I was so sorry to hear about the death of the Revd Carol Stone of pancreatic cancer at the shockingly early age of 60. Carol and I were theological students together at Westcott House, Cambridge from 1976 to 1978 and also transitioned within a year of each other: Carol in 2000; me in 2001.
It does seem extraordinary that Westcott House should have produced two trans women who studied there at exactly the same time. (I’ve wondered if there was something in the water!) Not that we were aware of one another’s transgender status at the time – all that was strictly under wraps in my case and in Carol’s too. When I began to transition in 2000 I was made aware that another member of the clergy was about to transition but confidentiality was maintained so I had no idea who it was. Carol (I am not going to use her former male name here, even though the BBC and the press are doing so) had certainly not come to mind as the likely candidate, but that’s not especially surprising: neither of us was aware of the other’s trans status when we were students, or afterwards come to that, and we had rarely seen one another since we left theological college, though we were, in fact, soon to meet again.
In the first half of 2000, while I was moving from parish ministry to healthcare chaplaincy, the news broke that Carol was about to transition with the support of her then bishop, Barry Rogerson. I was amazed and delighted. The bishop declared that there were no moral or ecclesiastical objections to Carol’s transition, nor did Lambeth Palace – then occupied by George Carey – raise any objection to what was proposed. Carol, still in her male persona, was given leave of absence so that her transition could take place away from the public gaze, and she returned to her priestly responsibilities by the year’s end with the almost unanimous support of her parish.
As far as I’m aware, Carol was the first serving Church of England vicar or parish priest to transition. Indeed, she is, I think, the only serving parish priest or vicar to have done so. There are two parish priests who have transitioned prior to their ordination but that is a different journey. Two other parish clergy have tried to transition in post but did not receive the sort of episcopal support Carol had, which is clearly essential when this kind of momentous change is proposed. The loss of these two priests to parochial ministry was a great waste and a mismanagement of human resources, as well as being a personal tragedy for the individuals concerned and their families. No wonder Carol has seemed like a beacon of hope to trans clergy and laity alike.
Carol was not the first member of the Church of England clergy to transition in recent times. Another priest had transitioned five years earlier in 1995, but on their retirement. That too was reported at the time but did not make headlines in quite the same way that Carol’s story did, though both women have been similar in the way they have simply continued with their ministry, without drawing attention to their gender history, or actively campaigning for trans people. Their lives of Christian service have borne quiet but eloquent witness to their call to be priests in God’s Church and to become the women they believed God had always intended them to be.
This dual vocation only became possible, of course, once the Church of England had agreed that women could be ordained to the priesthood in 1993. I know that Carol was grateful to her women colleagues in the deanery and the diocese, not least for the welcome that they gave to her on her transition and the easy manner in which they assimilated her into their ranks.
Twelve months ahead of me in terms of transition, Carol felt like an older sister, even though she was three years my junior. I can remember her at college: in the principal’s spirituality class, and her singing in the college review and at the end of one Advent term when she performed ‘Past Three o’clock’ in a quartet. In fact, each Christmas when I hear that song I think of her, and always will. I recall too a Westcott House pre-reunion reunion held at Trumpington in 2001. It was Carol who opened the door to me and brought me into the room to join the other Westcott alumni. She looked so elegant, confident and at peace with herself. We have kept in touch since by email and letter.
Hearing that she was ill I wrote to her a few weeks ago, raising the possibility of her story being recorded for the LGBTI Christian Oral History project. Perhaps she was too unwell to take up the offer by that stage, though it was not really her sort of thing any case; but her story will continue to inspire, of that I am certain.