Miss takes mass

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Ever heard a priest say 'bugger'? Linda Isiorho's pupils have. Elaine Williams meets the teacher who juggles the unusual combination of lesson plans and parish duties.

When Linda Isiorho kicks her shoes off on a Friday night it's the end of one job, but only the beginning of another. Most of us might think that being an English teacher and head of year in a large comprehensive is enough to leave you comatose at the end of the week. But Linda is one of the first women to be ordained as an Anglican priest, and as she leaves school behind for the weekend her thoughts are already turning towards her parish duties.

On Sunday she gets up at 6am to write her sermon and then goes off to church to prepare for the 10 o'clock mass. The rest of the day may then be taken up with baptisms and visits. On a Tuesday evening, she holds a surgery in church where people can talk and pray with her.

Linda Isiorho regards her two vocations - teaching and the priesthood - as complementary. Her keen, earthy sense of humour, her bluntness, and her determination have served her well. She enjoys what she calls the "ruck and moil" of the classroom, being in the thick of a drama workshop or a heated class discussion; she is also a very hands-on priest - holding and rocking the baby that's crying in the middle of her sermon, allowing fidgety children to sit close to the altar or on the pulpit steps and clearing pews to provide disabled access.

The fight to become a priest and the insults she has had to bear as an ordained woman have also put into perspective any trouble she may get from her pupils. She has been prodded, thumped and spat at - "sometimes by other priests".

Linda teaches at Fair Oak comprehensive in Rugeley, a Midlands town hit badly by the closure of mines and power stations. As a priest, she also serves Fradley, a rapidly expanding commuter village some 10 miles away, holding communion, and marrying and burying parishioners at the small Victorian church of St Stephen's. She is driven, she says, by faith and a wish to serve. "I don't see my students as people who have to look up to me. I find out where they are and serve those needs," she says. "I think my work as a priest feeds my teaching, and my teaching feeds my parish and church work. My priesthood gives me strength I believe I would not otherwise have. I tend to think, 'These are the children, colleagues and parents that God has given you, so you'd better get on with it.' It does tend to cut out the whinge factor."

Her style in both jobs, she says, is much the same: "There are a few quite clear ground rules and then the rest is up for grabs. In my services we have the underlying structure of the liturgy, but after that I try to meet people where they are, and that sometimes means changing where you are.

"In a classroom you cannot always have things your own way because you lose the class; in a parish you cannot have things your own way because you lose the congregation. There is a lot of laughter in my church, and a lot of laughter in my classroom. I find it hard to keep a straight face when kids get worked up. I will yell if necessary, but I use humour to deflect anger. If you've got a 6ft lad leaning over you (Linda is 5ft 1in), humour is the best weapon."

She recalls taking a teaching post not long after she had been ordained in 1994. The teacher she was replacing had apparently warned pupils that a weird kind of nun was taking over. "The pupils did treat me with suspicion at first, but you only have to say 'bugger' once when you've dropped something and the suspicion evaporates. I'm not stuffy."

Although Linda uses her title of Reverend at school, she is aware that she works in a secular institution and tries not to wear her religion on her sleeve. "I don't force religion down people's throats, because if you do that you make them sick." However, she did recently lead a memorial service in school for a colleague who had died.

In many ways, it is hardly surprising that Linda, 50, chose a life in the church. Her father was a Church of England vicar and she spent much of her Cotswolds childhood administering the Eucharist to her toys, burying deceased pets with great pomp and ceremony and playing missionaries. "It's no accident that I teach English and drama. I love performing and performance."

She describes herself as a "liberal Catholic", attaching herself to the High Church wing of the C of E, which is known for its conservatism, misogyny even - further proof, perhaps, of her willingness to stand her ground.

As a teenager, a time when "holiness and hormones conflict", she left religion behind. But she had a keen sense of service, and so opted for teaching. It was an incident during a holiday job on the assembly line in a light engineering factory at Evesham that made her mind up.

"The work was mind-numbingly boring, and suddenly this woman just flipped and attacked the woman next to her, cutting her head open with a metal bar. The woman next to me turned to me and said: 'It's all right for you, you'll go to university and get a degree and have a career, and you'll think our lives are rubbish. They might be rubbish, but we dream of other things.' I thought then, 'Where do I have to start from, what can I do that will make a difference and help people open their horizons?'" She duly studied English and French at Birmingham University, followed by a PGCE in English and drama.

Despite loving her work as a teacher, she was aware of a gap in her life. However, it was not until after the failure of her first marriage and a breakdown in her late twenties that Linda returned to the Church. By this time she was embarking on her second teaching job at a Hatfield secondary school.

"On the surface I was achieving in my job, but inside I felt dead. One night I felt so empty, so awful and low that I just lay down on the floor, and then I had this incredible experience of enfolding. It was like an embrace. That feeling of being warm and held and safe has remained with me."

Not long after her return to the church, Linda decided to carry out her childhood ambition of becoming a missionary and gained a posting to Zimbabwe. It was while she was on a mission studies course before her posting, at the Missionary Society's College of Ascension in Birmingham, that she was invited to say mass with a Roman Catholic priest. "I was saying part of the Prayer of Consecration with him and suddenly something clicked into place. I felt I had come home. I knew I had a priestly vocation. It was a very powerful but unexpected emotion."

Linda taught in one of the first mixed boarding schools in St David's Bonda, near Mutare on the eastern side of Zimbabwe, where she was deputy head, head of English and lay chaplain. But by her mid thirties the desire to be ordained was strong, and on her thirty-sixth birthday she returned to England to be ordained deacon. Although she had intended to return to Zimbabwe, she stayed to play her part in the women's fight for ordination to the priesthood. "It didn't seem right to work on somebody else's frontline when there was a frontline for women here," she says.

There was another reason to remain in England. During a retreat for deacons she met her present husband, David, a former social worker 10 years her junior who also intended to become a priest.

"We were from the same stable: both liberals, tying our church politics into our concern for social justice," she says. They were both on the Catholic wing - David Isiorho even goes so far as to wear a Canterbury cap, one of the most traditional vestments there is. And in some ways, they were also both outsiders. "It wasn't easy for the Church to accept black vocations (David is half-Nigerian)." And it certainly wasn't easy for the Church to accept women's vocations.

Moreover, although a law was going through Parliament to allow divorcees who had remarried to become priests, there was a campaign to block it, which delayed its passage. Their bishop knew of their engagement, but the pair had to keep their relationship out of the public eye until after David's ordination.

"It made me think about people who are obliged to hide things, which they think are all right. It taught me an awful lot about what the church still does to people who are gay." It also made her think about her duties as a teacher on such matters; she is categorical that section 28 should be repealed.

"Anyone who works in schools knows that homophobic bullying goes on. We should not deny children the right to know about themselves and their world. Sex education is a big issue because children remain ignorant of very basic knowledge such as the fact that girls have orgasms, which I've had to explain. If teachers aren't going to explain these things, who will?" Because Linda is married to David and lives in the vicarage that belongs to his parish in Rugeley, she cannot have a full-time parish of her own ("spot the misogyny"). At Fradley, which was happy to take a woman priest, she supports the vicar, who has to cover two other parishes. "The bishop wanted someone under 50 who would be able to work with young people," she says. "I fitted the bill."

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