God in the life of Judy French

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The Revd Canon Judy French tells Jo Duckles her story from an early childhood in Kenya through to polishing the pews of her church as a teenager to her appointment as the first Archdeacon of Dorchester. 

We meet in the study of Charlbury Vicarage, overlooking an expansive garden and the idyllic Cotswold countryside. This is a place Judy will miss once she’s moved on from her role as Rector of St Mary’s Charlbury and All Saints, Shorthampton,where she has been in post for 17 years. Judy was three when her parents and 18-month-old brother moved to Kenya for her father’s job as a telecoms engineer. “For us as children, Kenya was idyllic. There were safaris, we spent time on the beach and my sister was born in Nakuru. My parents lived abroad for most of my dad’s working life. We had a short spell in Brighton and then they moved to the Middle East.”

Judy’s mum was a Sunday School teacher and her first memory is a big children’s Bible with dramatic pictures. When her parents moved to the Middle East, Judy went to a boarding school that was originally set up for the daughters of United Reformed Church ministers. She started going to the URC church as a bus was provided from the school, but her family soon told her they were Anglican, which meant a long walk to worship at the local CofE church.

She was confirmed at 14 and as preparation had to go to her ‘home’ church near her grandparents’ home in Portsmouth and interview the vicar on how it all worked. That was her first experience of getting to know the ins and outs of church life and she admits to being scared stiff. On leaving school she joined that church and by 19 was a reluctant PCC member. It was a middle of the road church with an Anglo-Catholic vicar, occasional incense and a “great choir”.

“They did Stations of the Cross and the Good Friday Liturgy and I found that rich and spiritually rewarding. It was a key time for me in my faith journey. When I started going to church, the vicar told me they didn’t carry passengers, everyone was crew.”

Judy was assigned to polishing pews with Mrs Walsh, who to a teenager seemed to be about 103. “She was a lovely lady, deeply faithful and she had the best polishing elbow. Her sense of service and commitment was actually an important insight for me into the whole army of people who just do stuff without a lot of thanks. Mrs Walsh had her pews gleaming. My half of the church wasn’t so good.”

Judy, who has always loved singing, remembers an unexpectedly uplifting moment during a hymn when she was 21. “It was a moment when everything came together and that was a significant point for me. I then began to get these notions in my head when I saw the vicar up front that I’d like to do what he was doing. The other half of me said it was a completely stupid idea. I was far too shy to do anything up front.” Judy recalled her nerves the first time the vicar asked her to do a reading. As I began to read the first lesson, the heavens opened and it made such a racket on the roof that no one heard a word I read,” she says.

Working as an accounts clerk for a life assurance firm, while Judy liked her job and the people she worked with, she knew it wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. So she went to see the Diocesan Director of Ordinands.

“He wanted me to have a life and go and climb Everest,” says Judy, who instead became the first member of her family to go to university. Not considering herself academic, she first had to pass her history A level, which she did in night classes, and with the help of an encouraging teacher. She went on to enjoy three years in the beautiful surroundings of Lampeter College in Wales, studying theology in an environment with a woman chaplain and where there were women deacons.

“All through university I was battling with whether God was calling me to ordination or whether it was a stupid idea. One day, I was sitting in the college chapel and decided I’d had enough. I asked God to give me a sign in the next ten minutes. Five minutes later, the chaplain came in, said she had to go out and would I take Morning Prayer for her. Well, that was it.” Conscious that she needed to walk with God one step at a time, Judy went to see the DDO again. She went through the selection process and was astonished to find herself accepted and training for ordination at St Stephen’s House, the Anglo-Catholic theological college in Oxford. Well known for being a traditional college, Judy was one of only two women in her year. The other woman left for another college fairly quickly, while Judy, chose to keep her head down and get on with it.

“I made some really good friends who were very supportive. Others weren’t keen on a woman being there but I got on with it and did what needed to be done,” says Judy.
    “I wasn’t a confident person so I found rehearsing for Mass, the art of the Daily Office and spiritual reading really helped me develop. It was not an easy time. Training is very challenging. All your assumptions are challenged, your faith is challenged, your reason for being is challenged. You come out of the other end a changed person.”
Judy served her “title” as a Deacon (curate) in All Saints, Botley in Portsmouth. The Revd Elaine Bardwell, who is now the Vicar of New Marston in Oxford, was the Director of Pastoral Studies at St Stephen’s House when Judy was training.  “I’ve known Elaine a long time and having her as a role model and having an ordained woman on the staff was incredibly positive for me,” said Judy. But as a Deacon, Judy felt her journey was not yet complete. The then Bishop of Portsmouth had been conflicted about whether he wanted women ordinands.
With a sense of calling to be a priest, she served a second curacy in Coventry, under the then Bishop, the Rt Revd Simon Barrington Ward. Coventry had a more positive attitude to women. There she found a warm welcome from the Diocese and a wonderful director of women’s ministry and spent three happy years at St Mark’s, Bilton, in Rugby. It was a broad church with a lively mixture of worship and an evangelical rector.
   Judy had the privilege of being part of a historic moment when she was one of the youngest of 37 women who were among the first to be ordained priest in the Church of England in Coventry Cathedral in 1994. “It was 20 years ago and it was the beginning of something exciting for the whole Church.
“The vicar and his wife were very kind to me as a single woman. After three years in Bilton and almost five-and-a-half as a curate I needed to look for a vicar’s post,” says Judy, who was interviewed for her Charlbury role soon after. “I was one of six people short listed and much to my amazement I got the job. Not only was the church beautiful but they had just finished reordering which was good news for whoever was going to take it on. There are a lot of gifted people here and a church with a flexible space.”
Despite having to deal with two fires at the church, Judy, along with Associate Priest, the Revd Jan Fielden and their team, has led St Mary’s through many exciting times. These have included the launch of a successful Font Café for the community and becoming the first church in the Diocese to receive a Family Friendly award for its work with children and young people.
“Leaving here is the end of an era for me. When I arrived I was 36 and young and green in terms of leading a parish. 17 years later it has been a very fruitful time. I was the first woman incumbent to serve under the then Bishop of Dorchester, Bishop Anthony,” says Judy. “Charlbury is a great community with a real living heart to it.”
Serving as Area Dean for the Chipping Norton Deanery and Acting Archdeacon of Oxford, Judy has only had a few Sundays in 17 years away from Charlbury. She’ll miss her two churches but is looking forward to visiting the other 334 churches in the new Dorchester Archdeaconry. Her new role will bring back her deacon’s experience of servanthood. “It’s about serving our churches, clergy and people, and working with diocesan staff, to help them with the challenges of church life and mission today,” said Judy,who has family in Singapore, Washington DC and New Zealand, supportive parents and some good friends.
Judy enjoys anything to do with iPads, walking, a bit of poetry and singing. 

The Revd Canon Judy French

The Revd Canon Judy French

 

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