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‘Gender less of an issue than reality of becoming a bishop’

Bishop Pat Storey on breaking through the stained glass seiling

At the DCU Women in Leadership Lecture Series were: Prof Eithne Guilfoyle, Vice President Academic Affairs DCU; Bernie Gray, member of DCU’s governing authority; Marianne Byrnes, Director of HR at DCU; Bishop Pat Storey; Sandra Healy, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at DCU; and Margaret Sweeney, former member of DCU’s governing authority.
At the DCU Women in Leadership Lecture Series were: Prof Eithne Guilfoyle, Vice President Academic Affairs DCU; Bernie Gray, member of DCU’s governing authority; Marianne Byrnes, Director of HR at DCU; Bishop Pat Storey; Sandra Healy, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at DCU; and Margaret Sweeney, former member of DCU’s governing authority.

Being the first female bishop in the Church of Ireland has brought its challenges, but most of these have had nothing to do with gender. So said Bishop Pat Storey in her lecture ‘Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling’ which she delivered yesterday (Thursday September 7) as part of Dublin City University’s Mary McAleese Women in Leadership Lecture Series.

As the only woman among the 12 Church of Ireland bishops, Bishop Storey paid tribute to her episcopal colleagues. She said she had never been made to feel inferior or that she wasn’t being taken seriously. “Probably the thing I have had to struggle with most is my is my own sense of self esteem in the middle of it. They are eleven very clever men, and at the beginning, it could be intimidating,” she said.

Speaking of her own struggle on being told she had been elected Bishop of Meath and Kildare, she said her husband, Earl, had encouraged her but she had many reservations. They would have to leave Derry, a place she loved; she worried about the impact it would have on her family; and she had no idea what a bishop did.

“The fact of being the first female Bishop in UK and Ireland and being a history maker was simply another level of terror… I do have to say that for me, at the time and in the ensuing months, the gender issue was a much lesser one than the reality of becoming a Bishop. Whilst I totally appreciated the struggle that had gone before me in the church in order for me to even be eligible for ordination, I was much more conscious of the challenge of the top level of church leadership than of the whole ‘first woman’ thing,” Bishop Storey recalled.

She said that very often people did not mean to be misogynistic but they made assumptions. “To be fair, 99 percent of the time they would be right in assuming the bishop is a man,” she joked adding that she had been guilty of similar assumptions – that a consultant or engineer would be a man and a nurse or a midwife would be a woman. She greeted these assumptions with humour.

Outlining the leadership challenges for the Church the bishop noted that the numbers of people attending all churches had been falling, generally. The Church had lost the control it had on society. Scandals had eroded people’s trust in the Church. Socially, there was far more competition for people’s time. Many people had lost faith in the established Church.

She suggested that one of the ways forward was the full inclusion of women in Church leadership. “Even though we have started small, it is nevertheless a very healthy and positive sign that women have broken through the stained glass ceiling. I do believe that this will change the nature of church leadership in Ireland,” she stated. “We need more in our leaders than just being able to gather a following. We need to be equipped to face tough realities.” Quoting Ronald Heifetz she said we should be looking for leaders who will challenge us to face the problems for which there are no simple solutions, someone who invites us to change our attitudes, behaviour and values.

Bishop Storey said she was a purveyor of hope and believed it the future of the church. “I am not here to manage decline, or even just to run an organization, as that would put me over the edge. I feel confident of the future of the Church of Ireland in God’s hands, if we are willing to work with that God. People need their spiritual needs met, and we have to think about that much more creatively than we used to. There is no point in more mature people (and I recognise that I am rapidly becoming one of them!) saying – well, we went to traditional services all our lives and it worked for us. We have to look at the evidence. The evidence is that whilst it might have worked for them, it is clearly not working for their children and grandchildren,” she stated.

Citing a book by Jon Ronson (‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’) on the power and viciousness of social media, she said there was a danger that the smartest way to survive was to be bland. “We have all seen people absolutely destroyed by a careless comment on Twitter or Facebook, and there is no mercy, no margin of error. You say the wrong thing, you’re finished. And what I fear from that is … we will become so afraid to give our opinion that we end up being utterly, utterly bland. Leadership is not to fall into this trap. We should say what we mean, and mean what we say – especially in the church sector,” she commented.

She concluded that leadership was fun and life had to be fun. “Jesus promised his followers life in all its fullness, and I am not prepared to live a mediocre life. I want it to be amazing! And so far, it’s looking good. May yours be amazing too! Let’s not be the bland leading the bland. Let’s you and I lead – Feel the fear, and do it anyway,” she advised.

You can read Bishop Storey’s lecture in full here.