Women on the march

by
02 May 2014

Tomorrow, a procession in London marks the 20th anniversary of women's priesthood. In a new book, Julia Ogilvy talks to 12 women who are making their mark. Here are three

BY PERMISSION OF ROSE HUDSON-WILKIN

"They eventually left, and I thanked God": the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin

"They eventually left, and I thanked God": the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin

ROSE HUDSON-WILKIN

I WAS born and grew up in Montego Bay in Jamaica. I was very much involved in the life of our little mission church of St Francis, which was part of the Anglican Communion family.

As young people, we had the good fortune to be allowed to be involved in doing the readings, leading the intercessions, and sometimes leading the Liturgy of the Word. I even got to preach as a teenager. Girls and boys were treated very fairly by our Sunday-school teachers, and I think they saw the potential gifts in all of us.

It was around the age of 14 when I had this sense that my vocation was about being a minister of the gospel. There were women who were Church Army Sisters, and I knew we had deaconesses, but I also knew that they weren't fully in charge. I had the sense that I was going to be in charge, and I was going to lead, and I never doubted God.

I remember thinking, "God, I believe you called me, but I don't see women doing that so you're going to have to work it out."

[After emigrating to Britain] I applied for the Church, but the attitude of those when I applied - including my examining chaplain, an older woman - was that I should be looking after my husband and child.

You'd think the Church would say: "We have very few ethnic-minority clergy; so let's test her vocation;" but instead it was: "Look after your husband and child" - a rather crazy thing to do.

I trained, and was ordained as a deacon in 1991 and priest in 1994. I served my curacy in Wolverhampton, but people initially didn't want me, because they were from a particular Evangelical tradition. I believe they asked if they could have my husband instead of me. I went there knowing that, and the PCC, I was told, had resigned en bloc.

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[Later], I came to Hackney, in east London. A big challenge to me was that the church was very High Church, and didn't want a woman. I met up with one of the wardens, and I asked her to put all her cards on the table.

"Has it got anything to do with the fact that I'm black?" And she said,"Well, frankly, yes."

So I said to them, "Now that you've put your cards on the table, let me put mine on the table. I have just arrived here, and I have no intention of rushing away; so you or anyone else who doesn't like me, either because I'm black or because I'm a woman, you're free to go. Furthermore, I'm very content and happy in my skin, and in my gender."

They eventually left, and I thanked God. And the church has grown.

You have to have that call deep inside your gut to be able to walk in that direction and to follow in the footsteps of Christ, to be able to pray daily, and to be able to love even the prickly people that come in your direction.

Because all those wretched folks who say no to you because you're a woman - you've still got to love them. It is not an option. I say to young women, "Listen to that still small voice. And if you hear it, do not be afraid to say 'Yes'. The world may tell you 'No', because you'rea woman, but don't forget you're not answering to them, you're answerable to God." And so I have no regrets that I gave my life to the Church.

 

JANE WILLIAMS

I GREW up in South India. My parents were missionaries there for the Church Mission Society, and I was born there, and lived there until I was about eight. I'm one of five sisters; so it was like a Jane Austen family, and I think I've always assumed that the world was largely feminine.

Although my father was a very strong personality, it was an overwhelmingly female household. I went to a girls' boarding school in the hills; so I never really had that feeling of either competition or inferiority to men as I was growing up.

But it was quite a shock when I came to read theology at Clare College, Cambridge. It was quite unusual to be a woman in Cambridge when I was a student here. I suppose I hadn't ever realised before that men had brains. Even my father didn't really count, because he was my father.

For me to realise that menare complex human beings, and have feelings and emotions and thoughts, just the same as women do, was really quite an eye-opener, and an intriguing insight into how it's possible in a very male culture for men not to know that about women.

I always find it faintly annoying when people come up and say, "It's so wonderful to see a woman doing that," because what I want to know is whether I said anything that was worth anything rather than I was noticed just because I was a woman.

We have been banging our head against the wall on this women-bishops issue, but I don't think we should blind ourselves to the fact that the Church has been quite a good employer of women at archdeacon level, deanery level, senior-incumbent level.

Quite a lot of the women that I know who are in higher positions in the Church are very strong leaders from the front, and that's how they've survived; and I think some women are very much more likely to be collaborative. But it's hard to generalise.

I do recognise that some women look more confident than they are, and I think nearly all the women I know would always slightly hedge around a statement in case somebody else didn't agree with it. I think that that is partly years of conditioning, and how they have been treated.

I think that there is also the perception that ours is a society that thinks equality means uniformity, and if we're not saying exactly the same thing about everybody, and allowing everybody to do absolutely everything just the same, then we're not making people equal. So you could argue that we are squashing men and women into less than themselves by saying that they have to do everything the same.

Is there a way of saying that men and women are interdependent? I don't like the complementarity argument, because it's a way of stereotyping what each will do, but it seems to me that the whole body-of-Christ imagery suggests that we are absolutely interdependent, and it's no good all of us trying to be a hand or a head, because then the thing doesn't function.


HELENA KENNEDY

I WAS brought up in a family that was both Roman Catholic and Socialist. And there was that combination of feeling that you were responsible for people around you, and that, in creating a better life, you wanted it for other people, too.

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Although we were Catholics, we were affected by the Presbyterian tradition, too, which is much less hierarchical; it's about flatter structures, and I think that I breathed that in.

If there were women priests in the Roman Catholic Church I think that they would be much more compassionate about the struggles that women have around things like contraception.

I am a patron of a project in central London, Women of the Well, that works with women that have become prostitutes, women who have often come from abusive homes, domestic violence, sexual abuse - horrible stuff; and have dependency then on drink and drugs.

The nuns who are at the front line working with the poorest know sometimes that those women will make choices which their livesforce on them. And the idea that they would be saying to them, "You're a disgrace because you'vehad an abortion" is just impossible.

I also know from nuns who have worked in Africa, particularly in the field of health, that they wouldn't dream of saying to people that they can't use condoms.

I think that when women take on priestly roles, they will be as varied as the kind of priests that we have. We have this conversation about whether women as judges do it differently. And the answer is that some of them do; but it also changes the nature of the judicial discourse.

If you've got women there, then the conversations become different, and you learn from each other. And I think that having a woman on our Supreme Court has been hugely beneficial to women - but we've only got one, and that makes me very cross.

When the campaign was taking place for women priests in the Anglican Church, I actually went and demonstrated with the women. And people said, "Are you an Anglican?" And I said, "No, but I just feel that if this shift happens here, then it's more likely to happen in the [Roman] Catholic Church as well."

At that time, I was doing a great deal of work on women and the law. I had looked at the reasons that were given for keeping women out of the legal profession - and indeed to keep them out of the medical profession, and so on.

And the same arguments that were used to keep women outof everything - the professions, politics, and so forth - were exactly the same kind of arguments in the Church. . . That somehow women are special, and their place is special, but it's over here, and it doesn't involve being at the heart of the matter.

It was interesting to draw to people's attention the parallels, and the way in which the arguments are made, and the way in which male-dominated institutions reach for the same arguments when it comes to excluding women. And, sometimes, it's by flattery, and not just by saying that we're somehow not up to the game.

It's not about "equal opportunities", which sounds like working in the Civil Service, or working in the corporate world. I really think that this is about our humanity.

This is an edited extract from Women in Waiting: Prejudice at the heart of the Church by Julia Ogilvy, published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69), and appears by permission.

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