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26 August 2016

That vicar off Gogglebox

That vicar off Gogglebox

For millions of telly addicts across the UK, Kate Bottley is the only vicar they know. Proudly sat with her dog collar on, watching television with her husband Graham on the popular Channel 4 series Gogglebox, in an increasingly unchurched nation, she is the only weekly contact they have with a Christian.

Kate has faced criticism from some within the Church for involving herself in what some might see as a facile occupation. But extrovert Kate sees the unique role she has as one in which she can bring the gospel to the millions who don't know Jesus. Brought up in a non-Christian, working class, Yorkshire home, she is very familiar with trying to convey her faith to those who might not believe; to speak about the Church and Jesus in a way that people might understand.

"My mum was a school cleaner and my dad worked as part of the maintenance team in a brick factory," she said. "I grew up in 1980s terraced housing in the industrial city of Sheffield. I remember my dad being made redundant in the Thatcher years. "My mum and dad had me christened as a baby because that's what you did in thosekind of cultures back then. But we didn't goto church at all."

It was only when she became friends with a Christian at secondary school that she started going to church. Or more specifically, when she set eyes on one of the boys in the yard at school when she was 14. Kate asked her friend who he was. "'That's Graham, my vicar's son,' my friend told me. And so I thought I should start going to church."

Graham and Kate were married shortly after she finished university and are now the proud parents of two children. "In that church, I found a bunch of people who, even when I was an obnoxious, argumentative, horrible teenager who wanted to shout at the world, gave me a space to do that. So I just used to go along and disagree, a lot. And didn't really believe a word of it. But then slowly, the love of the
community and the truth of the gospel got me."

Kate eventually had, what she calls, "a classic kind of evangelical conversion experience". She recalls: "When I first came to faith, my parents thought I'd joined a cult and I had to reassure them it was just the Church of England. It was weird, but it wasn't that weird – it was state approved. I think they were really worried. The first flush of new faith can be overwhelming and I was very enthusiastic and probably went in a bit heavy. In response to my mum asking me things like whether I wanted beans on toast, I would say: 'Mum, let me tell you about Jesus.'"

She then went off to university, where she read theology before becoming an RE teacher. "I never thought I would do anything else," she said. 

But then came the call to ordination. 

Kate had always felt like God was calling her to do something "at the front". So she explored whether this was in being a church warden. "Then I discovered I really don't know anything about lightbulbs and fire extinguishers." And then she considered that it might mean serving the wine during communion. But it was when her vicar – after inviting her out for a curry – said to her: "I think God's calling you to be ordained" – that it all made sense.

Within eight months, she was at St John's College Nottingham training for ministry. In that time, her mother had a massive heart attack and stroke and ended up in intensive care the weekend she was off for her final BAP (Bishops Advisory Panel). The night before Kate left, the vicar had read her the last rites. "She wasn't expected to still be alive when I came back from that weekend. 

"But my dad made it perfectly clear – even though they weren't people of faith at the time – that this was what I had to go and do. God works in people who don't even believe in Him. So my dad said 'you're going to that vicar thing'. Mum came to faith when she regained consciousness. 

"At my ordination, I promised to preach the gospel afresh to every generation. So when people ask whether I want to come onto Radio 2 and tell nine million people that Jesus loves them, I think yeah, I really would like to do that."

But she still faces lots of criticism from within the Church – some of it horrendous: "I hope you burn in hell" to others simply telling her she is a "show-off".

"I don't expect everybody to be in the Kate Bottley fan club. But I think we're all in the Jesus fan club, aren't we? I went to drama school as a kid. I am a complete show-off. 

"I have a spiritual director who I see regularly. He lets me have bragging rights. He'll start off saying, 'well what have you been up to this week?' And I'll tell him I had dinner with Chris Evans last night, for example. And he'll then say: 'Now you've had a moment to brag, now let's see what God's doing and what this is about'.

"It seems to me that at the moment I've got a lovely gift. I'm a show-off. God's using it. Sometimes the Church will say it's ok if you're an academic or a prayerful person for God to use that gift. But if you're a great big show-off, why wouldn't God want to use that, as well? Also, I know this business is fickle. So tomorrow morning there might be no more phone calls. And no one might ever want to talk to me again, and I'll have to say, d'you know what, that was lovely – but we're done. And I'd have to be able to let it go. 

"I do get things wrong. But how amazing is it that God takes our faults, our messes, our chaos and takes it and uses it. My ministry might not look like your ministry, but that's alright."

This interview was conducted at Greenbelt festival.

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