Dr Alison Joyce, who is a rector at St. Bride’s church is among Evening Standard’s Top Progress 1000 list of the most influential Londoners 2018. Being ordained for almost thirty years, during this time she experienced at first-hand many situations of untold sadness and tragedy. “But I have never for a moment doubted the existence of God, nor his presence in those dark places.” She explains for The Sunday Tribune.
At what point in life did you decide to become a clergy person and what was the main reason?
A vocation to the ordained ministry is not really something that you ‘decide’: it is a calling deep within your soul that, by stages, you discern and test, to find out whether it is authentic. For me, the journey began when I was six years old, and I was taken to visit an ancient Benedictine Abbey. I experienced a powerful sense of the presence of God there – and came away with a feeling that I had glimpsed something that mattered more than anything else, and that I would have to give my life to it. It was many years later, when I was a graduate student, that my university chaplain approached me and said he thought that I ought to be exploring the idea of Christian ministry. I had no clear idea until that point that it was the ordination that I should be exploring – but that conversation was pivotal.
What aspect of Christian faith do you find most challenging?
An interesting question! I have been ordained for nearly thirty years, during which time I have experienced at first-hand many situations of untold sadness and tragedy; but I have never for a moment doubted the existence of God, nor doubted his presence in those very dark places. I have often found myself wondering what on earth God doing in a particularly difficult situation (and I suppose that is the most challenging bit!) – but I have never doubted his existence.
What would you say lies at the core of the Christian faith?
The Cross of Christ. The Christian faith is unafraid to look squarely at the deepest horror and desolation of human life, precisely because the crucifixion – the ultimate symbol of pointless suffering – stands at its very heart. It is for that reason that the Christian faith can speak authentically about hope: because in doing so it is never denying, or downplaying, the reality of despair; rather, it proclaims a message of hope from the midst of that very darkness. In the end, the love of God was to prove far, far stronger than death – and we can know that reality today.
What makes the God of the Bible unique?
In Jesus Christ, we see the image of the invisible God. A God who feels our pain as his own and responds with love and compassion. It is an outrageous, astonishing, and life-giving claim – and once you have the courage to travel the journey of faith, you discover its truth for yourself!
What do you enjoy most about knowing and following Him?
My life has been utterly transformed by my journey of faith, and it is a transformation that continues each day: it is the most exciting, life-changing, and life-giving experience. A biblical text that is particularly close to my heart is 1 John 4:18: ‘Perfect love casts out fear’. Knowing that we are loved by God, totally and unconditionally, means that we need no longer be afraid – if we are ready to accept that offer of love and respond to it by following in the steps of Christ.
What are the biggest challenges the Church faces today in the West?
Western affluence: it is absolutely true that you cannot serve God and ‘Mammon’. Wealth deludes us into thinking that we are in control of our destiny and that the solution to our problems can be found through material possessions or the choices that wealth brings. We lose touch with the vulnerability that is both an essential part of our humanity, and which leads us to recognise our need of God. It is hard for the Church to proclaim a truth that society does not believe it needs to hear – despite the fact that the highest rates of depression and suicide have always been in the most affluent parishes that I have served.
Have you known any Christians who were persecuted for their faith?
Yes, I have. I have met a number of Latvian Christians who suffered intimidation or persecution because they were churchgoers before Latvia gained its independence in 1991. More recently, in one of my previous churches, our congregation included Egyptian Christians (both Coptic and Anglican), whose stories were very chastening to hear for those of us who have always been free to worship without fear of intimidation or threat of violence.
St. Bride’s is the Journalists’ church. How does this focus impact on your ministry? How do you see both journalism and Christianity being connected?
Even though the newspapers have now moved away from Fleet Street itself, our ministry to journalists and all in the media remains an incredibly important part of our work at St. Bride’s and takes a wide variety of forms. We take many weddings, baptisms, funerals and memorial services for journalists; our Sunday congregation has many journalists in it; I also undertake quite a lot of pastoral work with individuals who work in the media. We have a Journalists’ Altar in the church, where we commemorate journalists, photographers, camera crew, and their support staff, who have recently died, or been killed during their work. I am often invited to go ‘behind the scenes’ to learn more about what is going on in the industry. I am increasingly aware of how much we have in common: both journalists and Christians, in their different ways, are called to proclaim the truth. To fight injustice, to call the powerful to account and to give a voice to the voiceless.
As a female vicar, how do you deal with the biblical text that says women should be submitted to men?
The Bible also states that ‘… in Christ there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28). Scripture contains a revelation of God that is timeless and changeless; but it also emerged from a specific cultural context in the ancient world, and some of its content reflects the assumptions and attitudes of that culture (including, for example, the acceptance of polygamy and slavery, and the absolute prohibition of lending money at interest – see for example Exodus 22:25). All Christians, however ‘conservative’ they may regard themselves, make some differentiation between what is culturally conditioned in the Bible and what is not. However, Christians draw different conclusions about where the dividing line should be drawn, particularly over issues such as the headship of women. I find it very interesting that those who oppose the ordination of women on Biblical ‘headship’ grounds, do not, on the whole, defend the institution of slavery, nor refuse to have mortgages, bank loans, or jobs in the financial services industry – so their stance does not appear to me to be entirely consistent. The Holy Spirit is always on the move, doing new things – and we should really leave it up to God whom God calls: ultimately you can tell by the fruits whether something is of God, or not.
What are the most rewarding parts of being in charge of such a historical and busy city church? The most challenging?
It always feels like an amazing privilege to exercise a ministry here, living and working in the heart of one of the most exciting cities on earth. Every day is a different and full of surprises, and ‘all human life is here’. In my own area of London spectacular wealth exists alongside extreme poverty – and we strive to minister to all.
You are married and a mother of two daughters? Are they members of an Anglican church as well and do they come to listen to your Sunday sermons at the church?
I am married to a Roman Catholic theologian, and both of my daughters were baptised and confirmed in the Catholic Church, although they are also very happy to attend my services. They are adults now and live independent lives, but we always worship together here as a family at Christmas and Easter.
How difficult has it been to juggle the demands of being a mother and being a vicar?
Before I was selected for training, I always assumed that I would be celibate: it seemed to me that the demands of being in full-time ministry would be so all-consuming that I would never be able to combine ordination with another full-time vocation, which is the motherhood – so marriage and family was never part of my original plan. In fact, contrary to all my expectations, family life proved to be the bedrock of my ministry: it has made me a much more rounded person; it has provided me with support and stability; and it also has ensured that I keep a sense of perspective, by having to do ‘normal’ parental things, alongside the rather strange demands of my ministerial life. For several years when my children were young, I chose to work in a ‘non-stipendiary’ role (I worked unpaid, so I could have more flexible hours) – so my children were never neglected.
Will you become one day a bishop?
I sincerely hope not! I love being a parish priest – that is what feeds me.
What would be your message to everyone?
Peace! Hope! Joy! The Light of Christ shines on, and the darkness did not (and will not) overcome it!