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Celebrating the life of Jean Rowe – the longest serving female Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England

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Jean was the longest serving female Licensed Lay Minister (Reader) in the entire Church of England, having been licensed on St Mark’s Day on 25 April in 1970.

She was only the seventh female ever to become a Licensed Lay Minister, and as one of her colleagues writes: “In terms of her length of ministerial service she was senior to every woman bishop, every woman priest, and of course every woman Licensed Lay Minister.”

Speaking about the loss, the Revd Andrew Jones, Rector of the Trunch Group said:

“Jean will be greatly missed by many – this is a great loss but a great life lived… may she rest in peace and rise in glory. She was warm, wise, caring and encouraging and so many people’s lives have been impacted by her ministry over the years. Do pray for her neighbours, community, friends, family and the whole church community.

In the summer of 2019 ‘The Reader’ magazine carried a half-page tribute to Jean as they celebrated the 50th anniversary of women in Reader ministry.  The article reads:

‘Jean trained as a teacher (French and Religious Studies) at St Gabriel’s College in Camberwell in 1947-9 and began her career at a tough secondary school in south east London, right against the railway line from London Bridge. It was very noisy she remembers, particularly during the rush hour. Here she became friendly with the local vicar, Charles Shells. She had played the organ at the church she attended while growing up, so she now played on Sundays at Reverend Shells’ church.

Some years later, after she had moved to live and work in Bedfordshire while caring for her elderly father, she found herself living in near Canon Shells’ parents and sister. This is how she heard of a vacancy for a headteacher post in Norfolk, in the Trunch benefice where he was now the incumbent. Jean applied, was offered the job, and moved to Gimingham where she still lives.

Church life in rural Norfolk was rather different from its equivalent in London. Canon Shells had responsibility for twelve churches in his own benefice, but, as he was also Rural Dean for the neighbouring deanery, in practice he had to find cover for at least a dozen more. One Sunday when Jean had been playing hymns for a service at a convalescent home, he said to her: “Twenty-two places need a service next Sunday – I don’t know how I am going to cover them all!” So Jean volunteered to take the hospital service. Straight away, he said, “You could be a Reader you know!”

The changes to Canon Law imminent, Canon Shells encouraged Jean to pursue the idea. He could be a very determined and persuasive man she remembers. She already had a degree in theology, French and Latin, gathered by hard work and perseverance in evening classes and courses (through Wolsey Hall in Oxford) while she had been working full time in London. This was before the days of correspondence classes and OU Summer Schools. And, being an experienced teacher, she was a gifted communicator. She was licenced to the Diocese of Norwich less than a year after the legal changes made this possible.

Jean’s spiritual life has been fed by her being an Oblate of the Community of All Hallows for twenty-five years. Now nearly 90, she has almost hung up her blue scarf. But she continues to lead intercessions – and still plays the organ in her church.’

Upon Jean’s 90th birthday, The Reader magazine followed up their article above and you can read about the special tea party held her for in the image below.


What is a Licensed Lay Minister?  A Licensed Lay Minister (or Reader) is a lay leader who has been identified, trained, and licensed by the Bishop in order to: teach the faith; enable mission; and lead in church and society.

Read more here.