May 2020

From Tetley Hall to York Minster: The journey to become Bishop

Sophie Jelley (Theology and Religious Studies 1993) was set to be consecrated as the Bishop of Doncaster in March 2020.

Although Covid-19 restrictions meant the official ceremony in York Minster had to be postponed, Sophie’s licensing took place in a virtual meeting, and she has been able to perform her new role remotely. The challenge will not faze Sophie. Hers is a journey that has taken her from her adopted home, Leeds, as far afield as Uganda and back again. It has set her in good stead for her position as a leader in the Church of England.

It is not yet clear when or where the official ordination ceremony will be, but if York Minster is the location, it will take Sophie right back to her student days: “I joined the LUU Chamber Choir in my first week in Leeds," she says. “One of my fondest memories with them was singing in York Minster on the day the Church of England passed the vote to ordain female priests. It meant a lot to me that I was to be consecrated in the same place.”

Singing in the Minster that day in 1992, like so many of her Leeds experiences, would impact her future more than Sophie knew. “It seems like a small thing, but working in a cathedral context with the choir was extremely informative for my later work.

“Leeds shaped many things for me. From the fantastic community at Tetley Hall, which is where I met my husband and made some wonderful friends, to performing in the Leeds University Union Theatre Group. We even went to Edinburgh Fringe one year to perform Macbeth – I was Witch One. Leeds gave me a lot of precious memories that made me who I am.

“I studied Theology and Religious studies at a time when Leeds was looking at comparative religions, so it was very forward thinking in its field. I still remember seminars where certain tutors grabbed my attention. They just loved their subjects, and that made such a difference. My tutors gave me the confidence to think differently and explore the areas I was interested in.”

"The switch from one of the poorest places in the world to one of the most affluent taught me that ultimately, the needs of the human heart are the same wherever you are.”

Sophie Jelley (Theology and Religious Studies 1993)
Bishop-designate of Doncaster and Principal Commissary to the Bishop of Sheffield

Sophie would go on to attend Wycliffe Hall theological college at the University of Oxford, where she gained an MPhil in Theology (Modern Christian Doctrine), before returning north to be ordained as deacon in 1997 and priested in 1998 in the Diocese of Bradford, serving her title post at St Peter’s Church in Shipley.

There followed a move to Africa to teach Theology at Uganda Christian University, before she returned to the UK, taking the role of Resident Minister at St John the Evangelist, Churt in the Diocese of Guildford.

“The switch from one of the poorest places in the world at the time to one of the most affluent taught me that ultimately, the needs of the human heart are the same wherever you are. People are people, however much or little they have.”

Sophie's ability to adapt and help people no matter where they are in the world may explain her success across such a variety of locations. She progressed to become Vicar at St Andrews in Burgess Hill in the Diocese of Chichester – a pioneering appointment even then, given there were very few female vicars in the Diocese at that time – before her path drew her north once more. “I’ve always felt at home here, even though I’m a southerner by birth. From the moment I first stepped off the train for the open day at Leeds, I knew it was the place for me.”

Sophie moved into the split position of Director of Mission, Discipleship and Ministry in the Diocese of Durham, and Canon Missioner at Durham Cathedral, a position she held for five years before being appointed to her new role. “My consecration has been postponed, but I was appointed the ‘Bishop-designate of Doncaster and Principal Commissary to the Bishop of Sheffield’ online, and I’ve been performing the function remotely.”

Although socially distanced now, the Yorkshire-based role will bring her closer to Leeds once again. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Sophie was able to return to the University in person, accompanying her son on an open day – a compulsory stop for all three of her children. “They have to at least look,” she jokes. “It was a lovely open day. We sat in the Refectory for lunch, and an elderly couple sat opposite us. They were visiting to watch the Leeds International Piano Competition. They studied and met at Leeds, and they’d been happily married ever since. It was the perfect welcome home for me – seeing another happy generation of Leeds graduates."

In recent years, Sophie has also reconnected with fellow graduates of the Chamber Choir. They organised a reunion, which saw them reform under the name The Brotherton Singers. Sophie went on to perform with the choir, leading worship at Leeds Minster and Gloucester Cathedral. They had also scheduled dates at Durham Cathedral and – of course – York Minster.

Things have changed a little since she first performed there in November 1992. Less than two years after that day, 39 women were ordained to priesthood in York Minster. Now, women make up almost one third of the 20,000 active clergy in the Church of England, and half of those starting ordination training are women.

When the ceremony does eventually take place, we’ll be watching proudly, along with all those whose lives Sophie has changed along the way.