Review: Margery Kempe the bishop?

Picture for the Margery Kempe Feature ENGANL00120120602153222
Picture for the Margery Kempe Feature ENGANL00120120602153222
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Last month, two millenniums since Mary Magdalene showed a faith unmatched by ‘doubting’ Thomas and ‘denying’ Peter and after decades of debate, the Church of England voted in favour of legislation allowing women to become bishops.

But how would Norfolk’s three famous female mystics fare with the selectors?

Richeldis de Faverches, whose visions of the Virgin Mary made Walsingham a boom-pilgrimage site for five centuries until the Reformation, at one time rivalling Jerusalem itself, was that exception to mediaeval male rule: an empowered widow, the lady of the manor, all lending authority to her three visions. Definite bishop material.

Mother Julian was ritually buried alive against the regulation wall of St Julian’s in Norwich. No man was allowed to enter her cell, not even a doctor.

This extreme version of the nun’s escape from the confines imposed by men on daughters and wives, the defeminised name, the backing of powerful monk and future cardinal Adam of Easton and her erudite writings, all gave authority to her 16 visions. Definite ‘unworldly’ bishop material.

Now we come to Margery Kempe, daughter of Lynn MP and Mayor John Brunham, and mother of 14 surviving children in 20 years before buying a vow of celibacy from her burgess husband John Kempe.

She had visions all her life, was credited by her parish priest with saving St Margaret’s from the Great Fire of Lynn in 1421 and was supported by minor clerics like the Vicar of Sedgeford and Alan of Lynn.

But she failed to impress the Archbishop of York – he objected to a wife and mother (yes, pejorative terms!) wearing white and going off on unauthorised pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Germany.

The Mayor of Leicester called her ‘a dishonest liar’ (and words too coarse to print here) ‘a false Lollard’ (a heretic) and ‘a deceiver of the people.’ And threatened her with prison!

As with Mary Magdalene, the Christian authorities evidently weren’t ready to see beyond her gender to her faithful heart and visionary eye.

Would their heirs make her a bishop today? Now there’s a test.

n The script of Gareth’s new play ‘Margery Kempe of Lynn’, written for performance in the Hanse House courtyard on the Lynn waterfront, may be read by visiting