Rebecca Howarth became a ‘girl bishop’ few months ago, meaning that she’s technically Britain’s first ever female bishop. She tells Radhika Sanghani what she wants to achieve in her role.
Britain has finally accepted women as bishops in the Church of England, and just last week, The Rev Libby Lane was announced the UK’s first ever female bishop.
But, little does Mrs Lane know that an 11-year-old girl already beat her to the title of Britain’s female bishop.
Rebecca Howarth, a Manchester schoolgirl, became ‘girl bishop’ at the start of June, meaning she takes charge of her local Oldham Parish Church.
The church has previously taken on a number of boy bishops for the annual tradition, where a youth bishop takes over from the serving Bishop of Manchester – but this is the first time that a girl has taken on the role. It follows the Church of England’s decision to allow women to become bishops.
Rebecca is thrilled. “I was really excited ever since I found out I was going to be girl bishop,” she tells me. “Really women are just as good as boys I think, they’re both equal to each other. If a boy can be bishop, I don’t see why girls can’t. I just believe that girls have a right to be as good as boys.”
She welcomes the CoE’s change in legislation, not just because it has made her position possible but because it is a move in the right step for equality. Even in her primary school, she has noticed that boys sometimes feel superior to the girls.
“If we get put into groups and they’re the only boy in the group, they have a bit of a huff and a sigh,” she explains. “Sometimes they think they’re more important than us.”
She wants boys to realise that they’re not, and hopes that her new role as girl bishop will help get that message across.
It’s why she jumped at the chance as soon as her priest suggested it to her mum: “Father Derek asked my mum if I wanted to think about it and as soon as I agreed it was announced in church. They’d decided it would be nice to have a girl. If I’d disagreed there were lots of others who would have done it.”
When she was chosen at the start of the month, she took over from the church’s current bishop in a traditional ceremony. “I had to lead a few prayers,” she says. “I had to literally pull a bishop out of his chair and sit on it myself. It’s tradition. It’s a really big honour.”
Rebecca ousting the Bishop from his chair
I ask her why she thinks that the church chose her for the honour, and she says it’s probably because she loves going to church so much: “I go to church every week on a Sunday. I’ve been going to church for as long as I can remember and I really enjoy Sunday School. We just have fun.”
Though she admits that she struggles with the Bible: “I find it hard to understand sometimes, with all the ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ and ‘hard words. The New Testament is supposed to be easier to understand than the Old Testament. I hear there’s someone called Rebecca so I’m interested in that.”
Bar the tough lexicon of the Bible, Rebecca really loves being a Christian: “I really like going to church. Sometimes before I became girl bishop I had a short prayer to read out. I like learning about God and Jesus and stuff. I think it’s really cool that there’s someone there watching us. It sort of reassures me. If you think about it when you’re feeling sad, it makes you feel better.”
She’s particularly excited to be leading the church at Christmas because the Nativity celebration is her favourite time of the year. But what Rebecca really hopes to do as girl bishop is help the congregation remember the real message behind Christmas.
“Everyone loves opening presents and eating Christmas dinner – I do it myself,” she says. “But it’s important to remember the real meaning and the story of what happened. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the presents and Father Christmases – most people get more excited about that than the real meaning. But it’s really up to other people what they do.”
Her family are thrilled by her position as girl bishop (bar her little sister who’s “feeling a bit left out”) but does this mean that Rebecca wants to follow in the footsteps of Ms Lane and become an adult bishop herself?
“I’m not really sure, maybe I’ll just wait and see what I have done as a youth bishop and think about it,” she says diplomatically. “I like writing stories, and I’d really like to be a writer, so we’ll see.” Watch this space.
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