Joining in with the 2019 celebrations of International Women’s Day, we’ve put together a series of posts honouring some of the most Inspirational Women of Pembrokeshire. The second in this series takes a look at Rt Revd Joanna Penberthy – the current Bishop of St Davids, and the first ever female Bishop in the Church of Wales.
Similarly to our first Inspirational Woman, Jemima Nicholas who bravely battled against enemy soldiers in the Last Invasion of Britain; the Rt Revd Penberthy has become an important figure in Pembrokeshire history. She has become the very first woman in Wales to be elected as Bishop, and has done so in the diocese of St Davids, which covers the whole of Pembrokeshire.
Her journey to become Bishop
After growing up in Swansea and Cardiff, Joanna Penberthy began her career in the Church of Wales when she became a deaconess in 1984. Three years later in 1987, she then went on to become a Deacon of the Church.
A few years later in the 1993, she began a seven year ministry at the diocese of St Davids. During her time here, it was announced in the mid-nineties that the Church were to accept female priests and so continuing on her religious career, Penberthy became one of the first few women to be ordained as priest in Wales in 1997. At this time, around 70 women took the pledge to become priest.
Twenty years later, whilst celebrating the anniversary of this significant change, the Church of Wales was to welcome yet another momentous and noteworthy occasion. In November 2016, Joanna Penberthy was elected to become Bishop of the diocese of St Davids therefore making her the first ever female Bishop in Wales. Her appointment was later confirmed at a Sacred Synod of the Church of Wales on the 30th November. A couple of months later on 11th February 2017, she was enthroned at St Davids Cathedral, where she had been previously appointed a Canon in 2007. This election thus resulted in her becoming the 129th Bishop of St Davids.
Despite breaking convention by inducting a woman into this role, the enthronement ceremony followed long-established traditions. After seeking permission by knocking three times, Bishop Penberthy was admitted into the Cathedral by the Dean of St Davids before she swore the oath and was presented to the congregation. The ceremony culminated as she gave a blessing over the city, the diocese and the parishes within.
So what makes Bishop Penberthy inspirational?
It’s particularly important to remember that it simply was not an option for women to become priests in the Church of Wales before 1996, and even when this door was opened to women, it certainly wasn’t a given that this would one day make it possible for women to become Bishops in Wales. Whilst people could hope and of course work towards persuading the Church to alter the boundaries and welcome women into such positions in the Church of Wales, there was never any guarantee women would ever be welcomed into such important roles.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to secure a meeting with the Bishop due to her busy schedule but if you do a little bit of online digging, you’ll see she’s spoken out about her difficulties during her time as Bishop. In an episode of The Hour on BBC, Bishop Penberthy spoke about how some of the male members of the diocese have had trouble accepting her as bishop because of her gender.
To quote the Bishop herself, she stated that whilst everyone has been respectful towards her, “they don’t accept I am able to celebrate the sacrament so they couldn’t receive communion from me or be ordained by me.”
This failure to be recognised as an authority figure is an obstacle women have had to work against for centuries within all industries, and so it seems only fitting that there is a link between Bishop Joanna Penberthy and the Suffragettes – the famous women’s movement of the early Twentieth Century who were petitioning for women’s right to vote.
As part of their International Women’s Day celebrations in 2018, The St Davids Cathedral Library unveiled an exhibition dedicated to the 1908 visit from the Suffragettes. On Monday 6th July, famous Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst paid a visit to St Davids Cathedral before giving a public speech at Cross Square to a large crowd of locals. She visited with Annie Kenney and Mary Blathwayt.
Rebecca Sophia Evans
When you think of Rt Revd Joanna Penberthy becoming the first female Bishop in Wales, you might question some of the women who came before her establishing change within the Church.
During my meeting to discuss Jemima Nicholas with Julie Coggins from the Fishguard Invasion Centre Trust, I met local historian Edward Perkins. After a quick chat explaining our Inspirational Women of Pembrokeshire series, he drew my attention to a lady named Rebecca Sophia Evans.
Rebecca Evans, also known as Rebecca Mabws, was widely known in Mathry and the surrounding areas of Pembrokeshire during the 1860’s. She lived at various residences in Castlemorris and even farmed at Priskilly but it was during her marriage to Reverend Thomas Williams when her role in the Church was defined. Rev Williams was the Minister at Llangloffan, and together the pair preached locally and further afield including locations such as London and Newcastle.
She went on to write many religious pieces in both English and Welsh, and is widely regarded as the pioneering female preacher in Wales. She is buried alongside her husband in Blaenllyn Chapel near Mathry.
It is of course difficult to tell whether her role in the Church played any part in the following changes within the church such as consent for women to become priests and bishops, but it certainly proves that Pembrokeshire is at the forefront of such significant changes to the way women are regarded in the Church of Wales.