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The woman who will be bishop: Church trailblazer Rev Pat Storey on Weight Watchers, caffeine, and how she named her dog after former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani

Rev Pat Storey felt a university friend, a committed Christian, would cramp her style, but it was her that got hooked on religion

BY UNA BRADLEY

So what do the Co Down woman who's about to make history as the first woman bishop in the UK and Ireland and I get to talking about? Faith versus feminism? Gay marriage? How the churches can stem the secular tide?

More like WeightWatchers, finding a good book club and caffeine addiction.

The conversation gets off to a slightly surreal start when Pat Storey, the bishop-elect of Meath and Kildare, stirs her soup pensively in the cafe where we meet. She thinks it might contain quite a lot of cheese and therefore be calorific, but she needs something to set her up for that afternoon's diocesan meeting.

Dressed in a pink, floral shirt with her clerical collar peeping out, she goes on to talk about her daughter's wedding two years ago. Mid-flow, she suddenly announces: "You know, Una, I was determined not to be the fat person in the photos. I thought, it's bad enough that I'm 51, but I'm not going to be 51 and fat. So I lost three stone."

There are a few other things that might surprise you about this petite and pretty blonde woman: she wears two earrings in each ear, has a dog named after former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and left school intending to become an air hostess, in imitation of "a glamorous aunt".

Nor does she have a traditionally Ulster Protestant, God-fearing background. Having grown up in Killinchy, near Strangford Lough, her parents Norman and Eleanor Shaw were "nominally Presbyterian" but took a laidback approach.

"They were excellent parents," she emphasises, "very moral. I guess they were pretty liberal; they raised me to think I could do anything in life. They gave me great confidence and I've always felt very grateful for that."

After attending Methodist College in Belfast, Pat studied English and French at Trinity College, Dublin, with a view to fulfilling her travelling ambitions, but things took a different turn.

"Two of us girls from Methody headed down to Trinity together," she remembers.

"The other girl was a committed Christian. I thought, 'Oh God, she's going to cramp my style', but it turned out to be the other way round.

"I went to the Christian Union with her and within a year I was reading the Bible and hooked. It was the personality of Jesus that really shone out to me. Almost immediately, I felt some sort of calling."

But it would be years before Pat could seriously think about becoming a clergywoman. This was the early 1980s, after all -- a full decade before women priests were permitted in the Church of Ireland. Pat's dream of a ministry seemed destined to remain just that.

Plus, she was busy with other things. Having met the young Earl Storey -- who also felt called to religious life -- through the Christian Union at Trinity, the pair got married and settled in Dublin to start a family. Pat stayed at home with Carolyn (now 26) and Luke (now 22) while Earl pursued his ministry.

"I suppose I tried to live my dream through Earl," she says now. "If you can't be a minister, a minister's wife seems like the next best thing. But I could never really shake the idea of training for the priesthood myself."

In 1994 -- just four years after the first ordination of a woman in the Anglican Communion -- Pat decided the time had come to enter the Church of Ireland's Theological College at Rathgar, Dublin. Was it a difficult decision for her husband also?

"Absolutely. I think Earl wanted me to do anything in the world save train as a minister! There were so many implications, even at a practical level -- how was two ministers in one family ever going to work?

"But I was very determined. It took a lot of working out, as a couple and as a family."

While Earl worked as a minister in the Dublin suburb of Shankill, Pat undertook the three-year course in Biblical Studies. Of the 15 students in her year, seven were women.

She was ordained deacon in 1997 and a priest the following year. She worked for a spell as a Church of Ireland youth worker in Dublin before being appointed a parish of her own in Ballymena.

As luck would have it, Earl had just landed a job at ECONI (Evangelical Contribution in Northern Ireland) in Belfast, so the whole family was able to move north in one, smooth transition. They relocated to Londonderry in 2004, when Pat became the rector of St Augustine's, a post she has remained in until now.

Earl, meanwhile, has become a communications officer for the Church of Ireland and also runs his own PR company.

Their daughter Carolyn is a primary school teacher in Coleraine while Luke, who recently finished a master's degree, is currently working as a holiday rep.

Pat insists she was "very shocked" that the House of Bishops had elected her to head up the Meath and Kildare diocese, which had been left controversially vacant after the previous bishop-elect, Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson, stepped down after media reports concerning his private life.

Pat even thought the Archbishop of Armagh, Richard Clarke, was "winding me up" when he phoned her with the news last month.

"I asked for time to think about it," she explains. "I was astonished. But when I really thought about it, I couldn't think of a good reason to say no. I had a lot of fear -- still have! -- but I don't think that's a good enough reason to not do something." On the raging issues of the day she walks a tactful line. On gay marriage, for example, she defends the Church of Ireland position that marriage should be a faithful, lifelong relationship between a man and woman, but adds: "It's an ongoing conversation. The Church of Ireland has a new select committee on human sexuality, and we must continue to listen to people who feel hurt and excluded. There's no point whatsoever in making bald proclamations without pastoral care".

On abortion, she believes the legal situations on both sides of the border are "unsatisfactory". The Church of Ireland, she says, recently made a submission to the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) in support of the law in that jurisdiction, ie that abortion should be allowed when a mother's life is in danger.

As the only woman among the 12-strong House of Bishops, come November 30, she believes this will really set her apart when it comes to issues like abortion.

"I'll be the only bishop that could ever have found myself in that situation [having an unwanted pregnancy].

"That makes it much more complicated; it's far less easy to be black and white when you can truly imagine yourself in a given situation."

As for the status of women in the church, she believes more work needs to be done -- "Women are the backbone of every church, across every denomination, and they have definitely not achieved equality" -- but stops short of making it into a crusade.

"I've personally never felt discriminated against," she explains. "I think, if you go looking for offence, you'll probably find it.

"To be honest, it never really occurred to me that I couldn't do something because I was a woman -- I just assumed that I could!

She adds: "There were probably mutterings behind my back, but I never noticed.

"The only thing I ever heard was that when I came to Ballymena there was a man who said, 'I won't be back until she's gone'!" She laughs heartily at this anecdote.

Her consecration, on November 30, will be a glittering affair, with 600 guests, at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. She will miss her mum, who died 10 years ago, on the big day, but will take pleasure in the presence of her dad Norman, her step-mum Noelle and her brother Stephen, as well as Earl, Luke and Carolyn.

And she is looking forward to starting a new life in the ecclesiastical town of Maynooth, Co Meath. "I've already found a local hotel with a swimming pool," she beams.

She swims three times a week, as well as walking her golden retriever dog, the aforementioned Rudy, every day.

And what of the bishop's palace? Will she and Earl be living it up in style?

"It's actually a dormer bungalow," she smiles (albeit a six-bedroom one). "I had fears of some crumbling old mansion, but it's bright and airy and modern."

She will miss Derry "terribly", especially after the UK City of Culture year ("We really opened the church up, used it as a venue"), and the intimacy of parish life.

She's also intimidated by the workload that will go with her new duties. A keen creative writer, she's wondering if she will ever now finish the Derry-based novel she started writing...

But she's also "hugely privileged and excited" about the next stage in her vocation. What is the biggest challenge facing the Anglican church in Ireland, north and south?

"Staying relevant," she says, without hesitation. "Most churches are inward-looking. It's in their DNA. It's how to temper that trend, which goes against the very message of the gospel -- to spread the good news.

"It takes a very consistent effort to make the church more accessible, but I know I am going to have a great team to work with. Imagine -- me and 11 men! There'll be some craic. I don't feel on my own."

How women are making their mark on the church

* Including Pat Storey, there are 27 women bishops in the Anglican Church worldwide -- four in Australia and New Zealand, five in Canada, one in Cuba, 13 in the USA, one in Swaziland and one in South Africa, plus the most recently appointed, Eggoni Pushpalalitha of Nandyal, a diocese of the Church of South India

* The first woman ordained as a bishop in the Anglican Communion was Barbara Harris of the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989

* The Scottish Episcopal Church has permitted the ordination of women as bishops since 2003, but none have yet been consecrated

* The Church of England authorised the ordination of woman priests in 1992 and began ordaining them in 1994, but the issue of women being ordained as bishops has not been authorised. Last November, a measure before the Church's synod would have made it lawful for women to be consecrated as bishops, but failed to gain the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity. The issue is set to be debated again in the synod next week

* Other churches and denominations which have allowed for the ordination of women include the Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as the Salvation Army

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