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Acceptance without judgement: Katie Piper interviewed

by
05 November 2021

The Songs of Praise presenter talks to Susan Gray about discovering faith after trauma

Dan Kennedy

Katie Piper says that her positive experience of worship has remained constant over the years

Katie Piper says that her positive experience of worship has remained constant over the years

IN MARCH 2008, Katie Piper, a model and aspiring television presenter, became headline news for the most horrific reasons. An obsessive ex-boyfriend, having previously raped and assaulted her, arranged for an accomplice to throw sulphuric acid in her face as she left home. Having run into a café for help after the attack, she described hearing animal cries of pain and realising that they were her own.

Taken first to intensive care and then transferred to a specialist burns unit, she was put into an induced coma because of the pain of treating her injuries. The attack had destroyed her nose, eyelids, and one ear, and taken sight from one eye. Her hands and chest were also severely burned, as was her oesophagus, from swallowing the acid.

In the weeks after being brought out of a coma, Ms Piper was drawn to the Christian faith. “In my time of need, a nurse talked to me about the power of prayer, and she prayed with me and for me. She showed me songs and sung to me. It was a form of connection and a form of comfort.”

After Ms Piper was discharged, the two stayed in touch.

“I went to visit her at her church, and I joined a church myself. And the more I delved into it, the more I realised it was something I’d been missing my whole life. It was like how people talk about falling in love with somebody, and how it fills a void.”

The former model and shopping-channel presenter’s transition from patient to new life was charted on Katie, My Beautiful Face, a documentary attracting 3.5 million viewers when it was shown a year after her attack. A brief moment in the documentary provides a clue to the formation of Ms Piper’s faith, when a “lady from the Baptist church” calls around to wish her well.

 

MS PIPER says that she didn’t go to church until a good seven or eight months later, “and there were elders in the church that mentored me, and talked about the Alpha course. I went to traditional church on a Sunday, and then to a home group on a Wednesday evening. There were six or seven of us there, and we would read pieces of scripture and have lessons through those parts of the Bible. Looking back, that couple really took me under their wing.”

Fellow worshippers in Andover also played a part in 2015, when Ms Piper married Richard Sutton, a carpenter. “We did a Christian marriage course, over eight weeks, with another couple who were elders of the church. We’d go to their house every Sunday, watching a DVD and discussing it, and then we’d have homework.

“Richard was slightly reluctant — he doesn’t share the same passion. But he nevertheless did it, and said he found it helpful. It’s a good sign of commitment, to show how important it is, how serious it is, and we found out more about each other.”

By the time of her marriage, Ms Piper’s media profile was so high that she had to swear family and friends to secrecy to keep the ceremony private. “Our wedding was amazing. We went back to the church that I first attended. The pastor had moved on, and we tracked him down on Facebook and said: ‘Please can you come back and marry us, because I have a connection with you.’

“And he came back, and helped us plan the wedding. We had my favourite hymns, poems, recitals; he let my sister-in-law sing. My church isn’t anything particularly fancy. It’s a lovely church, but we didn’t choose it for its aesthetics or interior.”

Reflecting on her faith today, Ms Piper says that she was not baptised as a child, as her parents were not religious, and she has chosen not to be baptised as an adult. As for her daughters, Belle and Penelope, she will leave the timing of the sacraments in their own hands. “My daughters don’t go to Sunday school, and they haven’t been christened. That’s something I would leave up to them in their teens.

“But they do have prayer books and religious-affirmation books. At night, in bed, the eldest makes up her own prayers and prays with us together. The three-year-old is a bit young for that. They like songs that I sing to them, and they like Hillsong music on the Alexa, and we dance around the kitchen.”

 

THE Bible references in Ms Piper’s new book, A Little Bit of Faith, are wide-ranging, drawing not just on the Gospels and Psalms, but also the less breezy reads of Romans, Job, and Revelation. “My Bible knowledge comes from Google,” she admits. “The way I wrote the book was backwards: the affirmations came first. Some of the affirmations are ones I’ve made up myself; some are from historical greats, who could be Marie Curie or Florence Nightingale.

“Some affirmations are sent on Instagram by my followers. I wrote it month by month, got those affirmations, and then underneath wrote: ‘How do I apply that to my life? How do I interpret it? What does it mean?’ And the last thing I did was to find scripture that went with that emotion, that was the thing that came at the end.”

Yet this unorthodox way of writing makes for a smooth read. For example: “I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Psalm 34.4. This is the experience I had when I first had an encounter with God. I was at such a low place in my life, but when I surrendered, I felt so comforted. It meant that I got to hand over the burden of the things I was battling, and I could trust I would be taken care of.”

A Little Bit of Faith is Ms Piper’s seventh book, and sold out online by 2 p.m. on publication day. When she was announced as a new presenter for Songs of Praise in September last year, a fresh audience tuned into the show. “The people that follow me on Instagram and read my other books aren’t so faith-led, and wouldn’t watch a show like that. But now I get tweets: ‘Oh, we watched Songs of Praise today because we wanted to see what clothes you were wearing, but the show was really comforting. I wouldn’t normally watch that sort of thing.’”

Social media, her podcast, and television allow her to be in constant touch with people, “whatever stage of the journey they’re at, whether they’re identifying as people who worship every day, are already religious, or they’re just turning to it and exploring”.

Becoming a Songs of Praise presenter put her own faith under a more intense spotlight. “Initially, when I came to Christianity in 2008, it wasn’t something I massively spoke about. When I first started working for Songs of Praise is when people said: ‘I didn’t know you were a Christian.’ Some people sent me lovely messages, who themselves had a faith, sent me their own scriptures, and things that had comforted them. Some people got really cross and unfollowed me.”

 

CELEBRATED for her positivity, Ms Piper also emphasises the necessity for boundaries. “Affirmations aren’t just positive or joyous thoughts, they’re also about self-care, so they’re about encouraging you to set healthy boundaries, to assert yourself, because then you can give more to others when you take care of yourself.”

The app Lectio 365 is a key element of spiritual self-care for the presenter. “Lectio 365 is a way to keep faith in my life regularly. It’s like a daily devotion. I used to go on in the morning so I could start my days positively, but now I use it in bed, when I’m decompressing my thoughts from the day. It reminds me to check in with God, and there’s something bigger than us, bigger than what happened today.”

For a religion that has a broken body as the central image, it is no surprise that the main donors to the Katie Piper Foundation, a charity offering physical and psychological therapies for burns and scars, are Christian. “Some of my supporters have been Christians, and I’ve been invited to other people’s churches, and they’ve helped us with funding. If you’ve had any kind of evil or trauma in your life, it’s people like that who restore your faith in society.”

Her positive experience of worship has remained constant over the years, from when she first went to church as a halfway house to re-entering society, bearing the scars of her attack. “In my church locally, the most wonderful thing was no judgement — no judgement for your past, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. No judgement for what you had, what you looked like.

”And I saw all kinds of recovering addicts, people who had breakdowns, who were attending church for all sorts of different reasons, and don’t fall under the ‘perfect’ Christian banner that I thought I would meet in church.”

Now, her fame makes no difference to the way in which she is treated. “People in church, going with that line of no judgement, they don’t treat anybody any different. It doesn’t matter — status, wealth. That’s one of the lovely authentic things you get in religion. People like you for you.”

 

Katie Piper’s book A Little Bit of Faith: Hopeful affirmations for every day of the year was published on 16 September by SPCK at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-0-281-08650-4.

Forthcoming Events

13 November 2021
Lay Ministerial Calling: Vocation and Theology
The CRC Annual Gathering, open to anyone with an interest in lay ministry.

27 November 2021
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With Esther de Waal, Gregory Cameron, Peter Graystone, Richard Carter, and Rachel Mann.

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