Passed/Failed: 'I was bullied in the playground'

An education in the life of Elaine Storkey, religious broadcaster
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dr Elaine Storkey, 65, is the Church Army's new director of training and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's 'Thought for Today'. Last year, she successfully sued Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, for unfair dismissal. Her books include 'What's Right with Feminism' and 'Mary's Story, Mary's Song'.

At Southdale Primary in Ossett, West Yorkshire, we had these felt charts on the wall and figures that you were allowed to put on them if you were extremely good. There was a great queue of girls wanting to put up Mary on the Nativity chart, which also had all sorts of inappropriate animals like lions and tigers.

I was there two years, and then went to South Ossett C of E Juniors. There was bullying, especially of bright children. When I got top marks, I really got it in the playground. I felt sorry for the children who did it, because they wouldn't have my chances; only three or four of us went to the grammar school. My best friend, who was in fact bright, didn't pass the 11-plus and, when we met later, she would pump me about what I had done at my school.

Ossett Grammar School was very streamed, and I was in the upper stream. Most of my O-levels were in the arts; I crawled through the science subjects as best I could. I became a firm believer and did RE for O-level. At Christmas, Mr Axford, the head teacher and an Anglo-Catholic, wrote very, very skilful plays teasing out how Christianity could be relevant to life. They were about people surviving after a nuclear war, or trapped in a hotel during a snowstorm. The plays ran for a whole week, and people came from the town to see them.

I enjoyed the sixth form very much, and became head girl. At A-level, I did English language, English literature, history and French. There was a lot of religion in the school, with church services and classes with the head – and a lot of budding atheists as well.

I passed my A-levels and went to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. I'd applied to do English as the main honours degree but, after doing English and philosophy in my first year, I specialised in philosophy instead. This was because of the way English was taught there – cynically, reflecting how the Welsh felt about the English.

Philosophy was wonderful, though an enormous challenge to my faith, which I almost lost in my second year. A senior lecturer who thought it was fun to throw the book at a young Christian was just pounding me with issues I hadn't thought through. I went through a six-week period of not having a clue what I believed. There was a sense of a great void, which dogged me day and night. The girls in my hall were very worried about me and would come to my bedside and pray. One of them said: "You're going to be all right," as she went out. I yelled: "Please will you switch off the light?" I realised that she had – but there was a sense of light, which gradually faded. I've never had an experience like that, before or since. Next day, the first lecture I went to was by this guy; I saw his very weak position philosophically, with a whole lot of assumptions that he was making.

I got a 2.1 and went to McMaster University in Ontario for an MA and came back to England for a PhD at York. This went on hold as I got married, switched to teaching social sciences and joined my husband at Stirling University. By the time I had had my children and returned to the PhD, I realised that other people had covered my material.

One day in 1998, I received this invitation to a degree ceremony to be held in Lambeth Palace. "I wonder who's got a degree?" I thought. It was me. This was a "Lambeth Degree", conferred by Oxford and based on, in my case, work I'd already done in philosophy and sociology. I was a "DD": Doctorate of Divinity. Somebody had recommended me to the panel that makes the decision, but to this day I don't know who it was.