My gender change made me stronger to overcome hardships in lockdown

The resilient Rev Sarah Jones is utilising technology to ensure Cardiff’s central church survives the pandemic

Rev Sarah Jones
Things are looking bleak for St John’s Church with an approximate 70% loss of funding since March

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Wander into the heart of Cardiff and your eyes will detect deserted shopping centres, sealed arcades and lifeless pubs and clubs. This sight might make some sceptical to any notion of optimism, but not Sarah Jones, Reverend Canon at St John’s Church in Cardiff city centre. Indeed, she epitomises much-needed strength in the never-ending saga that is 2020.

A priest may seem an unlikely source of inspiration given religion, as Sarah has witnessed throughout her 16 years in the church, is “out of favour”. Weekly church turnouts reflect this mood.

“We’re probably a hundred people a week,” says Sarah. “Now, if you rolled that back 25 years, there was probably two or three times that going.”

The problem has been exacerbated by Covid-19 and stringent government restrictions, meaning St John’s was closed from March to the end of September, and again in October. With uncertainty facing St John’s, Sarah had no choice but to get creative. Thankfully, she has skills from a previous life in sales to fall back on.

Modernity meets tradition

“I think every minister is a product of their past,” explains Sarah in her thoughtful, calculated manner. “When I worked in industry I was on courses which taught me change management, recruiting, listening skills. All of those things are relevant in my job as a priest.” She continues, “Making a gender change helps me understand how other people might struggle with other issues.”

I think every minister is a product of their past

These skills, combined with a never-say-die attitude and drive for inclusivity, which has served Sarah throughout her career in the Church of England, culminated in the creation of an interactive live stream. This allows parishioners, some of whom have been attending services on Trinity Street for 40 years, a chance to still experience services online, if not in person. It even includes a phone-in for older churchgoers.

“We created a 15-minute live stream, so it was genuinely live on Facebook and YouTube,” Sarah says proudly. “People can put comments in real time and I see them as the host of the service. We pray for things that people raise during the service.”

Rev Sarah Jones aisle
Sarah considers St John’s to be an ‘oasis in the centre of town’
A matter of faith

There are, however, more burdensome problems members of clergy, like Sarah, must face, for which there is no easy answer. It is common practice for ministers to attend the bedside of those grievously ill. These are not normal times, and Sarah has been forced to recognise the possibility parishioners will pass without a minister praying for them by their bedside.   

“It has been really hard for everybody, and not only people who are dying but people who are quite sick,” she sighs. “It would be great if one of our ministers, myself or somebody else, were to go and see [ill parishioners] and we can’t.”

Having been outed by the media in 2005 as transgender, Sarah is no stranger to tussling with the pressures of life. For her, the past year may have just been the next chapter in a tale of hardship. If anyone knows how to steer St John’s through these dark waters, it is Sarah.

Quick fire questions

What’s the one thing you’ve missed most about doing services inside the church?

“Just actually not being able to have a coffee with people after service, or wander around Cardiff and pop into some shops and say ‘Hi, I’m the vicar, how are you?’”

Does the future of St John’s worry you with Covid-19 still about?

“Bluntly, I think who knows how many churches will not survive the end of Covid, because we don’t know when the end of Covid will be. We don’t know how much longer every church can go on because we have costs and most churches’ income has been wiped out, like most charities.”

What would you like St John’s to be like in five years’ time?

“I’d love St John’s to be a vibrant community which has grown where people of many different persuasions felt welcome.”