A first among equals

Martin O’Brien meets Ireland’s first female bishop

Around 5 pm on September 19 the Reverend Pat (Patricia) Storey took a phone call that would change her life and transport her forever into the annals of Irish and British ecclesiastical history.

“The thought of making history did not fill my head at all – rather it was the thought of me being asked to become a bishop”, she recalled over a cup of tea in her rectory off the Limavady Road in Derry.

The Church of Ireland had given itself the power to ordain women deacons, priests and bishops as far back as 1991 but had baulked at electing female bishops. No one really expected a woman bishop anytime soon.

“I realised that some day it was likely the Church would elect a woman bishop but I never thought it would be me.”

By the time most of you will be reading this Pat Storey will have left her Derry home of nearly 10 years and will have been consecrated Bishop of Meath & Kildare and become the first ever female bishop  in Ireland or Britain.

The consecration was due to take place in the presence of 600 guests in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin on Saturday November 30 and her enthronements will take place at services in St Patrick’s Cathedral Trim on December 6 and in St Brigid’s Cathedral Kildare on December 14.     

Her correct title is The Most Reverend Patricia Storey, a title only reserved for the Archbishops of Armagh and of Dublin in the Church of Ireland, denoting Meath & Kildare’s precedence for obscure historical reasons over all other dioceses, Armagh and Dublin excepted.

 It was appropriately the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, Dr Richard Clarke, the last Bishop of Meath and Kildare who made that phone call to Pat Storey informing her of her election as she drove back to Derry from the marriage of a friend in Co. Wicklow.

She answered the phone using her hands-free kit “but Archbishop Clarke told me I’d better pull in to the side of the road”.

It suddenly dawned on her that the House of Bishops may have been meeting to fill the vacancy in Meath & Kildare after the Episcopal Electoral College had failed to elect a bishop in May. 

Bishop  Storey,  (53) wife of fellow Church of Ireland minister, Rev Earl Storey and mother of their two adult children, Carolyn and Luke,  did not say yes right away even though she knew it was not a request she could lightly turn down. 

She added: “I told the archbishop I wanted to talk it over with Earl and the children and said I’d be back to him within 24 hours.”

News bulletins

After a lot of prayer and conversation with her immediate family she phoned Dr Clarke the next day and within the hour the story was leading the news bulletins.

“Only then did the historic nature of the announcement strike me.

“Earl was much up for it from the moment I told him but I needed to think it through.

“Having considered it I said yes. I was greatly assured by Archbishop Clarke saying to me to trust the Church and to trust the process and that’s what I did.”

The right person

She added: “Dr Clarke assured me it was not a token appointment, that I was the right person for the post, that I fitted the bill.”

Pat Storey (nee Shaw) was born into “a nominally Presbyterian family” in Belfast and brought up in the Cregagh area in the south east of the city until the age of 12 when they moved to Killinchy by the shores of Strangford Lough in Co. Down. 

She attended Methodist College, Belfast before going to Trinity College Dublin to study for a degree in English and French.

Influenced by a friend who was a committed Christian she joined the Christian Union where she met Earl, started reading the Bible and began attending Kill O’ the Grange Church in south Dublin, and was received into the Church of Ireland aged 20. 

She trained to be a priest at the Church of Ireland Theological College and was ordained in 1998.

The future bishop served as a curate in Ballymena and as a team vicar in Glenavy, also in Co Antrim where Earl was rector before being appointed rector of St Augustine’s in Derry city centre and pastor to 500 souls and over 200 families or ‘units’ in 2004. 

So what is it about Pat Storey that may have persuaded 11 male bishops to change the Church of Ireland for ever by bringing a woman into the House of Bishops for the first time?

Fresh thinker

Earl Storey describes his wife as “a very clear fresh thinker totally undaunted by anyone.” He points out how she led a team of 20 people who established the Messy Church project – aimed at attracting families in the under 50 age bracket – in St Augustine’s with spectacular results.

Pat reveals the project revolves around telling the Bible story through crafts, an act of worship and a meal on a Sunday afternoon once a month and has attracted 75 regular new worshippers.

Eloquent and passionate about her faith, Pat Storey is a committed feminist “who believes in equality and likes men” and describes herself as “an open liberal evangelical, not conservative”.

An ecumenist describing Pope Francis as “a very impressive character who stands up for the right things and is making an impact”.


She does not see her elevation as a barrier to ecumenism in Ireland, hopes it “might gently nudge the Catholic Church in the right direction” and discloses that she has received many messages of congratulation from lay Catholics, priests and bishops.

She is particularly pleased that the folk groups from the Catholic parishes of Ardmore and Carnhill were singing at her final service at St Augustine’s which promised to be “a very emotional occasion”.

By personal choice she will not wear a mitre “in order to stay as relevant and as close to the ground, consistent with the office”.

Her central objective “will remain to spread the Good News and find the best way to do it in the 21st Century.” 

Less than two weeks ago at her then home in Derry Bishop-elect Storey had quite enough on her plate than to have to rise to the bait of my invitation to her to comment on the fact that all three former bishops of Meath & Kildare since its unification in 1976 had gone on to become either Archbishop of Dublin (Donald Caird and Walton Empey) or the top job, Archbishop of Armagh (Richard Clarke).

“So there’s no pressure then,” she laughs.

“In my head I am going to Meath & Kildare for the next 15 years until I retire. That’s the only way I could or would want to think about it.”

Still there are those who can’t help thinking that if Bishop Storey brings the type of dynamism, inspiration and results to her new diocese that she brought to St Augustine’s on a smaller scale her ministry may see even bigger surprises.