Leicester. Would you like to be one of the first female bishops?
My answer is that being Dean of York is a huge job and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. One of the interesting ways that vocation works in the Church of England is that as I have moved on in the Church, doors have been opened that my generation and I have not expected. I started off thinking I would be a lay worker in the Church. It became possible for me to be a deaconess straightaway — that was an innovation. Then it became possible to be a deacon, then it became possible to be a priest. So at each stage there was a conversation about what God was calling me to do. It wasn’t like a competition to see who would be the first woman priest. It was much more vocational than that: a sense of discernment of vocation. I think that’s also what we need to begin now in terms of those women who might be at the sort of stage where they have the experience that could benefit the Church. There needs to be a process of discernment for them and for the possible dioceses they might serve. It may be quite some time before there is a good fit between a diocese and a woman that might be a bishop there.
The photograph of Vivienne Faull is reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of York. The print version of this article (Oxford Today, Michaelmas 2014, p. 66) was incorrectly attributed.