by the Revd Nicky Skipworth, Priest in Charge of the Parish of Harworth and Bircotes, Styrrup and Hesley (Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham)
I’d like to open this piece by telling you that I am (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) just an ordinary parish priest, living in Nottinghamshire with my family (husband and two children at school, one away at university). This year, I celebrate 20 years since I was deaconed, vows which have never bowed down in deference to those of my priesthood.
It’s a busy life, what with ministry, home and family, plus supporting an older family member and a newly adopted cat, but it tends to work out in a messy kind of way; many clergy will relate to it. So it might surprise you that I am currently seeking election to General Synod. In fact, I’m one of over 220 candidates supported by , the only such clergy candidate in my Diocese. You can read my election address here.
Why would I, as someone with an already full life, want to press even more grains of sand into my apparently full jar of pebbles? Well, to put it in two really simple terms, firstly, I want to work for change at what is arguably the heart of the Church of England. However cynical I may be after twenty years in this saddle, I still trust that change is on the way. I believe that either God is changing, or we are changing to think more like God, or else God is finding away around us. Given the recent decisions of Methodist Conference and my ‘alma mater’ the Church in Wales, it looks very much to me as if reality within the Church of England is the latter option.
Secondly, and I am not speaking for anyone else when I say this, I have grown sick and tired of what I look upon as my own apparent heterosexual-cis-gender privilege. Because I’m not what others think me to be; I’m not heterosexual, I’m bisexual and have known this since the age of 7. It all came to a head, bizarrely, in 2017 when thirty-eight years later I was stood alone in the bathroom one day, having just had a new hair cut and, looking into the mirror, found myself thinking “this is finally me looking back at me”. Oddly enough, the last time I had a thought like that was when stood in front of the mirror in my sparkly new collar the morning of my diaconal ordination. These were both moments of absolute clarity, which called for action on my part. I never, ever doubted God’s presence nor love in my life. I did, however, doubt other people’s ability to accept me, especially at school.
Since that second ‘reflection’ four years ago, I have been taking small steps to come out. My husband has known for years, our children know, too; thankfully my non-churchy Mum and brother were gracious; my friends have been marvelous. After taking care of my deepest personal relationships, I told my congregation. They are lovely people with whom I feel safe (this isn’t always a given). We have gone on to join Inclusive Church, but please don’t think that’s just for my sake. One parishioner nearly fell off their stool, then asked the classic question, “How does that work?!” I responded to questions and comments as best I could, and am still doing so, because I’m still getting to know ‘me’.
It is therefore a combination of reasons that brings me to seek election, and being supported by Inclusive Church makes it crystal clear where I stand. After all, those opposed to inclusion aren’t going to vote for me, so I might as well go all out and be open about it all. There are, as my friend Andrew Lightbown re-iterates in his own blog) so many candidates not declaring their true position. I urge anyone voting in the House of Clergy election (and the House of Laity, for that matter) to scrutinize every election address; ask probing questions of your candidates.
I do have other flags to wave, though, flags which may not be as all-consuming as those which concern my identity before God, but mean a great deal to me all the same. The one that sticks out, and is possibly of equal use to General Synod, is my membership of the Faith Worker’s Branch of Unite the Union. I’m also an Accredited Workplace Rep., and Accredited Support Companion, not to mention member of the Branch Committee and Branch magazine editor.
I bring with me, too, all of my experience as a parent in ministry; including the constant guilt. Being a female parent in ministry seems to worry parishioners, too, but more upsetting is how this concern doesn’t seem to be extended to all parents. Of course, I have been exposed so many times to less subtle forms of sexism, like the complete stranger who, during my time at All Saints’ Parish Church in High Wycombe, now an Inclusive Church member, barged into the vestry to give me a piece of their mind. As if it would make any difference!
Going back to the matter of true inclusion, I have been reflecting deeply on what is at the core of people’s desire to exclude and denigrate. Because, surely, if marriage is so wonderful, so divine, why wouldn’t the Church want to extend the availability of that gift? Surely we need more public love and commitment, and the admission that if you are going to harangue people for this so called and all-too-undefined ‘sin’, especially before marriage, then we must allow people access to the remedy. We don’t probe the sexual habits of different sex couples when they come to book their marriage ceremony; quite frankly, it is pretty obvious when we meet the children of their current (and more often than not previous) relationships. It’s just they make the way they love one another perfectly clear.
I’m probably not well known enough to be elected but, for me, this is about more than ‘getting elected’. It’s about giving a voice to the many, many clergy who fear that the ability to truly be the Established Church, actually more especially, to be the parish church – is fading before our eyes.