The Revd Dr Beren Hartless was ordained priest in 1994. As the 25th anniversary of her ordination approaches, Beren describes to Jo Duckles her journey to faith and her call to ministry.
Beren’s father was a curate in Chipping Norton and her grandfather was a vicar in the Oxford Diocese. Beren’s first mystical experience of God was when she was aged just 10, but she said that dwindled away when she went to a boarding school that she describes as a dreadful experience. She did her A levels at her local Grammar school before moving from her native Herefordshire to study microbiology at Cardiff University.
There Beren found herself feeling terribly anxious. Her sister asked her what was wrong, as Big Ben chimed in New Year in 1974. Beren didn’t want to hear her sibling advise her that what she needed was Jesus Christ. “I was very cross with her. A lot of people had been saying the same thing. I’d been living a bit of a wild life. Mandy kept gently talking to me until I was forced to face my insecurities and the things that were wrong in my life.”
At 4am on January 1 1974, Beren asked Jesus into her life, beginning a journey that would see her face lots of ups and downs. In 1975 she married Julian, a civil engineer who had become a Christian just after university. The couple have two daughters, Katie and Claire.
“I found I had spiritual gifts I didn’t know existed…”
It was at a Christian conference that Beren first had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. “I came back to a meeting at our local church, and the vicar’s wife said ‘Beren, your face is glowing, what’s happened?’ “That changed my life. I found I had spiritual gifts I didn’t know existed before that.”
In Brighton in the 1980s, while the word ‘renewal’ wasn’t used, the spirit was clearly working powerfully. “I went to a John Wimber conference. I got a lot out of that. I went feeling sceptical but came out feeling my life had changed somehow.”
Not long after that Beren’s mother was made a Reader. A few weeks later, Beren was meditating on Acts 10, where God tells Peter not to call profane what has been made clean. Somehow, this convinced her that it was okay for women to be preachers. “A month later my vicar asked me to preach on Mothering Sunday.” It was later a member of the congregation told Beren that her sermon had convinced him to become a Christian. “I asked him what I’d said that convinced him and he told me it wasn’t what I said but the way I spoke – he thought if I believed it, he’d better believe it too.”
Planning to go back to teaching biology when her children were old enough, it was reading the Book of Joshua, particularly the crossing of the Jordan, that cemented Beren’s calling to ordination. “The priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They stood in the middle of the river holding the way open for the whole of Israel. I saw priesthood as a real act of service, something you could do to help other people get into the promised land.”
“I saw priesthood as a real act of service…”
Then, at a prayer conference organised by the Lydia Prayer Fellowship, Beren suddenly had a strong sense of a calling similar to her father’s. At the time her vicar and his wife said she shouldn’t get ordained because she had young children. However, five different Diocesan Directors of Ordinands later, she was finally sent to a selection panel, was accepted and began training on the Oxford Ministry Course.
Her curacy was in High Wycombe and her first training incumbent was Paul Bayes, who is now the Bishop of Liverpool. The church was a liberal Anglo Catholic parish with a charismatic evangelical church plant on the same premises. Beren admits she had never heard of genuflecting (bending one knee to the ground as a sign of respect) and can’t remember ever crossing herself before her curacy. “Eventually Paul realised I wasn’t used to that environment and I learned a huge amount,” she says.
Beren was the first curate at the church, let alone a female one, but wasn’t worried when one member of the congregation told her he didn’t believe women should be priests. “Just before Easter he said he had a vision from God who had said it was fine for me to be ordained priest and for him to take communion from me. Several other people who hadn’t thought women should be priests were convinced too. At my first presiding at communion, they were all on the front row. I thoroughly enjoyed my curacy. My second training incumbent had just come from a curacy himself and we worked together for a couple of years.”
Since 2011, Beren has been the Diocese of Oxford’s Director of Initial Ministerial Training (IME) Phase Two. Currently she oversees the training and pastoral needs of around 90 curates. “We work with them before they are priested and for two years afterwards, sometimes a bit longer. It’s a varied job, it’s never boring.”
Beren lives in South Warwickshire where she is an associate minister in the Edgehill group of churches. “I’m involved in church leadership and I teach curates about leadership.”
Beren puts her love of nature to good use in her hobby – photography, often posting her pictures on Facebook. “I take photographs out of the bedroom window and put them on Facebook and there are people in the village who see them. One of the PCC told me it was lovely to see them because it reminded them that I am praying.”
So what advice would Beren give to women in ministry? “Give your family time but don’t forget your calling, you have to hold the two in balance. The first time I wore a clergy collar after I was ordained I went to pick the girls up from school. Katie told me I couldn’t wear it because I was embarrassing her. I told her I was ordained and it was important to wear this in my job. Women curates have a huge amount to offer, just as the men do and need to be confident and enjoy ministry.”
And, 25 years on, the world has moved on in its attitude to women vicars. “People respond to women priests very positively. I don’t think there is the same frisson as there was.”
“I love seeing people grow and become committed disciples of Christ.”
At a garden party celebrating the 25th anniversary of women priests at Lambeth Palace this year that Beren attended, Justin Welby apologised to women for the difficulties they have faced. “He said the fact that we now have women bishops has built on what you did as pioneers, and I like to think the deaconesses who were with us before that were also pioneers.”
“I’ve always been interested in learning, and believe in life-long learning, and I love seeing people grow and become committed disciples of Christ. That is what I find so lovely and brilliant.”
16TH OCTOBER 2019