There might not have been many people around the west door of St Davids Cathedral when the doors were finally unlocked, signalling a decision made by members of the Electoral College on the new Bishop. So it was a small group of people who gathered in time to see the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, and Provincial Secretary, Simon Lloyd, emerge and make the historic announcement that the Revd Canon Joanna Penberthy had been elected as the new Bishop of St Davids.
Fortunately, as the bells rang out the moment was captured by a BBC camera crew and within minutes was played to the nation on lunchtime news. The reporter, Dave Grundy, returned the next day to interview Canon Joanna – who will be the 129th bishop of St Davids and the first female bishop in Wales.
Here is the full transcript of that interview:
The ordination of women has been a long process for the Church – how do you feel about being ordained a bishop?
It’s incredible. Twenty years ago next January I was ordained a priest in this very cathedral. I have already been invited back to preach but to be preaching as the bishop elect will be quite something.
As the first woman to be elected as a bishop, do you feel some sense of responsibility?
It’s a huge responsibility – but that’s true whether you are a man or a woman. Obviously it is in some sense a huge responsibility being ‘the first’ – but the Church of England has already ordained women and people tend to find that once the shock of their bishop being a woman rather than a man has worn off, it all seems quite natural.
Do you feel the pressure of responsibility?
Well, having been first made a deaconess 32 years ago I am used to being the trail blazer and, as the years went by, with other women too, so that doesn’t hold any fears. I am used to that sense of being someone who is doing something for the first time.
In a sense you are coming home to St Davids – what kind of challenges does the diocese present?
Challenges because it is very rural, and challenges for life for young people – can they get work here or do they have to leave? If they leave, the age profile of the church will necessarily be older. But many of the challanges of the diocese are faced by the Church in Wales more widely and, indeed, by the Church of Englnd. But the Church in Wales has had the courage to actually look at the problems we face and in their 2020 Vision strategy have addressed new ways of being church. I am actually really excited at the courage which has been shown up to now and I am really excited to be part of the next stage of the journey of this diocese.
The journey has been a difficult one – congregation numbers are in decline, churches have had to close, clergy are having to take on more and more responsibility. Are we turning a corner now – is this something that we can stem?
2020 Vision is about finding a new way of being church. If we were simply trying to keep the old show on the road then, yes, it would be quite depressing. But we are not trying to do that – we are trying to live out the eternal gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in a relevant way to the beginning of the 21 Century and I think there is actually quite a lot of hope around in the diocese about the new ways we can do that. We are not ditching the tradition, or the buildings, or the liturgy which we love and which has nurtured us, but making all that relevant in a new and a more holistic way.
Ordaining women is still controversial to some people. How do you reach out to those who are not happy with the idea?
The first thing is to assure people that, as someone who has been on the receiving end of quite a lot of prejudice and discrimination, the last thing I want to do is to dish it out in turn. Therefore it is very important that as a diocese we are honest about our opinions. People are allowed to disagree, to take different positions, without fear of reprisal.
I was very encouraged to be on a conference recently organised by Credo Cymru, which is an organisation for people who don’t wish to receive the sacramental ministry of women. It was a very positive gathering of how we can learn to live together in a world where women are priests and at that point where women might take episcopal ministry. It was about how do we live together in honesty, kindness and out of the values of that one shared gospel.
Are there any other women you look up to who are trailblazers?
There are many extraordinary women in our public life, in our political life and our church life, not just who trailblazed by going to the top but who are working out constructively in their local communities. There are very many women who I do look to for inspiration – ordinary women in my parishes who are there week by week, month by month, living out their lives faithfully. It is not just about being the people in the headlines; it is about being people who constructively work within their communities.
You stood for election as a local Labour candidate in Somerset last year. How do you separate politics and religion – or don’t you need to?
I think you have to bring your ethics and values with you but you can’t bring your party politics into the church. The church is about how do we actually live out the values of the gospel. And for me at one point in time, the Labour Party was reflecting those values in terms of trying to create a society in which we don’t let some people drop off the end, in the way that very many people do, but retain that sense that Britain has always had of being one community of people, looking after one another and being prepared to pay taxes in order to fund public services. But obviously Christians must be in all political parties in order to bring salt and light across the political process.
This is a large bilingual diocese – how important is the Welsh language to you?
Improving my Welsh is a priority for me now. I was in Welsh-speaking parishes in north Carmarthenshire before and people were very generous and I did learn to take services in Welsh which were received well. But I was always a bit cowardly about the conversations and I think I’ll be looking for money to go on a Welsh immersion course where I will have to take the bull by the horns and have the courage to speak the language. I really want to do it – we are a bilingual nation and the Welsh language is one of our jewels, if not our life blood.