Headmistress: “Our next speaker needs very little introduction from me. Until very recently she was a senior Canon in Wade Minster, and a frequent and welcome visitor to the school. And now she has been consecrated Bishop of Streweminster. Will you please welcome Bishop Jean Baker!”
The Rt Revd Jean Baker, Bishop of Streweminster: “Mr Chairman, Governors, Headmistress, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a huge pleasure to be here today and to have been asked to present the prizes this year. I am aware that it is many years since I sat where you girls are sitting today, wondering whether I’d have won a prize, and if so, whether it would be something other than the Scripture prize I usually won by virtue of being the only one who actually ever listened in Divinity lessons! Alas, that was not to be – and there is a limit to the number of illustrated Bibles even a Bishop needs to own.
But you needn’t think that just because I listened in Divinity it meant I was ready to dash off and be ordained the minute I left school. In fact, rather the reverse. I want to share something of my journey with you, as I know that many of you have no idea what you want to do when you finish here. My friend Nicola used to say that going to university was just putting off that decision for another three years, but then, back in the day it wasn’t as necessary to have a degree as you seem to find it today.
Anyway, I might have listened in Divinity lessons, but it was taste, not virtue! I found the whole history of faith, as we were taught it, rather fascinating, and it was also an easy subject to study – you didn’t really have to think, only learn it all. So I did Religious Studies for what was then O level, and again for A level. But then what? Like many of you, I had no real idea what I wanted to do with my life. Back in the day, middle-class girls like me tended to gravitate to being teachers, nurses or secretaries; we expected to work for a few years and then get married. In fact, my generation really had it good – when we did get married and start a family, it was entirely our own choice whether we worked or not. Some of my contemporaries have worked their whole lives; others have never had a paid job since their first child was born, and still others have either worked part-time or went back to work after having a family. Our mothers were not expected to work once they were married, and your generation seems to need to go back to work almost as soon as you’ve delivered the placenta.
So anyway, I seemed to face the choice of becoming a nurse, a teacher or a secretary. And decided on the latter, as the training only took a year, and I could be out earning my living. Not that my parents wouldn’t have supported me if I’d wanted a career that needed longer training, they would have been happy to, but I didn’t want that. I didn’t really want to be a secretary, either, but that was the way life was, back then.
I don’t think secretaries as such exist any more, do they? Our job was really to be some man’s “Office Wife”; we typed his letters, did his filing, made his coffee, and generally looked after him. There were no computers back then, no e-mail. Photocopiers had only just been invented, and a lot of the time we had to type on wax stencils which you couldn’t correct easily; these were then used to duplicate copies of forms, for instance. And telephones had dials and sat on desks; no mobiles back then. So if your boss wanted to telephone someone else, he told you to get that person on the phone, and you had to ring up his secretary, and then wait for her to get her boss to come to the phone, whereupon you would transfer the call to your boss.
It sounds dire, now, but back then we accepted it as the status quo. There were women bosses, but they were in a minority, and many women said they disliked working for other women.
But I was one of the lucky ones. After a couple of years, I got a job working for the Bishop of Starbridge, who was writing a book and needed someone to type it for him. And this, for me, was life-changing. At first I was just interested in what he was writing, as I had been interested in school Divinity lessons. But gradually, as I began to learn what the Bishop believed, and why he believed it, it became real to me, and I realised there was more to it than a mere intellectual assent.
I went on working for the Bishop, who finished that book and went on to the next. In fact, I stayed with him for fifteen years, until he retired in 1990. And while I was wondering what to do next, the call came for me to be ordained. At the time, women could only be ordained deacons, not priests, but we could be put in charge of parishes, although we couldn’t celebrate Communion. But the Movement for the Ordination of Women was very powerful, and most of us hoped and prayed that it was only a matter of time before we could be made priests. And, indeed, I hadn’t yet finished my first curacy before I was ordained priest, in 1994.
I think I’ve been very lucky, really. Or very blessed. I spent ten years in parish work, and then came back to my beloved Starbridge as a canon. And then five years as Senior Canon here in Wadebridge, when I got to know many of you older girls. And then finally woman could be, and were, ordained Bishops, and I was honoured to be one of them!
All of which is to say, I think, not to be put off. When I left school, I had no wider ambition than to be a secretary. And yet, look at me now! Maybe you know what you hope to do when you leave, or maybe you have no idea. Follow the path, wherever it takes you. But make sure it is the path that leads upwards, not the downward spiral. It may not be easy, but as we can never see what lies around the “bend in the road”, it is often, if not always, worth trying. Thank you.