Libby Lane Easter interview: 'I try to inhabit the story physically, which can be transcendent'


The Church of England's first woman bishop is to give her first live act of Christian worship to the nation on Easter Sunday, when BBC Radio 4 broadcasts its early morning service from Chester Cathedral.

Rt Rev Libby Lane is eloquent about "inhabiting" the Christian story at Easter, as she is about affirming that Mary Magdalene, the first to witness the Empty Tomb, is up there, as a woman, with the "official" apostles of Jesus.

"I'm delighted that the early morning service is coming from Chester Cathedral and they've asked me to be part of that. Because as it happens, as Bishop of Stockport I'm actually engaged very fully in the cathedral this Holy Week and Easter," she said.

"So I'm preaching at the Maundy Thursday service with the renewal of vows for the clergy in the diocese and presiding and preaching on Easter eve for the diocesan confirmation service. So being there as well early on Easter morning is going to feel like having seen the story through in the cathedral which is wonderful for me in my first year in the diocese in this role.

"There's always been a very strong sense for me of kind of living, inhabiting, the Easter story and that being part of my leading others in worship and engagement with the good news of the Easter story. So being able to do that alongside and with and through the cathedral community this year is a real blessing for me and I hope that it will be a blessing for [them] as well. There is something really very special about early morning services on Easter Sunday, something about that sense of wonder and new starts and excitement that the story of Easter Sunday communicates tied up with the Gospel narratives of the women going early in the morning and finding the empty tomb, that actually being part of early morning service just helps to bring that alive."

For her the Easter story is about incarnation. "So the fact that that is being broadcast and people will listen to it, in their homes, in their cars, while they're at work for those who have to work on Easter Sunday, actually adds something really important, that Christ isn't something separate that's only about being in a church building."

Her dance training as a young girl and teenager at the Royal Northern School of Dance has given added physical depth to her sense of spiritual life in the liturgies.

She does this by living the liturgies, allowing the biblical stories to be retold and to engage with them not just with her mind but with her body.

"I did dance training for 15 years as a young woman and so one of the things that is quite a significant part of my own relationship with God and my own spiritual identity is the sense of all of me - not just my head but my body as well - being able to relive those stories. So hearing the stories the actual liturgical actions of Holy Week and Easter occasion the things that affect all our senses, I find a really valuable way of making [them] come alive, physically moving through the stories, touching and tasting and smelling them."

She told Radio Times: "Dance did very particularly inform my theology of incarnation, of being embodied and of God being present in the physical and the goodness of God in things that are tangible and enfleshed and embodied." It makes her soul sing. "I'm pushing 50 now but I still dance on the inside. I don't do much dancing on the outside any more but my soul still dances on the inside."

The women who spread the word of the Resurrection are crucial biblical evidence that justifies parity of women with men in the Christian orders of ministry.

"I understand them to be disciples. They were learning from Jesus and travelling and ministering with Jesus and with the male disciples. Mary who discovered the empty tomb on Easter Day is literally an apostle. Apostles are those who are sent and Jesus sent her, that's literally what Jesus did. He said, Go and tell. She was being an apostle of the good news of Easter. She was the first apostle of the good news of Easter. She hasn't been given the label and isn't included in the lists, but in terms of her actual relationship with Jesus and the ministry she exercised, she was an apostle."

Why has it taken so long to reach this point?

"Because we carry we work to take everybody together and we are very conscious of our inheritance as well as our future. The multi-layers of the way the Church does things can be seen to have its disadvantages in that it can feel to take a long time for those who would like things to happen more quickly but it means that we are required to stand back from ourselves and from our current circumstances and to engage with things, some of which are great import, not just for the present moment but in the light of history, in the light of eternity. And it's not that I haven't felt that I don't understand people's enormous frustration at the length of time it seems to have taken, but in the light of the history of the Church and the even longer history of the Gospel, the 20-odd years between the vote for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the vote for the ordination of women to the episcopate is but a blinking of an eye. That's what I keep trying to remind myself."

Like most if not all clergy, she practises Lenten disciplines.

"I am doing Lent but not with tea," she says, while sipping a glass of water and explaining this abstinence is just because she had already had a couple of cups that morning.

"I've had enough tea. But I am observing Lent. I have given up with my family eating meat for Lent. That's particularly my 18-year-old son's discipline so we accompany him in that discipline. I have given up alcohol for Lent. In the midst of giving up those things we do work quite hard to simultaneously take up the complementary thing to the thing we've given up. So in the process of giving up meat we are working to be more informed about issues around food justice and the production and distribution of food locally and globally. Also we are working hard to ensure that the food we are using is produced locally and ecologically, and to be more alert to the impact that our usual choices have nationally and globally."

Libbe Lane grew up in Glossop, in a family that had no church connections. She was taken to church by a friend, and went back alone the following week. The minister, Rev Paul Finch, who ministered the eucharist at her consecration, and his wife remembered her name and welcomed her into the church community. She had found her spiritual home. Her first ambition was to be a civil engineer but she switched degrees and studied theology at Oxford instead. When she told the Finches that she thought she had a call to ordination, they responded that they had known for a long time and were simply waiting for her to realise it.

She said: "I was brought up in a church where the norm was to read scripture and to have that shape who you were, to pray regularly, to understand yourself, to be part of a community, to have a place there, to exercise your gifts, where everybody was gifted and had something to contribute. It was a wonderful way to be nurtured in the faith and I simply can't express enough gratitude to what Paul, Janet and those families at gave me. I owe them a huge debt."

Her son and 20-year-old daughter are both committed Christians. Her son Benedict is in a gap year maths tutoring in local schools and doing a music production course before going to university to read physics. Her daughter Connie is doing a degree in drama and theatre practice at university.

She acknowledges that people think vicars only work one day a week, Sunday, and bishops don't even do that. The reality is of course different, and underwritten by ancient traditions of the hours. "My days are punctuated with prayer and I understand that as an essential part of my job. The daily office is an essential part of my work. I say morning prayer and evening prayer. It enables the rest of my work to happen. That is a constant."