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09 May 2014

by Janet Fife


I was ordained priest in Salford on 23 April 1994, St George's Day. I had been a deacon for almost seven years, in three different posts. It feels such a long time ago now; there have been many changes since, and yet much has remained unchanged.

That weekend, I kept a diary. Here is my account, written at the time, of my ordination weekend.


MY LAST full day before we go into retreat. I pick up the sherry I will be serving after church on Sunday, and begin cleaning the house in preparation for the reception I'm holding here after the ordination. At 12.30, Dee and Barbara arrive. Dee is a priest from our link diocese of Massachusetts, come over especially for this ordination. I have asked her to lay hands on me at the service; we have never met, but have a shared friend in Barbara.

Dee is a woman with presence: articulate, thoughtful, humorous. She speaks of her parish in Boston with genuine love, but without sentimentality. We go out for lunch, and talk the whole afternoon away. It's not until after Dee and Barbara have gone that I realise Dee is the first woman priest I have ever met.


THE morning is full of last-minute preparations. I am full of nerves. The rehearsal is relaxed, and that helps; but it takes the rest of the day to settle into the retreat. Our retreat conductor is Angela Tilby [not then ordained]. She shows us photographs of wall paintings from the catacombs, apparently showing first-century women exercising priestly ministry.

I do not take in much of what she says, but she has a healing presence, and her being there makes a real difference.

I have a mixture of feelings about the approaching ordination. Anticipation, joy, awe, and a sense of being caught up in something much bigger than myself: an important moment of history. I look round the room, thinking: "These women are going to be priests." We are so ordinary in our leggings and trainers, or tweeds and jumpers. Yet we are extraordinary; we are among the first women in England to be priests, and the world is watching. Somehow, we have been chosen for this moment.


AFTER my first meditation of the day, I unwrap the parcel a friend gave me before I left home. I find myself holding in my hand a palm-size bronze cross. A goblet of wine and loaf of bread stand in the centre, in relief. On each arm of the cross, two hands stretch, empty and yearning, towards the centre.

The realisation dawns that, after tomorrow, my own hands will be holding out the bread and wine that satisfy the hunger and thirst of the world. I am overcome once again by a sense of unworthiness and awe.

I spend most of my free time reading and meditating in the library. There, a white-haired woman bends over her embroidery. She is solid, motherly, with kind eyes; it's an image old as time. But the cloth she is embroidering is the white stole a woman will wear when she is made a priest in the Church of God.

Saturday: ordination day

THE day has been a whirl, but some things stand out: the crippling nerves that vanish as soon as the service begins; the joy that sweeps over me as we process into church singing "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty". The joy is not mine alone; the whole building vibrates with joy throughout the service.

The vicar who saw me through the selection process 12 years ago, reading the verses from 2 Corinthians 5 which had meant so much to me at that time: "God . . . has given us the ministry of reconciliation." The irony that we, who know ourselves called to a ministry of reconciliation, are, despite ourselves, a cause of division.

We have been warned that a protest may be lodged against our ordination. But when the Bishop asks: "Is it your will that they should be ordained?" he is met with a roar: "It is!"

Kneeling before the Bishop, aware only of a lot of hands and heat. Turning to descend the steep chancel steps, and finding that my eyes have blurred with tears, and I cannot see properly.

Afterwards, the crowd of well-wishers: cards, presents, and flowers being pressed into my arms, photographs being taken. Home to the party afterwards, in a daze. More flowers and cards, some from people I've never met; one is from the Bishops of Massachusetts.

A Roman Catholic friend drops to his knees, saying he wants to be the first to receive my blessing as a priest. I am so overcome I cannot get a word out (I manage it, later). Another gives me a crucifix which has been blessed by the Pope [John Paul II]. I wonder, what would the Pope have thought if he'd known to whom it was going?


MY FIRST celebration of holy communion; not only a first for me, but also the first time these people have seen a woman celebrate. The sense of oneness with other women in this diocese celebrating their first communion. Tears prick my eyelids as I pronounce the absolution. I am moved, but cannot quite escape the feeling that I am doing something that's not allowed.

The obvious joy of the people, the sense of unity, and, as the service proceeds, the strong sense of God's presence. During the consecration, the feeling that time and eternity have run together; and, as my hands move over the bread and wine, that I am standing on holy ground. I am awed and surprised; my Evangelical theology had not led me to expect this.

Going into a packed church hall afterwards, and being presented with a huge, beautiful, and most unexpected bouquet of flowers. Cries of "Speech!" - but I am too near tears to make a speech. They seem not to mind.


I STILL have trouble taking it in; I'm struggling happily with a new sense of identity. I have a strange new feeling; is this what fulfilment is like? An odd sensation at the heart of me, as if some stiff old wound is beginning to warm and soften. As if a long-fractured bone has at last been put into alignment, and can begin to heal.

The Revd Janet Fife is retired. Our picture shows her at her ordination as a deacon in 1987.

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