Tell us about your work as chaplain to the London College of Fashion. What kind of things do you do?
Chaplaincy at London College of Fashion is in many ways like any other chaplaincy, I’m there to provide pastoral care for staff and students and accompany people of any faith or none in this episode of their life. People often ask about ‘all the eating disorders and drugs I must have to deal with’, but working with designers and lecturers (as opposed to models), means I am with people as they contend with financial cuts, ethics, the pressure to achieve artistic notoriety while retaining integrity and all the other stresses of life like money, time, relationships. So the pastoral work is the bread and butter of my role at LCF.
On top of this there is the creative project work which enables me to do outreach in schools, with women and teenagers, and artistic agencies. Last year I ran a summer school at LCF for 25 teenage girls from traditional Islamic schools where we looked at themes of identity, modesty, faith and fashion. It was a brilliant opportunity to offer teaching to these talented girls who had had art and music removed from their curriculum, while providing a safe context for them to meet women from other faiths and hear about their beliefs and how they too express devotion albeit in different ways. This year we’re going to turn it into a multi-faith summer school with girls from Islamic, Christian, Sikh and Jewish schools. I have also had a chance to begin leading seminars in the States for women and teenage girls who want to get to grips with how to withstand the relentless pressure to conform to one image of desirability. So it’s a fantastically creative and varied role…
Fashion came seem very superficial with its focus on appearance and ideal body shape. Is that your experience? What’s a Christ-like attitude to fashion?
When I first talked about wanting to develop a ministry within the fashion industry it was interesting how many Christians (and columnists), remarked on how odd it was for a priest to focus on people involved in such a superficial industry. I think it suits the media to be disparaging about the fashion industry but I think it is shortsighted for any Christian to take that view; after all we worship the Creator God and are made in his image – it’s no wonder that creativity is going to be so much a part of our humanity. I thought it was crazy to think that people in that industry are in some way ‘less deserving’ of pastoral care and incarnational presence! What has been so great is to see just how seriously LCF takes its responsibility ensuring its graduates have sustainable, ethical practice running through their work. Whether it is sourcing the cotton, reducing production waste, partnering with women’s cooperatives in South Africa, or setting up the global hub, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, LCF demonstrates that fashion is anything but superficial. The challenge is getting that message out to the consumers and encouraging us to do our bit to change. Beginning to look at our consumer appetite for fast fashion is a really good place to start and I always try to use the Season of Lent as the moment to have that conversation. A Christ-like attitude to fashion could begin there. Seeing whether you can go without buying anything unnecessary for the whole of Lent. That exercise is a really effective way of showing up to ourselves where our addictions might lie.
Young women increasingly seem to be judged on their appearance and are under pressure to look perfect. What do you think needs to be done about this?
What was the inspiration behind The Empty Hanger? What do you hope it will achieve?
The Empty Hanger is one of the projects I developed with students at LCF as a tool for inspiring school children in fashion and design while at the same time engaging them in conversation about sustainability, identity, ambition, dignity, and belonging. It came about when a school chaplain in Gloucester asked LCF to tell the story of Matthew 1 through the medium of fashion. My students couldn’t believe it when they opened up the Bible and saw that Matthew 1 is basically a family tree. So we decided to take five characters and tell their stories by designing outfits for them and exploring the challenges they faced and the similarities with the challenges we face now. Next to the five pegs holding their outfits is a peg with an empty hanger. It becomes an invitation for the pupils to reflect on their story, their place of belonging, their dreams and ambitions and then express this in a design for their own outfit. The Empty Hanger becomes a reminder that this family tree isn’t finished, that we’re all invited to take our place in it. We hope that along with the surprise at being gripped by stories of people from the Old Testament the participants will love the process of designing and making an outfit that tells their story, and see how deeply involved fashion can be!
Tell us about your experience of being an Anglican priest – what challenges and opportunities have you faced as a female vicar?
Working with unchurched women on the subject of freedom (and in mission generally), the challenge is leading people to root themselves in God’s love when they don’t particularly want religion. So finding language that is truthful and unloaded of religious rhetoric is a particular challenge. I have people asking me to mentor them, and give talks in business contexts but they say, ‘we don’t want it to be about religion.’ Walking the line between religion and the fullness of life that Jesus brings us is a constant challenge and provocation to reflection for me.
The division between the traditions is something that really hit me when I arrived in the London Diocese. There is so much disparagement of churches and clergy of other traditions, so little trust and few examples of where churches have got together and shared the very best of their traditions. I have found it so disillusioning. However, those clouds parted for a while last year when I got to work with Philip North on a vision for London Central. It was beyond brilliant. We’re from very different traditions and yet had so much respect and trust in working together to envision a mission hub for Kings Cross which would be run by a community of clergy and laity from different traditions using art and technology to share our Story. It’s very sad that the diocese eventually decided not to invest in such a place, but we gained so much from that creative process all the same.
Challenges – being shouted at by strangers in the street when wearing dog collar.
Opportunities – turning the shouts & banter into real conversations.
Challenges – that people who come to church so often seem less spiritually thirsty than those who don’t. I’m often frustrated by the question of how to find/create space to answer these people’s questions. I spend hours at dinner parties and functions listening to people’s gripes and preconceptions about God/Church/religion/Christians and seem to have the same conversation over and over and over, but I would just love to collect all these people together and then begin responding. I guess I have to be willing just to do the listening and allow that to be enough. The little evangelical in me can struggle with that.
Opportunities – Accompanying people as they seek the Way the Truth and Life but refuse to have anything to do with religion.
Challenges – being misquoted by the media who hear only soundbites not nuances.
Opportunities – being seen in the public eye as approachable and understanding because I’m young and female.
Challenges – hate mail. Though it can be very funny.
Opportunities – people writing to me because they don’t know any other vicars to talk to.
Challenges – reaching people who wouldn’t think of going to church while having to spend so much energy and money raising enough money to keep parish system working the way it does.
Opportunity – Everything is up for grabs as this generation of clergy and laity work together to envision how to serve people in cultural parishes not just geographical parishes. Training more and more people to be priests in their secular employment would be a good start. Chaplains and padres everywhere, among every profession, business and network!