CHRISTMAS AT THE CATHEDRAL
So what’s your Christmas about? The practicalities, the presents or the splendour of midnight mass? Anne Gould talks to the Very Reverend Dr Francis Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral
No matter what you’ve got planned for the festive season there can be very few people who have a Christmas quite like Dean Francis Ward. She’s one of only five women in the UK who have been appointed to the role of Cathedral Dean and she’s also the mother of four children which means that Christmas and the run up to the big day are busier than most of us could possibly ever imagine.
However it’s something she probably takes in her good-natured relaxed and friendly stride - with a twinkly smile too. With her on trend long straight tweedy skirt, black boots and velvet jacket she’s unlike any other member of the clergy I’ve ever met. It’s a reputation that goes before her, particularly in and around the congregations in Bury St. Edmunds and west Suffolk and with invitations to preach and take services right across the county there will be increasing numbers of Suffolk churchgoers further afield who will doubtless encounter her down to earth charm.
Dean Frances, or Frankie, as she is known to her former nursing colleagues, is “incredibly busy” in December. Besides all the usual work of a busy cathedral there are carol concerts and services plus education work. “We’ve got Handel’s Messiash on the 7th, a Christmas Tree festival on the 8th, carols by Candlelight on the 14th and carol services for various schools too.” Christmas Eve has five services including an afternoon crib service and midnight mass which Francis conducts herself.
“Our midnight service is always packed. Even though it’s dark and cold outside people come into our beautiful cathedral and it’s magical.” Of course, she adds this is not a one woman show - she is supported by other cathedral priests, the Verger’s department which sorts out the logisics, four choirs and an army of volunteer helpers. Then the following morning there’s the Christmas service with the Bishop and, she says, it’s all just wonderful. “It’s about the central message of Christianity; love.”
Christmas is also a time when the cathedral is packed with people wishing to celebrate, some from outlying villages and even from further afield. The congregation does swell somewhat at Christmas, although there’s a very healthy population of regular churchgoers throughout the year.
“We have excellent music at the cathedral,” she explained. “They might only come to church once or twice a year at Christmas and Easter so you could say, in a way, that are coming regularly. They are keeping in touch with the lodestone in life that reminds them of the central message of love that’s all around us.”
Of course all this means, she says, that Christmas at home - the Deanery, in The Great Churchyard - is a little bit last minute. Francis is expecting all four of her children, three of which are grown up, to be at home with assorted boyfriends and girlfriends and yes she does cook dinner too, albeit in a supervisory capacity. “I really enjoy cooking for big occasions. I suppose we’ll eat mid-afternoon and then relax in the evening.”
When she was appointed three years ago Dean Francis was only the fourth woman in Britain to become a Cathedral Dean. She was working at Bradford at the time and her paediatrician husband, Dr Peter Powell, was commuting over the Pennines to Bolton every day. “I got this job and it was quite fortunate either the same day or the next day a job came up at the West Suffolk in the British Medical Journal.”
Coming to Suffolk, she says has been a real joy. “It feels like somewhere you could put your roots down. The cathedral is a wonderful building and its set in the wonderful surroundings of the Abbey Gardens.
“I like to walk and love the coast and the Suffolk countryside is always full of surprises.”
Dean Francis says she’s also lucky that other churches ask her to visit so it gives her a further opportunity to explore; from Beccles to East Bergholt, Framlingham and beyond. It also gives her the opportunity to explore the wealth of artistic riches that the county offers.
Also art is something she feels passionately about. Her office which overlooks the cathedral has any number of small prints of famous paintings on the wall. She explained that originally, when she went to university at St Andrews in Scotland, she’d started off studying history of art, however she switched courses and ended up with a degree in theology. She then went on to become a nurse and her career took her to a London Hospital where she met her husband and eventually went on to gain her doctorate in Theology from Manchester University in 2000.
Dean Francis has been something of a trail blazer in the Church of England - it’s 25 years now since she became a curate and was one of the first ever women to be ordained as a priest in 1994. So if and when the church goes ahead with women bishops could Dean Francis be in line for an early appointment?
“I think we will have women bishops in a couple of years and of course an appointment depends very much on which job is available but, if I was asked to think about it, I would probably say yes.”