‘Reaching out to help others is my calling’

Reverend Joanna Jepson
Reverend Joanna Jepson
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There was a time when Joanna Jepson seemed to be on TV as often as the Vicar of Dibley.

But aside from the dog collar and the fact that they’re both women, that’s where the comparisons with Dawn French’s fictional character come to an end.

Spurred on by her own experience, Joanna instigated a legal challenge against a police force in 2001 for failing to investigate the abortion of a 28-week foetus on the grounds that it had a cleft palate.

When she won the right to a judicial review at the High Court it prompted much public debate about our attitudes to disability and our interpretation of the abortion act.

But in 2005 she heard that the doctors involved in the case would not be prosecuted because they had acted in good faith.

Now, after a number of years out of the spotlight, she’s married and settled in Portsmouth.

Her husband, Canon Nick Biddle, is at Portsmouth Cathedral and the couple’s wedding took place there in September.

Fresh from a five-year chaplaincy at the London College of Fashion, she’s ready to take on some new challenges.

But abortion – and the way society views it – is never far from her mind.

The 35-year-old has recently become a patron for the Chichester-based charity Disability Awareness UK.

And when the Department of Health revealed statistics last year that showed there had been 26 abortions for cleft lips and palates since 2002, she spoke out again to say we must ensure the abortion act isn’t abused.

Abortion is legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy for disability reasons but also if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s mental health. After 24 weeks, an abortion is allowed only if there is substantial risk of ‘serious’ physical or mental abnormality, or the woman’s life is in danger.

Joanna says: ‘Sadly I understand that there are doctors who are very negative if they have a woman who comes in with a foetus with a cleft palate.

‘They will paint a very negative picture. I understand this from having conversations with other consultants.

‘These women are very vulnerable. They are vulnerable anyway, they hope the best for this child.

‘Then they have a professional in a white coat painting an extremely difficult picture of the prognosis, the medical prognosis of what that life will look like, and your life caring for that child.

‘What they don’t paint a picture of are the things that make family life amazing – the child’s first words, learning to respond to you as a mother – all the things that make family life so joyful and also incredibly difficult.’

While it was her own experience of needing reconstructive surgery for a jaw deformity that shaped her views on cleft palates, it’s her family life as a whole that makes her passionate about protecting the rights of those with Down’s syndrome.

Joanna’s brother Alastair is 18-months younger than her and has Down’s.

She believes her campaign did have an impact – but now wants people to think again about the issues involved, in particular about Down’s.

‘At the time there was a good response,’ she says. ‘Clinics put together ethics guidelines, there was a response from the medical profession that suggested it had changed minds and practices.

‘I think Down’s syndrome is the one that we really need to tackle.

‘Someone doesn’t suffer from having Down’s syndrome. It’s simply part of who they are. You might suffer from medical complications from having Down’s syndrome. That in itself is not enough to say that you suffer from having Down’s syndrome.’

She adds: ‘The things that Alastair has taught me about courage – he’s probably the most courageous person I know. ‘He’s taught me how to get through things as a family, about family relationships and understanding so I wouldn’t have those things if it wasn’t for Alastair.

‘I am who I am because of Ali.’

Rather than define herself as anti-abortion, Joanna’s always insisted she’s a campaigner for disabled rights.

She believes her own parents wouldn’t have coped without support from family and friends and approves of recent moves to integrate pupils with disabilities into mainstream schools.

‘At the time [of the legal challenge] I was constantly being questioned about how it appeared to be something that went against women’s rights and what my point was, was that women’s rights have had their moment,’ she says.

‘But we’ve made so much progress that actually we’ve missed the fact that it’s those with disabilities, it’s their rights that are now under threat.

‘In some ways, women’s rights were 30 or 40 years ago. We can’t have it both ways. Actually women’s positions are much stronger and better.

‘This was an issue not so much about abortion but how we are prepared to welcome and value those who have physical disabilities.’

She adds: ‘I think unless our attention is drawn to what is happening, we can go on being very sleepy, not really thinking about what we are doing as a society.’

The end of her college chaplaincy coincided with her move to Portsmouth but she’s busy taking her art-inspired Empty Hanger project into schools across the country.

Her college appointment raised a few eyebrows at the time but Joanna’s full of praise for the work it does to promote sustainable, environmentally-responsible, fashion.

Despite the fact that she’s been a parish priest in London and Chester, she says it’s her role to reach out of the church.

‘I’ve always wanted to be a chaplain, not particularly a parish priest. That’s the shape of my ministry.

‘The fashion chaplaincy was a great opportunity to reach out and connect with an industry that really affects our society in so many ways.

‘It was vital to support Christians within the industry but also to take the fashion industry seriously.’

She adds: ‘I think some of the press were a little bit derogatory when they heard I was going there. I was an easy target for columnists.

‘I just got on with it. There has been loads of negative stuff but I get on with it.

‘I know what I’m about, those who know me know what I’m about. As long as that integrity is intact, that’s what matters.’

She’s delighted to have been accepted to become an army padre and in the spring she’ll travel to America’s deep south to visit the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary (see panel).

‘I don’t like the assumption that the church is the end goal,’ she adds.

‘To me it’s a community that fuels you up, nourishes, encourages and completes you and then sends you back out to be where God is sending you to be in the community.

‘The church is a great place to be but a lot of people don’t want religion and think why should they come through the door of a church?

‘When I was a parish priest in London I used to run these beer and carol events in local pubs. I found so much more spiritual thirst in pubs than in the congregation.

‘They had these spiritual needs and questions and they wouldn’t automatically look to the church to help them answer those or articulate those.

‘It makes sense that some priests should be chaplains rather than stuck in church doing the admin.’

NEWLYWEDS

Joanna Jepson’s Old Portsmouth home is near to the Cathedral and she loves being near the sea.

She says the congregation played an important role in her September wedding to Canon Nick Biddle.

And the Cathedral itself provided the perfect setting for Nick’s marriage proposal.

‘He lit candles and it was that snowy week before Christmas,’ remembers Joanna.

‘I’d skived church and he phoned me and said “Can you come over and help me with something at the Cathedral?”

‘I pulled my boots on and went over and the Cathedral was all dark apart from candles at the high altar.

‘It was the perfect place.’

She describes their wedding as ‘just perfect’, with the guests enjoying lasagne and chocolate brownies in the Cathedral during the couple’s reception.

HEADING FOR ANGOLA

Once dubbed the ‘Alcatraz of the South’, Louisiana State Penitentiary has a notorious reputation in America.

Also known as Angola, it’s the largest maximum security prison in America.

In May, Joanna Jepson will spend two weeks there, running life-coaching sessions with inmates and then helping them produce their first Passion play.

Many of the inmates know they will never be released and the warden, Burl Cain, believes his Christian-based approach will give them hope and rehabiitation.

‘They have death row there and it used to be known as America’s most brutal and violent prison but it’s been completely transformed by the warden,’ says Joanna.

‘His assistant is a friend of mine and she’s been asking me to go over for ages.

‘I’m going to be doing some life coaching and that’s a great way of communicating. I’ll be there for two weeks in May.

‘I’ll do a week of coaching and then help to produce their first Passion play. They’ve got 5,000 prisoners.

‘I just hope they can understand my accent.’