Meet our new FE columnist Kate Bottley: ‘Being Christian doesn’t make me a nutter’
Kate Bottley’s suspicions that her career was about to take an unexpected turn were first aroused when she overheard a conversation between two senior church officials.
Back in 2011, Bottley – fresh from completing what she calls her “vicar apprenticeship” – was waiting to find out where her first parish would be.
She recalls the exchange: “ ‘What on earth are we going to do with her?’ I heard the bishop say. The diocese’s chief executive said: ‘Well, she can’t just go into a church, she’ll break it. We’re going to have to find something else for her to do.’ ”
In a bid to keep the live-wire young vicar in check, the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham came up with an unusual proposal.
Alongside her role as vicar of three village churches, the Rev Bottley would become chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College for 17.5 hours per week.
“I have no idea what a chaplain does,” she admits. “I know it’s about being present, walking the corridors and smiling. Some days you have to support learners when their relatives have died; some days it’s just about being there. Not to tick a box, not to secure funding, just being there.”
Bottley was propelled into the national consciousness in 2013 when, midway through a church wedding ceremony she was presiding over, she led a flashmob to the strains of Nineties dance hit Everybody Dance Now. The video went viral on YouTube and has been viewed 6.3 million times. “I thought the local press would pick it up,” she says, “but I ended up on television in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – I was even interviewed on Al Jazeera.”
Since then, her profile has rocketed. In 2014, Bottley – alongside husband Graham and their greyhound Buster – became famous for watching TV as one of the stars of Channel 4’s unlikely hit series Gogglebox. She is also a regular on BBC Radio 2’s The Chris Evans Breakfast Show.
Despite her growing profile in the media, Sheffield-born Bottley remains fiercely down to earth. The daughter of a school dinner lady and a steel worker, she was the first person in her family to go to university. “My family didn’t really do academic,” she says. “I remember getting my A-level grades and telling my mum what I’d got. She goes, ‘Does that mean you’ve passed?’ ”
Bottley was so ignorant of the world of academia that she didn’t even realise she’d enrolled at a Catholic college until she arrived and spotted a giant crucifix.
She went on to teach RE at secondaries in Sheffield, immersing herself in school life. “I was involved in every residential, every school play,” she says. “I was always a cheerleader and a go-to in the staffroom. If somebody had a baby, I’d make them a lasagne; if somebody had suffered a bereavement, they’d come to me for help. I absolutely loved the job. I never thought I’d do anything else.”
But after having two children, Bottley experienced what she describes as “a calling” to join the clergy. “I understand that it sounds crazy,” she says, “but that’s all I can describe it as.”
For a woman who only started going to church because she fancied the vicar’s son, this came as quite a shock. “I only went for a snog and ended up with a dog collar,” she says. “We’ve been married for 17 years, so it worked out OK, really.
“I didn’t really want to be a vicar,” she continues. “Why on earth would you want to be a vicar? I’m not really big on organised religion, if I’m honest. I much prefer conversations and spirituality and all that sort of stuff. But it was something I felt I had to do.”
Bottley is by no means a stereotypical member of the clergy, as becomes clear from a cursory glimpse at her Twitter feed. Selfies at weddings and christenings are interspersed with photos of her brandishing garish cocktails and posing with fans on a night out at Nottingham’s Rock City nightclub.
“I want to show that just because I’m a Christian, it doesn’t make me a nutter and it doesn’t make me a bigot,” she explains. “I still argue with my husband, I still sit on the sofa in my ’jamas. I still like a drink, I still do all these normal things, but I happen to have a faith.”
Bottley’s no-nonsense character has helped her fit in at North Nottinghamshire College, with its catchment area covering close-knit communities in former mining villages. Some of the college’s students have never ventured as far afield as Nottingham, she notes.
“People think chaplains are for posh schools and posh universities,” she says. “FE’s not like that, is it? The diocese was quite wise when it saw this gap. These are young people who have got as much spiritual need as anyone, regardless of bank balance or social standing.”
The role can be difficult for some within the church to understand; a local independent school chaplain was horrified to learn that Bottley had no plans to introduce morning prayer.
Being a college chaplain instead entails supporting students and staff by whatever means necessary. Since taking on the job, Bottley’s tasks have included dressing as a giant cigarette for No Smoking Day, holding a clothing exchange to provide vulnerable learners with warm winter clothes and arranging a “bushtucker challenge” to expose learners to foods such as olives, anchovies and blue cheese.
But in an era of cost-cutting across the sector, Bottley acknowledges that many would not consider her role to be a priority. “What I do is counter-cultural to what we’re seeing in education at the moment, which is all about exam results, league tables, Ofsted,” she says.
“Chaplaincy is almost the opposite of that. You’re trying to provide a sanctuary space for everybody, regardless of their belief. It’s about the wholeness of the person, a rounded education – not just of the mind, but also the body and the soul.”
Bottley is acutely aware of the constraints her college colleagues are working under.
She says: “They love having me and I do a good job, I think. But if they’re cutting courses left, right and centre, the chaplain is not the priority. Everything gets squeezed. If they need another room, the peace room [a quiet space for reflection that Bottley introduced] will go. Nothing’s ever in isolation.”
Bottley still insists that, by ending up in the FE sector, she has landed on her feet. “I love what I do in college,” she says. “Lots of vicars spend all their time in churches with older people, just being vicars. I get to hang out with 16- to 19-year-olds.”
Church times: Bottley's CV
1980-93 Walkley Primary School, Myers Grove secondary school and Tapton School sixth form, all in Sheffield
1993-97 BA (Hons) in secondary religious education with QTS at Leeds Trinity and All Saints
1997-2000 RE teacher and assistant head of house at Ecclesfield Secondary School, Sheffield
2000-05 Head of RE at Yewlands Technology College, Sheffield
2005-06 PA at Saint Mark’s Church in Grenoside, Sheffield
2006-08 Ordination training at St John’s College, Nottingham
2008-11 Curate in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham
2011-present Vicar and FE chaplain in Nottingham