When Carol Stone became Britain’s first transgender priest in November of 2000, I was too young to really take notice, despite living less than a minute’s walk away from her home and church in Upper Stratton, Swindon. The rest of the country was paying more attention. “I have only had two vocations in life,” she told a gathering of journalists on the day she broke the news. “One was to be a priest and one was to be a woman.”
As trans visibility has risen inexorably over the past few years, so too has the controversy. Carol’s story is an example of a time when widespread ignorance of transgender people did not necessarily mean worse outcomes.
In 2019, at a time when hate crimes against transgender people are rising dramatically – an 81 percent increase in just a year, according to police figures – and on the fifth anniversary of her untimely death from pancreatic cancer, I talked to those who knew, worked and worshipped with her to find out what her experience can tell us about the tolerance, compassion and understanding so lacking in British society today.
Carol’s historic transition had begun six months earlier with a letter to the Bishop of Bristol, Barry Rogerson. She outlined her situation, the medical advice she had received and offered her resignation if she could not continue being a parish priest as a woman. He was supportive but sought advice from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and the Dean of Arches, the church’s top lawyer. Both agreed there were no reasons why Carol could not continue to minister.
Both Carol and Barry anticipated a bigger problem, however: the local parish would still have to be notified, and their approval sought. “That was that was a much more difficult issue to deal with,” Barry tells me now. “I went to talk to the churchwardens, and they were surprised – they thought I was coming to talk about [Carol] getting divorced again. They were gobsmacked.”
Ultimately, only one member of the parochial church council – a body of clergy, churchwardens and laypeople in overall charge of the parish – voted against continuing to support the popular parish priest who had been with them for four good years.
Until the Bishop of Bristol stood to make his historic announcement, there had been nothing odd about the Sunday morning in St. Philip's Church on June 4th, 2000. After the service, parishioners listened patiently in their pews as they were informed that their local vicar was transitioning and that, after several months away for surgery and recovery, their parish priest would return to minister as a woman.
A stunned silence fell over the congregation, which was only broken by the sound of a man crying. Dressed in a Swindon Town football shirt and sporting a couple of days of stubble, he stood up and proclaimed: “[Carol] is a human being like us, and we love our vicar.” The church erupted in applause. When Carol returned months later, only four of her 80-strong congregation had chosen to leave.
Fifteen days later, the national media were summoned to a press conference in Bristol where, stood alongside her supportive bishop, Carol revealed the burden she had been carrying for so long. “Every night I prayed I would wake up as a girl. If there was another way, I would not be here today. Nobody does this by choice.”
Those who speak about Carol, who sadly passed away in 2014, are often effusive about her 18 years spent in Upper Stratton. Those who talk about her describe a woman whose love and dedication towards her parish extended well beyond the regular attendees of her services at St. Phillips. As someone who grew up a stone’s throw away from her church, I know this to be deeply true.
Carol’s approach to ministry reflected the hard-working, generous and tolerant individual I’ve been reminded of in my interviews with those who worked with her. Barry Rogerson, the bishop who supported her through her transition, called her a “good Christian socialist” in the mould of the Victorian theologian, F. D. Maurice – convinced that improving the lives of others was not always done best from the pulpit.
“I don’t think Carol would ever downplay Jesus,” says Lee Rayfield, the current Bishop of Swindon and someone whose theology leans towards the evangelical side of the Anglican tradition. “But what she would be suspicious of in a person like me, is, you know, are you going to be ‘Bible bashing’? She was pretty direct, and I liked that.”
Despite her zeal for social justice, Carol was often reluctant to talk at length about her experience as a trans woman. “Carol was very clear that that was something she didn’t want to do,” says Christina Beardsley, another Anglican vicar who transitioned in 2001 and studied with her at theological college in the 1970s. “She felt she’d been very well accepted not just by the parish, but by the other women of the diocese. And she didn’t feel particularly she wanted to make a thing about being trans. She was a woman, and getting on with being a woman priest.”
Although Carol Stone’s transition was not uncontroversial in the Church, it provoked fewer arguments than the issue of homosexuality. While opponents of same-sex relationships can cite Bible verses in their defence, the Christian texts have nothing to say about gender dysphoria.
In the absence of scripture, the Church has tended to defer to scientific opinion. Dr Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, compares it to the debate around abortion. “There are questions about when we can say an identifiable organic life begins,” he tells me. “The only way of getting an answer to that is listening very carefully to what the actual evidence is, which is not necessarily advanced by just quoting texts from Scripture.”
"I see the church’s obligation being to support people through that process and not assume that there is a kind of moral weakness or unnatural vice.”
Unlike the experience of many trans people, Carol’s community responded overwhelmingly positively, and she was accepted back into the parish, of which she remained an important part until her death.
None of this means it will be as easy for others in the future. “For Barry Rogerson to have stood by her is a really big thing. It’s quite wonderful that a bishop stood up and did that. It would’ve made a big difference,” says Jo Inkpin, who became Australia’s first transgender priest in 2017.
“Now that the general population has woken up to the fact we exist, it has made it worse for some people in many ways. So somebody like Carol who just got on with the job is really important as it showed there wasn’t a problem. She made my transition possible. She was just herself, fulfilling the calling that God had chosen and that’s what we all aspire to.”