The appointment of Bishop Sarah Mullally to the see of London, the third most important in the Church of England, has attracted attention because Bishop Sarah is a woman, and thus becomes the senior woman in the Church of England. Some time ago, I asked a leading member of the Ordinariate who would be appointed to London, and he said: “I have no idea, but whoever it is, I am sure she will be lovely!”
This was said with a twinkle in the eye, but the truth of the matter is that Bishop Sarah’s elevation comes as a great surprise. It was widely thought that another bishop, a male bishop, from the Midlands, was in the offing. It is also fair to point out that Bishop Sarah does not owe her advancement to her sex. She is a highly capable woman, and, remarkably, she comes with little baggage.
Sarah Mullally trained as a nurse and rose to be the Principal Nursing Officer, that is the head of her profession, before the age of forty. Created a Dame of the British Empire, she then underwent training for ordained ministry, not in a theological college, but through one of the Church of England’s distance learning courses. She is the first Bishop to have been trained in this way, and this really does make her a first. She has been promoted for her people skills, rather than for her theological acumen.
Her people skills are considerable. She is universally liked and respected, considered fair, straightforward and kind. People speak highly of her. In this, she rather resembles Archbishop Welby, a man who made his mark in the world of oil before entering the ministry. In both of these appointments, one sees the Church of England harnessing skills that have been gained outside the Church for use inside the Church. However, some may see the Church turning away from theology towards management as problematic.
Bishop Mullally is not identified with any particular party in the Church of England. She is a middle of the road Anglican, and is not known for holding any controversial views. Despite her background in health care, for example, I can find no trace of pro-life activism. As such she will ruffle no feathers. She has been a prolific presence on social media, but investigative journalists are unlikely to turn up anything embarrassing in her past tweets and blogs.
Until now, London has been something of a micro-climate for traditionalist Anglo-Catholics. No Bishop of London has ever ordained women, for example. That will now change. I asked a leading figure in the Anglo-Catholic world what this meant for the Anglo-Catholics of North London. “The end,” he said, explaining that from now on the traditionalists would no longer be able to think of London as somehow exceptional, or the validity of orders as unquestionable. When I asked if more would swim the Tiber, his answer was unhesitating: “Yes.” We shall have to see how this plays out.
As for the Tiber, that can be swum in reverse too, and people will note that the new Bishop has an Irish surname. Her husband is Eamonn Mullally, who was described in a photo caption in yesterday’s Evening Standard as “a former Catholic”.
In the meantime, best wishes and prayers for Bishop Sarah. London is one of the few places where Anglican worshippers are increasing, but it is also a city with huge social problems, as we all know, and the diocese presents some challenges to its bishop. The Anglican Church as a whole is at a crossroads as it faces declining numbers and more people question its role as a national church. Needless to say, the Catholic Church faces the same sort of challenges both in this country and internationally. Like all engaged in pastoral ministry, Sarah Mullally needs our prayers.