Reverend Joanna Jepson
Reverend Joanna Jepson is a Church of England priest. In 2001 she challenged the late abortion of a foetus with cleft lip and palate: a court case that made the headlines. In 2006 she was appointed as the first Chaplain to the London College of Fashion. She now spends time coaching individuals and groups, developing her role as Patron and Ambassador of Disability Awareness UK and speaking at various events and retreats.
What kind of pupil were you like at school?
Not a good one, unfortunately. I got into a lot of trouble and was thrown out of most things (including the school Christian Union) for being disruptive. Because I was bullied and unhappy I had nothing to aspire to and didn’t put energy into my school work.
What changed things?
I was suspended on my 16th birthday, which was a low point, and only just allowed to return to take my exams. Very soon after that, I went to Romania (which was a country just emerging from communism) to do some charity work. The experience captured my attention. I returned convinced that I wanted to train as a nurse and to be an Aid worker with the British Red Cross. I went into sixth form with new friends I’d made on that trip and my interests and aspirations blossomed in the smaller classes. It was an incredible trip – it showed me that I could make a contribution to the lives of others. If you don’t do that you shrivel, I think.
What was your favourite subject?
English, I loved it, and then Politics in the sixth form.
What was the best school lesson you remember being in, and why?
It’s not really a particular lesson but a particular teacher. We had a fantastic, Oxford educated, History teacher who was inspirational. He was good to me – he was filled with a life-affirming passion. He regularly called me a “wretch” but on the last day he gave us all awards and gave me the Gladstone Award for wearing my heart on my sleeve.
And then you went to University?
I started to train to be a Nurse – following the plan I’d made in Romania – but it wasn’t for me (as, I think everyone else already knew). I didn’t really get it: I’d offer diabetes patients jam for breakfast and leave needles lying around. Eventually I was consigned to taking care of the dead bodies and by May of my first year I’d decided it wasn’t for me.
How did you end up being ordained?
I took some time out at the end of my first year of nursing in order to have operations on my face [Joanna was born with a congenital jaw defect] and then worked with victims of drugs and domestic abuse. That was an amazing experience but I knew that nursing was not for me. I went to study at theological college in Bristol and found it suited me. As part of the course we spent a day in a convent of Anglican nuns and I found them an amazing group of women - completely fearless where I was so fearful: I arranged to return, for three months this time, and had a wonderful experience. I talk too much to be a nun but I knew that I wanted to be ordained.
What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned since leaving school?
Nothing is wasted: failure can be the foundation of your greatest contribution.
If you could give one piece of advice to your sixteen-year-old self, what would it be?
The bullies are not all that. They seem powerful now as big fish in a little pond but when you leave and the world is your horizon you’ll find they’re nothing.
Was going to court about the cleft-palate case worth it?
Definitely. I would have thought twice if I’d known the media-storm I was heading into but I didn’t and that storm changed public opinion on abortion and medical ethics. Ten years on, there has just been a parliamentary enquiry on abortion for foetal abnormality so MPs might move slowly but at least they are moving.
If you were to spend three months in meditation and contemplation where would you most like to spend it?
There’s an island between Washington State and Vancouver Island called Shore Island and on it there is a Benedictine community. I’d love to go there for three months.
What made you want to work in the fashion industry?
It’s highly influential and it seemed crazy that the church had no relationship with the fourth largest contributor to the economy. The fashion industry has a huge impact on who we are and shaping our values and I wanted to establish a conversation between it and the church.
What is your greatest regret?
I regret that I didn’t apply myself to my lessons: I just thought that I wasn’t worth it. Now I see that I was wrong and I’m fascinated by Science, and Physics in particular. I think it’s full of discoveries that tell us more about Theology and Faith and I wish I’d taken the opportunities I’d had at school to study these things.
Do you have a catchphrase?
I’m sure I do but I can’t remember it.
Do you have any ambitions left to achieve? If so, what would they be?
I’d like to write a book, I’d like to build my own house, and I’d like to take my family to live in that convent in Washington for three months.