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16th February 2018

Retirement interview with Rev Canon Dr Sue Penfold, Director of Ministry

Rev Canon Dr Sue Penfold retired from her post as The Church of England in Lancashire’s Director of Ministry this month after 10 years’ service in the Diocese.

She is widely recognised as one of the pioneers of women’s ministry in the Anglican church, and was the first female Residentiary Canon at Blackburn Cathedral.

But it could have been different, as Sue tells Mark Ashley.


Long before her role with Blackburn Diocese, Sue began her spiritual journey in life as a Roman Catholic and when she went to study Physics at York University she intended to part company with the Christian faith altogether.

Sue takes up the story: “I met a group of Christians at York, enjoyed a guest service with David Watson, a well-known Anglican priest, evangelist and author, and to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship.

“But I was wary of this Christian group, I thought they would lead me down the road of becoming a missionary!”

Sue left York to study for a PhD in Biochemistry at Bristol, and worshipped at an Anglican church there.

“The Vicar suggested I should become a Parish Worker. That led to four years working with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) in University Christian Unions: plenty of travel, valuable leadership training and writing resources,” Sue explains

Sue’s first foray into writing came with Bible Study materials for those who had recently taken the decision to follow Christ and join the Church.

“I realised that my calling was in ministry, in helping to grow and develop Christians,” she says.

In 1981 Sue went to Ridley Hall in Cambridge to train as a Deaconess. Sue was the first female student at Ridley Hall and in the midst of all the blokes she found her future husband Colin, marrying him whilst there, which led to further challenges as a woman called to ministry.

“My marriage didn’t go down well with my sponsoring Diocese. I was told ‘It’s a waste of money training a married woman and you’ll never get a job’. That’s how it was in those days!”

Married in 1983 and finished at Ridley Hall in 1984, Sue and Colin got their first post in Chelmsford Diocese, at Buckhurst Hill: “I worked full time for two years, and our first child was born there.

“We then moved to the North East - it was quite hard finding a job for two! The Church had not really thought about their approach to women in ministry, as there weren’t that many of us at that time!”

The year Sue went to Ridley Hall there were less than 300 Deaconesses in the CofE, but numbers selected for training in the mid-80s were beginning to ‘rocket up’.

“We had our second child in the North East, and then Colin got his first incumbency at Cononley with Bradley near Skipton in Yorkshire.

“I was ordained priest while we were there. Then my passion for training and support really kicked in: I got involved firstly with tutoring a local Methodist preacher candidate, then became involved with Reader training, then a part-time job as Associate Director of Ordinands in Bradford Diocese.

That was followed in 1997 by a move to Shipley St Paul’s, just north of Bradford.

“Our children regard Shipley as home. The parish needed both of us, as it had had been through a tough time.”

Sue spent four years working in the parish as a volunteer, whilst continuing to do her diocesan job in Bradford. Another challenge came in 2001, as Sue was appointed Director of Ordinands in Wakefield Diocese. “The commute was tough, but I stuck with it for more than seven years, also taking on the responsibility of Adviser on Women’s Ministry to the Bishop of Wakefield.”

Looking for a new challenge, Sue and Colin were ready for a move, and Sue applied for her most recent role in Blackburn Diocese (The Church of England in Lancashire) in 2008 and was successful. Colin was appointed as Vicar of Great Harwood at the same time.

Her new role came with the job of a Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral as well, a post that Sue held until 2015.

“Even in the past 10 years the Diocese feels very different now to 2008. People were very welcoming of course, but it was a shock for some having a woman in such a senior position for the first time.

“I was the first woman to preside over Communion in a main service in the Cathedral, and the response to that led to an article in The Times, an approach from a German television station and even a comment in a newspaper in New Zealand!

“It was hard work to begin with – Bishop Nicholas (the Bishop of Blackburn at the time) was very supportive, despite not ordaining women, so too was Bishop John (the former Bishop of Burnley) during the vacancy after Nicholas left in 2012. Then the current Bishop of Blackburn, Bishop Julian, arrived in 2013 and made it clear from the outset that he would be ordaining women.”

Sue has made the post here in Blackburn her own: “My job has had two parts to it – one half leading the department team and dealing with considerable change in training, and the other half the hands-on introduction of the final version of a ministerial review scheme for clergy and in-service training.

“The fact that the world is changing means that clergy have to change. Continuing professional development is essential if our clergy are to move forward with changing times," Sue says.

So what would Sue describe as some of the key landmarks in her 10 years in Blackburn Diocese as she prepares to retire?

“I would start with the Ministerial Development Review Scheme - a process which helps clergy to take stock, identify new priorities in their life and ministry, and be affirmed as well as challenged in their ministry - which was being introduced as I arrived. The clergy had a lot of input into how it developed, and we still get good feedback on it from them.

“Then there are the increasing numbers of women clergy in the Diocese which is very encouraging for me. Currently we have two female curates with pre-school children, which would have been unthinkable in the early 1980s.”

Sue continues: “I am also very excited by our Vision 2026: Healthy Churches Transforming Communities, as it gives the whole Diocese the green light to really develop and grow our lay leadership. God calls all of us to serve him, in the church and the world. Genuine shared ministry is about much more than jobs delegated to lay people by the Vicar, it’s about people taking responsibility for the life of their church, and clergy coordinating these efforts. It liberates new ideas, more energy and spark and creativity.

Reflecting on recent changes, Sue sounded a note of caution: “In relation to shared ministry, we need to watch that we don’t lead some of our most gifted lay people into over-involvement in the church however, especially when God is already naturally calling them to do what they are doing already in the world around them: there’s a balance to be struck.

“We also need to be more focused about where the energy of our diocesan officers is directed,” Sue added.

“But we are moving in the right direction, I’m really excited by recent initiatives in the Diocese … for example Freedom Church, run by Rev Linda Tomkinson and her husband Pete, at Mereside in Blackpool and the establishment of Buckshaw Village Church in Chorley.

“These are just two great examples of risks that have been worth taking. We need to take more risks. Some things will fail but we mustn’t beat ourselves up about that. Learn and move on!”

And finally - what will Sue be doing in retirement?

She thinks for a moment: “I Intend to sing in a non-church choir, redress some of the personal work/life balance including some travel … and I could do with getting fit again through walking!”