Guildford Cathedral’s Dianna Gwilliams, one of Britain’s only female deans
PUBLISHED: 11:16 19 February 2014 | UPDATED: 15:23 24 March 2015
One of Britain’s only female deans, Dianna Gwilliams is the new lady at the helm of Guildford Cathedral – and with her punky hair-do and straight-talking approach, she’s also a breath of fresh air. Here, she tells us about her plans…
Her bright red fringe sweeps neatly across her forehead. She wears black, loop earrings and a dog collar. Is this the image of glorious rebellion one would see on a 1970’s London punk rocker? On the contrary, this is the image of a trinity of style, strength and spirituality that is our new lady dean of Guildford Cathedral.
Dean Dianna Gwilliams, aged 56, was born in Colorado and raised in California. What she lacks in height, standing at a petite five foot, she certainly makes up for in intelligence; having read physics and chemistry at California University and later undertaken an MA at Kings College, reading youth ministry and theological education.
She knew from a young age that she didn’t want to stay in California and her ‘escape plan’ was realised after university when she travelled to the UK in 1978 working as a sound engineer for a touring musical, The Witness. “They say home is where the heart is and it suited me much more than California; settling in Britain seemed the right thing to do,” she says.
Piety guided her soul and she responded to God’s call, explaining: “I just knew that God wanted me to explore ordination.” She became a deacon in 1992 within the diocese of Southwark and then one of the first women priests, before becoming only the fifth lady dean in the UK, an appointment that was approved by the Queen.
Down to earth
Nevertheless, she doesn’t assume reverence or expect deference as we sit opposite each other at the round meeting table in her cathedral office sipping mugs of tea. Engaging in her rapport, she is articulate and thoughtful. Her demeanour is professional and business-like; she seems secure and steadfast – in herself, her faith and her role. Yet when she laughs, which is often, half moon-shaped lines appear around her mouth, a telling sign that years of smiling have found their place.
Curious to know exactly what a dean does, she happily explains, starting with defining the role of the cathedral as the ‘mother church’ for the whole of the diocese, which includes Surrey proper, as well as Kingston, north east Hampshire and West Sussex. She continues: “In addition to the regular pattern of prayer and worship each day, the cathedral provides the spiritual base of the bishop’s mission within the diocese.
“The dean is the leader of that endeavour, working with colleagues in terms of the day-to-day pattern of what goes on but also in a strategic way, always keeping an eye to the whole of the diocese. Inevitably, there is the board level involvement one would have leading any organisation and of course the everyday encounters that form part of being a Christian community.”
So has Dean Dianna had the chance yet to place her own personal stamp since she was installed in September last year? She laughs: “Mostly, I’ve just been busy getting to know people within the diocese and the community. What I have found here are fantastic colleagues all engaged in answering the questions: What does it mean to be the people of God in this place? What does it mean to serve our community? And how is that lived out? I have found people who are as passionate about what we are doing as I am, and I have discovered wonderful, wonderful stories from a generation of older people that have seen the cathedral being built and have watched the development of Guildford. I have been getting to know the place through their lenses.”
Move to Surrey
Having lived in south-east London for the last 35 years, the dean must presumably have seen quite a difference in the needs of the communities within our pretty villages and affluent towns? Candidly, she replies: “I’m not sure there is that much difference actually; for example, there is a diverse social demographic in both Guildford town and the county too, not unlike south-east London, but perhaps not as stark.
“In the diocese of Guildford, there are 17 food banks for example – not dissimilar to the same bit of geography in south-east London. We often think poverty is a function of the inner city, but the issues of transport, schooling, health care, how our children will afford to buy a house, what do we do about care as we get older, are not dissimilar – they are just lived out in different ways.” With a snippet of practicality and humour she adds: “There are, however, much more reliable trains from Guildford into London!”
Our conversation moves to the ambitious plans for the ‘Guildford Cathedral 2020 vision’, which includes several elements to secure the future of the cathedral. The first aspect of this was the launch of an appeal to raise £7 million for urgent building repairs and improvements – a project that has been supported by some well-known names from the cathedral community such as Dame Penelope Keith, Baroness Virginia Bottomley and Michael More-Molyneux, who are all vice presidents. Needless to say, the dean is delighted that the early response to the appeal has been so positive, with almost half a million pounds raised so far in addition to Heritage Lottery Fund support.
“Guildford Cathedral is at risk and we need help to secure its future,” says the dean. “We want to ensure that this remarkable building survives and can continue its work of serving the local community and the visitors who come from around the world.
“Some people may already be involved in the cathedral as their parents or grandparents may have bought a brick in the 1950’s and 1960’s (a project that is soon to be re-visited) but we want everyone to be involved in what we are doing here.”
The 2020 vision also includes plans to create a ‘living community’ on Stag Hill, which will see further enhancement of facilities as well as the creation of a vibrant ‘Cathedral Quarter’. The project will build upon the original plans of architect Sir Edward Maufe for the site to be a “centre for worship, culture, music, education and social activity”.
Perhaps one needs to spend time at the cathedral to understand the architect’s vision behind the plainness of the building. “I happen to think Guildford Cathedral is beautiful in its serenity,” says the dean. “Because it is so plain, it has a serenity that draws out other things … and because the building is unadorned it lends itself to other things being brought in, such as the Surrey Sculpture Society exhibition last year. It’s been terrific living in an art gallery.”
Away from the church
With a full agenda leading the spiritual and community needs of the diocese, the dean shares her only day off each week with her husband Martin, a graphic designer. A vital shift from her public to her private life, she tells me: “We both like gardening and walking, but if it is raining we play scrabble or read. I am still trying to finish reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel then I plan to read Bring Up the Bodies and A Cuckoo Calling.”
There is also a wedding to look forward to later this year when her 27-year-old daughter, Sarah, gets married. Her son, Michael was married last year. “Being mum’s the best,” she exudes with a mother’s pride. Any grandchildren yet? “No, but they have been given notice!” she laughs playfully.
Of course, I compliment her on her flamboyant hair colour, to which she replies gaily in her dampened American accent: “Oh, thank you”. Happy to briefly do ‘girl talk’, she tells me: “My hair has been in the care of Foxes in Beckenham for years: John cuts, Sarah colours – and they choose the colour.” The late fashion icon, Isabella Blow, would no doubt have applauded Foxes hairdressers for their contradiction between the traditional image of the clergy and the refreshing vibrancy that the image of our lady dean and her hair colour brings.
“Committed at the core, and open at the edges.” If that wasn’t the dean’s description of Guildford Cathedral, it could well have been a description of herself.
For more on the Guildford Cathedral 2020 Appeal, e-mail Siân Newton, fund-raising and appeal director, firstname.lastname@example.org, or see guildford-cathedral.org
Guildford Cathedral 2020 Appeal...
What it’s about...
• Urgent repairs: The cathedral is at serious risk of closure due to the deterioration of the acoustic plaster on the ceiling vaults. Although there is no immediate danger, the plaster needs to be removed in order to eliminate risk and safeguard the future use of the cathedral.
• Improvements and involvement: The appeal project will enable other important work too, including improving facilities and access within the cathedral, expanding the range of cultural and educational activities on offer to both children and adults, and undertaking a project celebrating the cathedral’s unique story.
• The cathedral has very limited funds as, unlike many of Britain’s ancient cathedrals, Guildford does not possess significant financial endowments. They are therefore launching the appeal to help save this Grade ll listed building and enable it to continue to serve the community.
How much they need to raise...
• The total cost of the cathedral project for roof repairs and the improvement scheme is £7 million and the scale of work needed means it will take a number of years to complete.
• In September 2013, the cathedral was delighted to announce that an initial grant of £329,000 had been awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
• They are now aiming to raise £1.3 million by August 2014. This will enable the cathedral to apply for a £4.5 million grant from HLF.