Our journey isn’t over, say women priests

02 November 2006

Pat Ashworth talks to the first women to be priested

THE FIRST women who were ordained priest in the Church of England will be celebrating their tenth anniversary in Bristol Cathedral tomorrow. Of the 32 who were ordained on 12 March 1994, one has died and 14 have now retired: the remainder reflects the variety of ministries women have continued or undertaken since that day.

Yet, although women priests make up a fifth of the total number of clergy in the Church of England, comparatively few are yet in senior appointments. The latest figures show 1262 full-time stipendiary women priests in dioceses, 715 non-stipendiary ministers (NSM), 208 ordained local ministers (OLM), and 212 chaplains.

There are 72 women priests working in the Church Army. There is one dean (though a second has been appointed), and five archdeacons.

View from GRAS
The Bristol celebrations come amid fierce debate about women bishops and fresh calls for the rescinding of the Act of Synod, which allowed Provincial Episcopal Visitors (“flying bishops”) to oversee parishes that could not in conscience accept women priests.

The Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) has declared the Act to be an undermining of women’s ministry, and described it in a recent campaign advertisement as “legitimising discrimination against women that would be unlawful and subject to criminal prosecution in other institutions and workplaces”.

View from FiF
Forward in Faith (FiF) has intensified its stance that the Act is the only device that enables the Church of England to hold together. The organisation says that having women bishops would make the Act unworkable, and has reiterated its determination to establish a “free province”, if women were appointed to the episcopate.

The Archbishop of York warned two weeks ago that abolition of the Act would be both a tragedy and a “betrayal” that would trigger a new crisis for the Church (News, 5 March).

View from Bristol
The women from the diocese of Bristol have been getting on with their ministries, and few who spoke this week had encountered major obstacles or discrimination.

The Revd Susan Hollins, now senior co-ordinating chaplain of West Hertfordshire NHS Trust, said that greater battles had taken place before the ordination of women. While there were still “pockets of resistance”, these were few and far between, in her experience.

It had not been made easy for women to apply for senior positions, Ms Hollins said, but she also detected a reluctance by women to put themselves forward. “I sense that the Church will need evidence that there are the calibre of women out there willing to take up these senior posts, with all the weighty responsibility and unpleasantness they can hold, and the political stamina that one is required to have.”

Speaking on Tuesday, Ms Hollins also voiced a concern about the high proportion of women priests who are non-stipendiary. “Non-stipendiary priests have a different understanding of what it means to be an ordained woman, and are not seeking senior appointments.

"I fully support non-stipendiary ministry, but it can downplay the role of women in the Church because it appears that we are of a certain age and we are not taking things forward,” she said.

View from Stockton
For the Revd Sue Giles, a former prison chaplain and now Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity, Stockton-on-Tees, the experience of the past ten years had been wholly positive.

The introduction of women into prison chaplaincy was acknowledged to have brought balance: while male colleagues were equally compassionate, some men related better to women. “It gave everyone more choice and more opportunity to find the right person they could talk to,” she said.

Like all the women from Bristol diocese who spoke this week, Ms Giles believed the journey would not be complete until women were made bishops. “I’m not sure that waiting any longer will help people who find it a difficult idea,” she said.

View from Eastville
There is a sense, though, that the campaign is for others to fight. The Revd Jane Hayward, Vicar of St Anne with St Mark and St Thomas, Eastville, who will be the celebrant at tomorrow’s anniversary service, is not campaigning. “I made enough noise 12 years ago,” she said. “One does a job that’s got to be done, and I don’t particularly want to go through that again,” she said.

But it must happen soon, she emphasised. “The street-cred of the House of Bishops is suffering. I know they consult women, but it’s not the same, and doesn’t change anything.” Women did have a reluctance to seek preferment, she acknowledged — “I think you do need to be pushy, and it’s a thing a lot of women of my generation are not happy being” — and the number of women in chaplaincies and non-stipendiary ministries reflected the accommodation of practical arrangements in families.

View from the air
The Revd Angela Berners-Wilson, the first woman to be ordained priest, is Rector of Colerne and Officiating Chaplain to the 21st Signals Regiment, which is based in her parish.

She remembers the amazement in March 1994 that hopes and vocations could be fulfilled. “I think some of the old-timers think they [new women coming forward] don’t know how lucky they are, but it’s good that they just accept it,” she said.

The Act of Synod was a much bigger departure from tradition than the ordination of women, she believes. “It pours nonsense on the whole idea of the bishop being primus inter pares in the diocese, and it’s also an insult to the bishops. It’s like saying they’re tainted because they’ve laid hands on women. What sort of theology is that?”

Not pioneers
The women from Bristol did not necessarily see themselves as pioneers. The Revd Valerie Woods, formerly a prison chaplain and now Vicar of Wood End in Coventry, said: “When God said: ‘I want you to be a priest,’ it wasn’t possible; so I said: ‘It’s up to you to sort it out, and I’ll just get on with the ministry you’ve given me. I only realised with hindsight that I’d been a pioneer right through my Christian ministry. I’ve just done it and not noticed it.”

Rejected complaint
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has rejected a formal complaint by FiF that an advertisement by GRAS in the Church Times of 6 February was “misleading, offensive and denigratory” in its suggestion that FiF was sexist, and that the advertisement was “irresponsible and could stir up hatred and persecution” of FiF members.

The ASA ruled that the advertisement was unlikely to mislead. The advertisers had been expressing their opinion, and the text of the advertisement had described those opposed to the ordination of women in general terms.

A GRAS spokeswoman said on Tuesday that the group was delighted at the ruling. “We did have some very strong comments, and, while some people came up with legitimate things, which were perfectly reasonable, we had some really, really offensive anonymous phone calls,” she said.

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