In conversation with St Mary's Churches first female vicar

The Reverend Lydia Cook who has been the vicar at St Marys since last year

The Reverend Lydia Cook who has been the vicar at St Marys since last year - Credit: Lydia Cook

Ottery St Mary Friends of Phyllis Baxter Action Group in collaboration with The Reverend Lydia Cook.

Phyllis Baxter dressed in red sat at her desk with a pen, book and other office equipment

Phyllis Baxter had a dream to write a book and launch a website about Ottery - Credit: Phyllis Baxter

How many times when we write about St Mary’s Church in Ottery do we use the word 'unique'?

We can also use the word 'firsts'. On Monday, October 25, 2021, at 7.00pm one such 'first' took place at our Parish church.

Rev’d Lydia Margaret Sheelagh Cook was licensed to our Parish by the Bishop of Exeter, becoming that way not only St Mary’s church new mission community rector but also the first woman Vicar the church had since the church beginnings in 1259.

Although we were tempted to get in touch with Lydia a lot earlier in order to produce this article and ask all those questions our curiosity had built up, we thought courtesy dictated the contrary. Instead, we decided to give Lydia some time to settle in her new position and learn more about Ottery and the parishioners.

Nevertheless the moment has come to write it and we thank Lydia for her time, kindness and interesting views on the town; the reaction of the congregation at having a woman vicar; how easy or difficult had been to be a female in her profession and most importantly, her plans for the future.

“Being the first female incumbent of Ottery St Mary Church is a wonderful privilege.

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"Being a vicar anywhere brings responsibilities and a weight of expectation but here there is also a bit of "wow" thrown into the mix as the name board of the vicars of Ottery goes back to 1191.”

“It has been an absolute delight for my husband Simon and I to move to Ottery. Due to the extensive renovations needed on the Vicars House the local cafes have seen a lot of us (in various emotional states) and we have thoroughly enjoyed moving to a town after 20+ years of living in villages.

"The range of shops in Ottery and the compact nature of the town make it a very easy place to live.

“The reaction to being a woman vicar here has been overwhelmingly positive (and I'm remarkably deaf when it comes to Vicar of Dibley comments).

"With the ordination of women to the priesthood occurring in 1994, some people have observed that it was 'about time' there was a female incumbent.

“Do I think that being female has made it harder or easier in my profession? - I can't say really.

"There will always be people who like you and always those who don't like you as a vicar. I certainly think that women brought a new dimension to priesthood, but every priest brings their own unique gifts as an individual.

"That is why discerning the right person for a job is something the church takes very seriously. Vicars don't come 'off the shelf' and a church may need a particular sort of vicar for the season it is in.”

“I certainly felt very called or drawn to come to Ottery, and do feel that I am meant to be here.

"Very encouragingly our church is growing numerically but there is a challenge of needing to 'grow younger' and also to be a church for everyone.

"We have too the enormous task of responding to the climate crisis we find ourselves in. So there's plenty to keep me busy for many years to come.”

We at the action group are delighted to welcome Lydia and her husband to Ottery and our Parish Church.

We hope the uniqueness of this town works for them in the same way that has done for the many that came to live here and never left.

Should you wish to learn more about St Mary’s Church, the work done by Lydia and her team go to their website using this link: https://www.otterystmary.org.uk/