Norwich vicar Jan's debt to Dawn French
2008: As director of communications Diocese of Norwich, Reverend Jan McFarlane is the public voice and face of the Anglican church in the city. She is also set to become the diocese's first ever female Archdeacon, and one of just a handful in the country, when she takes up the position next March. Norwich Evening News reporter Kim Briscoe found out more about how the bubbly vicar found her calling - and the gratitude she owes to Dawn French.
For our Evening News Original features we normally photograph people in their favourite place in the city. When I said this to Rev Jan she confessed her favourite place was her bed! But not wanting to be pictured there she opted instead for the BBC Radio Norfolk studios, where she co-presents a show on Wednesday evenings.
The first thing that strikes you about Jan when you meet her is her warmth. And going into the studios for our photo shoot, it becomes quickly apparent that she is a very popular lady at the BBC offices at the Forum.
Big smiles, cheery hellos and waves greet her from all sides and staff even feel comfortable enough to joke that she joins in with a scheduled radio debate on sex for the over-50s. I would imagine there are not many vicars in the city who would get such an invite.
Born in Stoke on Trent, Jan had a happy and not particularly religious childhood. She studied medical science at Sheffield University, where she was training to become a speech therapist.
The diverse course included anatomy, physiology, linguistics and the psychology of child development.
After the four-year course she got a job with the North Staffordshire Health Authority, where she worked for nearly four years, specialising in helping deaf children learn to speak.
Jan said: “At that time there was a shortage of speech therapists and the most difficult part about it was seeing the need and there weren't the resources there to give what people needed.”
But it was a very rewarding job and she can still remember some of the sign language she learnt during that time.
It was while at university that she was dragged along to church by a friend. Reluctant to go, she eventually caved in and never dreamt how it would change her life.
Jan said: “I was really nervous and I really didn't want to go. I though the 'God squad' were all a bit weird. While I was there something happened - it all began to make sense.”
Afterwards she grabbed a leaflet about becoming a Christian off the vicar and fled - “I didn't want to be seen dead talking to a vicar,” she said.
Her faith grew and she became more involved with her local church, leading a youth group.
Jan said: “I came to a crossroads where I knew I would either have to devote myself fully to speech therapy and give up some of my church work, or decide to be working full-time for the church.”
At the time women could not be ordained as priests, but they could be deacons, so Jan passed the selection process and was chosen for training at Cranmer Hall in Durham and undertook a degree in theology at Durham University.
She said: “It was excellent but it was also tough. They almost pull you apart and put you back together again. Taking funerals you have to be very comfortable with your own bereavements and death and you have to work through any doubts so you can come through the other side and then help other people in a similar position.”
Her family, who were not church-goers, were initially taken aback but very supportive of her change in career.
She said: “My mum was very shocked when I told her, but it made her want to find out more about the church and she has become a regular church-goer.
“My dad was just relieved I wasn't telling him I was pregnant and my brother was mortified at how he was going to tell his friends, but they were fascinated by it and thought it was really cool.”
By the time she had finished her training the vote had gone through and women could become priests and Jan was ordained at Lichfield Cathedral in 1993 and started work as a curate in Stafford for the Lichfield Diocese.
She said: “The ordination of women was very, very new and people's reactions were varied. You would walk down the street in your clerical collar and people would literally stop to stare. It was quite a tough time. I felt I was in this representative role for women and there was a strong sense of pressure to do better than the men in order to be accepted.”
Since then the clergy has come a long way and Jan acknowledges the boost Dawn French's Vicar of Dibley portrayal has given to female priests, but jokes her experience of the ministry is even more bizarre than the programme!
Jan, who shares the same sense of humour as the comic character, said: “Before then vicars were the fun figures - dappy, off-the-wall characters. The Vicar of Dibley presented this character who was fun and lovely and who had faith in a wacky way and who was 'the sane one'.
“I'd love to meet Dawn French and give her my thanks - she did such a good job.”
There followed a spell working in Ely before she spotted an advert in the Church Times for a communications officer for the Diocese of Norwich.
As a trained speech therapist who spent years communicating with deaf children, Jan naturally felt drawn to this type of work.
She said: “My heart really is in the communications side of the church and I imagine whatever I do in the future I will be drawn to it if there's the communications side.”
So it is perfect that she will retain her communications role while swapping her current job as Bishop's Chaplain for that of Archdeacon from next March.
Her new job will involve dealing with much of the administrative and legal burden that falls on vicars, as well as being responsible for the pastoral care of the 50 full and part-time clergy in the Archdeaconry of Norwich, which covers greater Norwich.
She said: “There's a sense in which it feels like going back 15 years and being one of the first female clergy and priests. There's the feeling you have to do it all extremely well in order to be completely accepted.
“But there was an overwhelmingly positive response from the clergy when it was announced, which was very encouraging.
“I'm now really looking forward to it.”
Rev McFarlane joins Nicky Price on BBC Radio Norfolk every Wednesday from 6pm to 7pm for “Life's Like That”.
Article and picture courtesy of www.eveningnews24.co.uk