The new face of the Church in St John
ASK most of us to imagine what a country vicar looks like and the image of a white elderly male with a side-parting would probably come to mind.
Few people would picture a woman with dreadlocks and a nose piercing – which explains why the Rev Beverley Sproats has encountered one or two raised eyebrows since her induction as the new Rector of St John 3½ weeks ago.
‘I went somewhere recently where I got introduced as the new rector and a lady remarked, “Ooh, you’re not what I was expecting”,’ says Beverley, who grew up in Jersey but has spent the majority of her adulthood off the Island.
‘And when I got my dreadlocks, a lady at a previous church in the UK said to her friend, “What has she done to her lovely hair?”
‘I certainly don’t mind – I can understand those reactions if somebody appears to be a bit different from you.’
Beverley is Jersey’s second woman rector – the Rev Gerry Baudains was inducted at St Martin’s Church in 2011.
The Church of England is often perceived to be an inflexible institution, one in which women are rarely promoted into positions of prominence.
Asked if she feels the Church could give more opportunities for career progression to women, Beverley offers a considered response.
‘I’m pleased that Jersey’s new Dean, Mike Keirle, is very supportive,’ says the 44-year-old mother of three, who before returning to Jersey occupied the twin roles of acting priest in charge at St Augustine’s Church in Leeds and assistant curate at the nearby St John’s Church in Yeadon.
‘I feel privileged to have this role, but even though there have been women priests since 1994, you would expect more women to be coming through [within the Church of England].
‘So we have to ask questions about why that isn’t happening and what are the obstacles – is there unconscious bias? Do we need more flexible working arrangements so men and women can be supported to have jobs and careers while also raising their families?’
Raised in St Lawrence by her English mother, Barbara, and her Portuguese father, Sammy Vieira, who ran the Hotel Cristina, Beverley has three siblings, two of whom – David (41) and Ellen (35) – still live in Jersey.
After attending Bel Royal Primary School, Les Quennevais and then Hautlieu, Beverley took the international baccalaureate in Wales at Atlantic College, which is part of the United World Colleges – an educational institution that follows an international curriculum.
‘When I was 16, Jersey generously provided two scholarships and I got one of them,’ adds Beverley, who went on to attend Oxford University and graduated with a BA (Hons) degree in physics.
Her next calling was not the Church, but the oil and gas fields of the Netherlands.
‘I worked for Shell on land rigs,’ explains Beverley, whose job as a Shell petrophysicist was to help engineers understand the rock properties within underground oil and gas reservoirs.
After meeting her husband-to-be Graeme – who was a drilling engineer for Shell – while working in the Netherlands, they moved back to the UK and got married in 1999.
Up until that point, Beverley freely admits to not having a deep Christian faith.
‘It wasn’t until I was older that I started to explore Christianity. I was searching for something when I was at university and some of the friends I made were Christians.
‘We would have conversations about life and faith.’
Beverley says she experienced something of an epiphany at her wedding, which took place in St Lawrence Church in Jersey.
‘Graeme was a Christian and we knew we wanted to get married in church, and when the vicar said “We are gathered here in the presence of God”, I had this sense for the first time that, wow, we really were in God’s presence.’
After leaving the oil industry and following the birth of their first child, Barnaby, Beverley managed a Christian bookshop near the couple’s home in Alton.
The oil industry is viewed by many as a beacon of capitalism, but Beverley insists her decision to exit the industry was not influenced by the egalitarian principles of her Christian faith.
‘It wasn’t at all the case that I became a Christian and then thought, “I can’t do this” – I don’t think the oil industry is incompatible with being a Christian.
‘In fact, it was encouraging to see other people there who were Christians working in the industry because they also brought a sense of responsibility for the environment into their job.’
She was certainly in good company – Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, worked for 11 years in the oil industry with ELF.
The chief executives of petroleum corporations can earn millions of pounds a year, but Beverley insists the question should not be about whether those sums are justified.
‘It’s not that riches are right or wrong – it’s a question of what people do with that money. A lot of philanthropic work is done by very wealthy people,’ adds Beverley, who trained for ordination at Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge before being ordained in 2013.
After spending four years ministering to congregations in both the city of Leeds and its suburbs, she says she was ready to take the next step in her ecclesiastical career when the post of Rector of St John in Jersey came up.
‘I was looking for my first vicar job and saw an advert for the job in Jersey, and both the church parish and the chance to come back to Jersey really appealed to me,’ says Beverley, who has moved over with Graeme and their children – Barnaby (16), Eve (13) and Ivan (11).
‘It’s also a great opportunity for our children to be able to live near other members of the family and to spend quality time enjoying the outdoors here,’ adds Beverley, whose husband has found work as a data analyst for the States of Jersey.
She has been making the most of the warm September water – ‘I had my first surf lesson last week and I’ve been riding my bicycle around the Island’ – but her main focus is on her ministry.
Part of Beverley’s job will be to undertake the safeguarding brief for the Deanery. The Church’s safeguarding procedures in the Island came under the spotlight in March 2013, when the Very Rev Bob Key – then the Dean of Jersey – had his commission withdrawn for almost two months for allegedly mishandling a complaint of sexual abuse against a churchwarden by a vulnerable woman.
Mr Key was later cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated.
‘I’ll be the safeguarding point of contact in the Island. Part of that will be making sure we have the right policies and training in place.
‘There has always been safeguarding [measures taken]. Safeguarding is about ensuring there are procedures in place that will protect vulnerable people and that’s of benefit to the people who are doing the ministry as well because it means you have a good set-up that is hopefully not open to any difficulties.’
One problem the Church in general needs to address is the lack of young people coming through its doors.
According to a survey published by the National Centre for Social Research earlier this month, more than half the British population say they have no religion, including nearly three out of every four 18–24 year-olds.
‘There is an awareness that if nothing is done, the Church will decline,’ admits Beverley, who says she will be trying to increase her parish church’s community links.
‘There is already a good relationship with St John’s Primary School and I want to build on that. At the moment the school comes into the church at least once a term and I will be going into the school to take some assemblies.
‘And we want to build on our relationships with families. First though I want to get to know people – to listen to them and learn – in this beautiful island.’