Four years ago Rachel Treweek became the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England (July 2015) and the first female bishop in the House of Lords (October 2015). This high-profile national role is balanced with a hands-on approach to being with those with faith and those without faith in the Diocese of Gloucester.
Interview by Louisa Lockwood
Q As we are meeting at College Green, the diocesan offices that face Gloucester Cathedral, let’s start by finding out what your current priorities are here. What is in your diary?
There are several strands to my ministry. I’m called here as Bishop of Gloucester to lead and care for the diocese, looking at how we enable people to flourish. And I’m called to care for clergy. For example, I was showing the children in a school this morning my crozier (my shepherd’s crook) which represents the pastoral care side of leadership.
Often when people hear the word ‘diocese’ they think about our worshipping communities, our schools and our chaplaincies but we also think about all the people of God, so the diocese for me is everyone who lives in this geographical area. How are we being an outward-facing church, reaching out to those who don’t know Christ, engaging with the hopes and needs – a phrase I use quite a lot – of people living in our communities?
There are obvious needs that people support such as foodbanks, parent-and-toddler groups, youth groups and homeless work. And less obviously, people (like you and I, and not like you and I) have different everyday hopes and needs: we need to be asking how we are engaging with all people in our local contexts. Where does what we do resonate with others? We need to keep asking ‘Who are the people who are not around the table?’ I am passionate about diversity and that includes ethnicity, age range and disability.
The next big area of my role is engaging in the public square. A lot of my time is spent connecting with the many different organisations in the diocese – but in a way that shows that the church is relevant to what they do.
The final area would be my national role, both as a bishop (as a member of the House of Bishops) and with the privilege of sitting in the House of Lords.
None of those things sit in silos but they are connected. This week illustrates that quite well – we’ve had a key meeting of the Bishop’s Council (our governance body) and we looked at how we are fulfilling our vision, and at some exciting proposals across the diocese. Being in a school this morning. Licensing two people in my chapel yesterday, one a chaplain of a college that is not Church of England. I’ve been in London this week speaking with parliamentarians about the women’s Vote100 (marking 100 years of suffrage); I’ve done some cathedral business … and I started the week visiting one of our clergy who’s had a bit of a breakdown. And this weekend, I’m leading a mission weekend in the Forest of Dean. So a week that is a really good example of all those strands of leadership and care.
Q You must be very organised because that variety requires a lot of flexibility!
Part of managing that is also down to the people that you have around you! It’s significant that our Director of Communication’s title has changed to Director of Communication and Engagement. So a lot of our work is about how we engage in the public square – such as at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and through my local and national campaigns.
The office here is very important in managing my diary – it’s quite scary becoming a bishop and having someone else doing that! Probably I feel most at peace when my diary is reflecting what we’ve just been talking about, and most turbulent when it doesn’t. As long as the diary has been well organised, I’ve got a pretty high resilience for keeping going.
I did a letter a little while ago to my clergy about wellbeing – using Mary and Martha as an example of the difference between life being ‘full’ and life being ‘busy’. ‘Busy’ sounds as if you’ve got no time for anyone, whereas if my diary is full, that’s fine!
It is also about knowing where God’s priorities are. The loaves and the fishes were a tiny banquet but there was enough to go round, and I really do hold on to that for my time. There is enough time to do what God wants you to do, if you give that to God with thanksgiving.
Q That leads me to wonder if you have a favourite time of day?
I do! I’m a real morning person, I get up about 5.30am every morning. And that’s not because of Psalm 127 (you know, ‘in vain you rise early and stay up late’)! For me it is part of living God’s rhythm, and prayer at the beginning of each day is important to root myself. I’m privileged to have a chapel in my house, and I don’t have children running around, so I can be still, I can pray, and get my head round the day.
I’ll do my emails when others won’t be sending emails or ringing, so I can give that attention. I love summer when it’s bright so early, and I love winter mornings and overlooking the cathedral as the sun comes up. I’m not good late at night!
This morning at 8.15am my chaplain David joined me for Church of England morning prayer but sometimes I’ll join with the cathedral. It just depends on the diary.
I usually have a theological book on the go and I’ll read five or six pages and then reflect on it. At the moment I’m reading Rowan Williams and after a few pages you do need to wrap your head in a cold towel anyway!
Q Starting your day in prayer explains a lot about you – as you combine a strong spirituality with a practical approach. Twitter @GlosDioc is full of community events where you spend time being with people.
Yes, ‘relationship’ is really important. But if I’m honest, that’s also what feeds me. I would say relationship is absolutely the core of who God is. The theme for the children this morning was respect and they did a lovely thing about respecting themselves and loving one another. I often talk about how we are made to live in relationship with God and one another and with creation – and for every bit of brokenness in the world, you can go back to one of those things that has gone wrong.
As I said to the children, ‘Remember that God loves you, God loves the person next to you and God loves the person even who you don’t like very much!’ And they all laughed ... but relationship is also about service with those you might find difficult and who disagree with you.
Q What are the priorities for your local work this year?
We launched a vision in November 2016 which is building on the past and looking to the future. It grew out of a process of prayer that started on Ascension Day in the cathedral and lasted 10 days – I hope we’ve carried on praying! Then from Pentecost Sunday until July, people in worshipping communities were encouraged to have conversations around three key questions: ‘What is the Holy Spirit saying to us?’ ‘What do we want the church in this diocese to look like in five years’ time?’ and ‘How are we going to get there?’
We had similar questions for those who wouldn’t see themselves as Christians and we hosted conversations with people from health, education and different charities. About 6,000 people took part. It was a huge process to collate and sift all the feedback but eventually out of it came John 10:10 ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ The LIFE vision covers Leadership: committed to transformation: Imagination: opening new paths to faith: Faith: living as adventurous followers of Jesus Christ: and Engagement: living out Christ’s love and hope.
Within that, there are 14 priority areas and I have said to people, ‘Find yourself within that.’ It’s all completely invitational. Things bubble up to the surface and at the moment the really big one is children, young people and families, including schools.
It does link with the national church where there is a recognition that we need to focus on children, young people, families, households and schools.
In the diocese, one example is having a greater connection between our worshipping communities and local schools, and another example is looking at how we deepen faith in those who bring their children for baptism.
That also reflects something that is going on nationally where, on the schools side of things, I’m a trustee for the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership (snappy title). We are looking at a joined-up approach across children, families, schools and faith. There is also a national emphasis on youth: there is now a National Youth Leader, Jimmy Dale.
There is some fantastic work going on, but there is also a dearth in many places where none of that is going on. So I sent out a letter last September using the theological language of thanksgiving and lament – even more than that, lamenting where there isn’t even a hunger for things to be going on.
We’ve discovered that sports ministry is really effective in linking with families, children and young people, but if someone comes to a fantastic Christian sports club or enjoys games led by Christian youth workers and they want to do more... we don’t have a church that looks like that. So one idea is how we might work with sports and community centres to build worshipping communities and outreach to people where they already are.
Q And, perhaps related to that, what are your priorities nationally?
The liedentify (#liedentity) national campaign grew out of my work with young people and their value. It was a response to stats about young people’s happiness and mental health, and the prevalent culture that tells people that their worth is dependent on their appearance. It is not overtly Christian but when I’m speaking about it in schools and colleges, it allows me to say ‘Here’s what I believe, as a Christian.’ We’re looking at developing that and into running a conference for young people.
On the same theme of worth and identity, one of the things I have been involved with is developing a session called The Real Me for Messy Church. It uses lots of different activities to show how you are unique and special (such as thumbprint pictures) and explains how the Lord chose David, above all his older and larger brothers, to be King, ‘the Lord looks at the heart.’ [1 Samuel 16:7]
On that note, I am also the Bishop for Female Prisons so I’ve done a lot on the Female Offenders Strategy and am using my voice nationally to talk about vulnerable women, women in prison, women who shouldn’t be in prison, and the work of the local charities who work with vulnerable adults and children.
Q What would you say to readers of Preach about the importance of preaching?
When we are preaching to followers of Jesus Christ, week after week, as we open the Word of God, we need to connect it to people’s lives, so that people are gathering and being sent. The words we say need to enable people to go from worship to being the church out there among the people and places of their daily lives. I think preaching needs to really focus on equipping people to be the church.
Q And what would you say to encourage preachers today?
As preachers, we need to be absolutely confident in who God is. God is unchanging, God’s love is unchanging and we are called to be faithful. The fruit of that – and the fruit of our preaching – we have to leave to God. It’s not in our control. But if we can be people of hope in all that we say, amidst fear and uncertainty, then we will be bringing a real gift for people we preach to.