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11 July 2014

Christine Worsley on Evangelical women's ministry testimonies

Awesome Voices: God working through ordained women today
Lis Goddard, Clare Hendry, Sally Hitchiner, Liz Hoare, Suse McBay, Jane Morris, Jane Plackett, and Kate Wharton
Gilead Books £7.95
Church Times Bookshop £7.15 

THIS year, in which falls the 20th anniversary of women's ordination to the priesthood in the C of E, the publication of this book is particularly timely. It contains the story of the beginnings of the organisation AWESOME, alongside six testimonies telling of the experiences of some of its members in the processes of selection, training, and practice of ordained ministry.

Definitely from the Evangelical stable, AWESOME stands for Anglican Women Evangelicals: Supporting our Ordained Ministries. The narratives highlight the challenges and frustrations faced by women from the Evangelical tradition seeking to be obedient to God's call to ordained ministry in the face of opposition. In this case, unsurprisingly, the opposition is rooted in debates about headship and the interpretation of scripture.

Each of the personal testimonies contained in the book is written with passion and conviction. Together, they provide a powerful illustration of the many and diverse ways in which people experience and respond to God's call to ordination, and to the variety of contexts in which they exercise ministry. In this respect, the book could prove to be a particularly helpful resource for those seeking to discern their vocation, and those in training for ordination, as well as others who journey alongside them in different capacities.

As an organisation, AWESOME seeks to support and encourage ordained Evangelical women in the Church. In the same way, the narratives, by giving voice to the experiences of ordained women, have the potential to bring encouragement and hope to all women ordained in the C of E. As an ordained woman, I, while holding different theological views, found aspects of my own journey and approaches to ministry reflected in some of the testimonies, and they offered me new ways of understanding the past and moving towards the future.

The book also highlights the many challenges and frustrations still faced by many ordained women. For example, the facts that still today only 18 per cent of stipendiary incumbents are women; that even fewer lead so-called "larger" churches; and that women are also under-represented in senior posts are surely causes for concern for all ordained women, and, indeed, for many of our male colleagues.

While the main purpose of the book is to allow a diversity of Evangelical women's stories to be heard and understood, the narratives allude to, but do not explore fully, some of the theological themes and the spirituality of ministry underpinning them. This does mean that sometimes the narratives are asked to carry too much weight in relation to meaning; too much is expected of them, so to speak. Perhaps greater depth could have been achieved by some deliberate highlighting and reflection on these themes.

Moreover, as the stories unfold, it becomes clear that they contain significantly divergent opinions on issues such as the Church in mission; the relationship between leadership and priesthood; and the part played by the ordained minister. These different perspectives echo those to be found across the spectrum of theologies in the Church of England. Does this indicate that there is room for a second volume, in which all our treasured identities become less significant than commitment to honest debate and further exploration? I hope so.

Canon Christine Worsley is the Kingdom People Development Officer in the diocese of Worcester.


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