Visible Women

Why Bishop Sarah Mullally wants more women at the top in the church

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Susan Devaney
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. This year, Sarah Mullally made history after becoming the first woman ever to be appointed Bishop of London. Now, she’s keen to see more women in top ecclesiastical roles and do things differently.

It would be easy to assume that working within the grand, historic walls of a church would be worlds apart from making rounds on a nursing ward – but, as Bishop Sarah Mullally knows all too well, the two share a simplicity of similarities and challenges.

For one, many people enter churches and hospitals on some of the most difficult days of their lives. “There are great commonalities between nursing and being a priest. It’s all about people, and sitting with people during the most difficult times in their lives. In a sense, I use quite a lot of those skills,” Mullally says.

Mullally acquired these skills after working as a nurse for the NHS for decades – becoming the youngest ever chief nursing officer at the age of 37.

“My knowledge of people is fundamentally who I am,” she explains. “But also I’ve had to do a lot of the things within complex organisations. The NHS and the department of health are quite complex organisations, and the church isn’t straightforward either. My experience of people and of working in complex organisations has prepared me, in a sense, to be the bishop of London.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear when talking to Mullally, it’s that she’s more than equipped for her new position. Making history on 12 May, Mullally was made the first female bishop of London, becoming the most senior female cleric in the Church of England. The 90-minute ceremony – on the birthday of Florence Nightingale – marked a new era for the church, and women.

The appointment of Mullally, 56, shocked some traditionalists. But it was a clear signal that many more women will be given opportunities within what was – and still is – a largely male-dominated space.

“The Church of England only got to the position of accepting women as bishops about three years ago, so it’s relatively new,” Mullally explains. “What I think is encouraging is that within those last three years we have seen well over 13 or 14 women becoming bishops. 

“We have begun to see real change. The bishop of London only became vacant a couple of years ago so really we could only consider a woman a couple of years ago. 

“I think it is wonderful that they’ve felt able to appoint a woman to London in what is a relatively short time. It’s wonderful that the 133rd bishop of London is a woman.”

Sarah Mullally arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral in London in May

Becoming the first female bishop of London isn’t the only ‘first’ Mullally will achieve. She is also set to become the first bishop of London to ordain male and female priests; her predecessor, Richard Chartres, declined to ordain either in order to avoid criticism from traditionalists.

Previously the bishop of Crediton in Devon, Mullally was ordained as a priest at the age of 40 after being “called to work in the church full-time”. What’s clear is that part of Mullally’s calling is to do things differently to her predecessor.

“Bishop Richard had a great ministry here in London for 21 years, but I’m just so different to him and I couldn’t even pretend to do it in the same way he did,” Mullally explains. 

“As women I think we need to ask: OK, what skills do I bring? What gifts do I bring and therefore how do I inhabit this role differently? It’s vital to not try and pretend to be anybody else because, actually, that’s when we fail. When we are asked or appointed to a role it is because they’re asking us to bring what we’re good at and the skills that we’ve got.”

It’s this attitude that makes Mullally a great role model for women. She’s not interested in following in someone else’s footsteps, but rather carving out a way for women to shine on the pulpit and truly be seen, something which she plans to tackle.

“The first thing we need to do is to ensure there are actually women role models. What we need to do is make sure that those women who are already in more senior roles are seen and are out there,” Mullally says. 

“Secondly, we need to make sure that women are coming through [the church]. That we’re training them, mentoring them and supporting them. I’ve been involved for some years in the leadership programme for women so that we’re giving them confidence.”

Mullally’s attitude makes her a great role model for women

And it doesn’t stop there. Mullally is keen to challenge the church’s use of language and continue to roll out unconscious bias training to tackle “things that aren’t so conscious in our minds”. She hopes that all of these changes will lead to more women in top ecclesiastical roles – perhaps also as archbishops when those positions become vacant. 

Most importantly, Mullally knows that without women in top positions other women will fail to find much-needed role models in the church.

“There is something in how we find confidence in figuring out who we are. Or understating ‘actually this is what I’m good at’ or ‘this is who I am’ and not trying to live in our people’s shadows or shoes; which is why it’s so good for women to have role models that are women,” Mullally explains, referencing her own daughter’s decision to enter the male-dominated world of science.

She continues: “It’s important we’re not looking at men and saying ‘that’s how we do it’ because we’re not going to do it the same as men, we’ll always do it differently.”

Mullally has three words of advice for any woman considering a career within the church: “Go for it.”

Above all else, she knows her brilliance lies in her difference, her gender and her exceptional ability to care for others.

“The important thing for me to remember is that I’m not being asked to do it because I’m Bishop Richard, I’m being asked to do it because I’m Bishop Sarah. I bring with that a wealth of experience in the church but also from the health service that I can use here in London.”

And, with that, a role model for women has been made.

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Getty