Church of England to ordain first female bishop, a saxophone-playing football fan

LONDON (AFP) - The Church of England's Manchester United-supporting, saxophone-playing first female bishop is an ordinary woman facing an extraordinary job.

The Reverend Libby Lane, 48, will have to work within an organisation still deeply divided on whether she, or anyone of her gender, should be a bishop at all. She will go from being a regular parish priest to taking on one of the trickiest jobs in the Church of England since King Henry VIII founded it in 1534.

Rev Lane formally becomes a bishop on Monday during a ceremony in the Gothic splendour of York Minster in northern England.

Friends say her humour and common sense will stand her in good stead, faced with the pressure of being the Church of England's first female bishop since it was founded by King Henry VIII in 1534. "She's a non-anxious presence, she's a calming feature of life, she's got a very lively sense of humour and her lack of self-importance means she will cope with being the first woman bishop brilliantly," Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said last month.

Rev Lane was appointed Bishop of Stockport, northwest England, last December, five months after the Church of England voted to allow women bishops after decades of bitter debate.

Her allies are hopeful she will be able to handle the extraordinary pressure on her and moderates are hopeful that more women will be named to the six vacant posts currently available.

"She's a resilient and well-rooted person so I don't think she'll be thrown by what she faces," said Mr John Pritchard, a former bishop of Oxford who was warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham when Lane trained for the ministry there in the early 1990s.

"She's got mountains of common sense and godliness and I think you need both as a bishop.

"She will face the difficulties that the church is facing as a whole and will cope with them with majesty."

Educated at a private girls' school in Manchester and Oxford University, Rev Lane has always been a trendsetter.

She was ordained in 1994, the first year the church accepted female priests, alongside her husband George.

They were one of the first married couples to serve as clergy and have two adult children.

Rev Lane has played several prominent roles, including becoming one of only eight female clergy to act as observers at meetings of the Church of England bishops before the rule-change.

Despite her success, she plays down her appointment, saying it was entirely unexpected.

"If we'd been here a year ago, I would not possibly have imagined that this day would have arrived and that it would be me who was here," she said after being named to the job.

"But here we are and I'm thankful that I have been called to a job that bring an enormous satisfaction and joy."

She will need all her resolve to work alongside conservatives who insist that there can be no place for women in the clergy, let alone at its highest levels.

Reform, an evangelical group within the Church of England which opposes the ordination of women and homosexual clergy, has said it is "concerned about the strain" her appointment will cause.

It wants the church authorities to ensure that conservative evangelical churches can be overseen by a male bishop, rather than Rev Lane, if they choose.

For her part, Rev Lane has said she hopes she will not remain the only woman in the upper echelons of the Church of England's for an extended period.

"I won't be the only one for long, God willing."

Rev Lane's appointment came five months after the Church of England's General Synod voted to admit women bishops following a reconciliation process led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby after decades of disagreement.

Church of England moderates are overjoyed at the chance of moving on from an often obscure theological debate over gender, which left many ordinary Britons baffled.

"It's going to be very healing, actually," Vicar Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who is vice-chair of WATCH, which campaigns for gender equality in the church, told AFP.

"Fundamentally, it's about whether the church believes that men and women are equally made in God's image and it's going to be a really powerful symbol."

While countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia have already appointed Anglican female bishops, Rev Lane's appointment in the home of Anglicanism will also send a strong message to those which have not, such as Nigeria.

Nevertheless, divisions continue to fester.

In recognition of this, the Church of England will allow parishes that do not want to be led by a female bishop because of their theological convictions to be tended to by a man instead.

Rev Lane may be more likely to encounter problems from the clergy itself than from her parishes, though.

Vicar Threlfall-Holmes said that ordinations conducted by Rev Lane would probably not be recognised by conservatives who would see them as tainted by her gender.

"People are literally keeping pedigrees from now on," she said, highlighting how clergymen associated with female bishops in religious ceremonies could face discrimination from traditionalists throughout their church careers.

The Christian Today website reported that the bishops who perform the traditional laying of hands on Rev Lane at her consecration will not do the same for a traditionalist priest becoming a bishop days later after being asked to show "gracious restraint".

"We understand that there are only about three bishops who will actually be able to lay hands on Philip North because everyone else will have laid hands on Libby Lane the week before," it quoted a source as saying.