VIVIENNE Faull pauses beneath the soaring bulk of York Minster, then gives Press photographer Matt Clark a glance. “Which way are we going in?” she asks. It’s a revealing moment. This is the woman who was last month named the new Dean of York. We’re trying to find a short-cut into the Minster to take a photograph of her inside ‘her’ cathedral – and yet she still clearly feels uneasy at the idea of sneaking in the back way, almost as though it’s trespassing. “I’m not in charge, yet,” she says apologetically. Which is true: she doesn’t formally take up her post until December.

Nobody minds us going in the back way, of course. In fact, the Minster policeman on duty gives the new Dean a friendly nod as we pass.

Unlike the policeman, not everybody at the Minster knows who she is yet, she says. “But I find if I say ‘Hello! I’m Vivienne. I’m the new Dean’ it seems to work.”

The new Dean cuts a hugely likeable figure, with her slightly unruly hair and rumpled linen jacket over severe black clerical dress. But make no mistake: this is a formidably intelligent woman – and one with clear, outspoken views on issues such as women in the priesthood.

As we chat in a room in Minster Yard, it becomes clear that, in a way, the 57-year-old’s whole church career has been a struggle against a system that did not seem to have a place in it for women. In the early stages of her career, when women couldn’t be ordained as deacons, let alone priests, there were times when she wondered whether she had made the right choice. Seeing generations of men ordained as priests while she couldn’t be was deeply frustrating: she couldn’t contribute to the church in the way she felt called to.

Then things began to change. In 1987, she was among the first wave of women to be ordained deacon; and in 1994, among the first to be ordained a priest. When she was appointed Provost (and later Dean) of Leicester in 2000, she became the first woman in the Church of England to lead a cathedral.

Her appointment as Dean of York is hugely significant – not only for her and for York Minster (she is the Minster’s first female Dean), but also for the Church of England.

The appointment comes at a time when the church is struggling with the issue of whether to allow women bishops. Mrs Faull has no doubts on the matter: it is time to take the next step, she says.

A vote on women bishops was scheduled to be held at General Synod in York in July – at just about the time Mrs Faull’s appointment was announced. Eventually it was deferred until November. It really is too close to call, Dean Faull says: a two thirds majority will be needed to succeed. But if it fails, she says, it will set back the cause of women within the church by years, as well as damaging the reputation of the church in the eyes of the rest of the world. “The world will think the church is a shambles, that it can’t get something like this through.”

Yes, she says, it is a sensitive issue and there are those who have genuine theological doubts. But the question the church should be asking itself is why not? Why shouldn’t women be bishops? Women are not “children of a lesser God”, she says. They can be as fully representative of humankind as men can be, in the eyes of God and of man. Ahead of that crucial vote in November, there is a great deal of politicking going on within church circles, she admits, as those in favour of women bishops seek to secure the two thirds majority they will need – including trying to persuade those who can’t vote in favour of women bishops at least to abstain, rather than vote against.

Reconciling within one church the needs of those who wish to see women bishops, and those theologically opposed to the idea, remains a “very difficult tightrope to walk”, she admits.

But if the church fails to take the plunge in November, it will be frustrating and disappointing, she says. “It would be another ten years before we could get back to the point where we are now.” If it succeeds, however… “It would be a wonderful moment.”

Vivienne Faull was brought up on the Wirral, on Merseyside, the daughter of a vet and unpaid Methodist minister. She wasn’t good enough at science to become a vet like her dad, however – so after attending the independent Queen’s School in Chester, she went to Oxford to study history.

Then she had to decide what to do with the rest of her life. Her own mother was against her training for the church, regarding it as a waste of her education, as there were so few prospects for women.

She didn’t feel that way, but she was still torn. She ended up “running away from the church” for a couple of years – going to North India as a teacher for two years with the Church Mission Society.

When she got back, however, she still had that decision to make: to train for the church or not?

At that time, there was a kind of structural sexism about the Church of England, she says: with no system whereby women could really be apart of the church’s ministry. Women could train only as deaconesses – a non-clerical order for women who worked mainly with disadvantaged people. As a deaconess, there was no guarantee she’d be able to get paid employment: and even if she trained as a deaconess, most theological colleges would be closed to her, as a woman.

Nevertheless, with a little encouragement from others in the church, she took the plunge. After completing her training, she served as a deaconess at Saint Matthew and Saint James church in the Diocese of Liverpool for three years, before becoming Chaplain and later Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.

Then, in 1987, she was ordained Deacon in the diocese of Ely. By 1990, she was Chaplain of Gloucester cathedral, where she married her husband Michael, now a hospital consultant.

Following her ordination as a priest in 1994, she became canon pastor, and later Vice-Provost, of Coventry cathedral, before her move to Leicester in 2000.

If the vote on women bishops does succeed in November, the door would potentially be open for her to become a bishop.

Is that something she’d be interested in?

She smiles. “Oh gosh! I think my best answer at the moment is that my calling is to be Dean of York.” Lots of people have told her, she adds, that being Dean of York is in many ways, a more significant post than many bishoprics.

Few would dispute that. Once she formally takes over the post, in December, she will surely be the most senior woman in the Church of England.

It’s a huge job. Her present cathedral, Leicester, is one of England’s newest and smallest. So does she find it daunting, at all, suddenly taking on responsibility for one of Europe’s greatest cathedrals?

Just a little, she admits. “Although as Glyn [Canon Glyn Webster] says, it is really just a huge church. If you’re used to cathedrals, things are where you would expect them to be – they’re just a bit bigger and it takes a bit longer to get to them!”

Getting the job Just how do you go about becoming Dean of York?

You apply for the job, of course.

The position was advertised in the Church Times. All senior church posts are now, Dean Faull says, in an effort to make the appointments more transparent. There were also a number of ‘behind the scenes’ conversations that resulted in her appointment as well, however – though not before she had written an application, and been interviewed by a panel (which included the Archbishop of York , Dr John Sentamu) at Bishopthorpe Palace.

Knowing she was to be the new Dean of York was exciting, she admits. The difficulty was in having to keep it secret. She was told in May, but the appointment wasn’t announced until July. The only people she was allowed to tell were her husband, Michael, and her spiritual adviser. The whole of the Church of England was gossiping about who the new Dean would be, she says, and she wasn’t allowed to reveal anything. “It was a bit like being trained as a spy!”

On gay marriage

The Archbishop of York made his opposition to gay marriage very clear at the beginning of this year. He told the Daily Telegraph that marriage must be between a man and a woman – and that trying to call a union between two men or two women a marriage would mean changing the English language. It is a stance that has put him into opposition with Prime Minister David Cameron, who has publicly pledged that gay marriage will be legal by 2015. His comments also prompted protests outside the Minster earlier this year.

Dean Faull finds some of the arguments within the church against gay marriage ‘crass’ – although that doesn’t apply to the Archbishop of York, whose position she respects, she stresses. She agrees with him that there is a real issue about the definition of marriage, which is a “relationship between a man and a woman for life that is about mutual sustenance but also for the care and nurturing of children”. “If we go with the Government and say we want to support gay marriage, how does that fit with what we say about marriage being between men and women?”

Nevertheless, some of the arguments advanced against gay marriage have been downright hurtful, she says – which is why she uses the term crass. “A lot of it seems to be fear, that in some sense allowing gay marriage will somehow undermine those of us in heterosexual marriages. That’s something I have never been able to understand. I have known gay people in civil partnerships that have taught me a great deal about what it is to be fully human.”

She thinks that the church is on a journey that will ultimately end in it accepting gay marriage – though not simply at the behest of Government.

“We have to take it step by step. But I hope that by the time I die we can see an acceptance of these sorts of partnerships as being something that can reflect the love of God.”