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Cloth cut to a woman's shape

13 November 2015

The dearth of young women ordinands is being addressed. Rosemary Lain-Priestley wants to speed up the process

Jack Boskett

On the rise: the Revd Helen Collins is a young priest in Bristol

On the rise: the Revd Helen Collins is a young priest in Bristol

SINCE the launch in 2008 of “Call Waiting”, an initiative encouraging young people to consider ordination, the proportion of ordinands under 30 has risen from 15 per cent to 23 per cent.

Within this success story, however, there is a worrying strand. The ratio of male-to-female ordinands consistently remained at about 7:2 from 2006 to 2013.

Thanks to some positive interventions, such as the appointment of Young Vocations Advisers, and holding regular vocations conferences aimed specifically at young women, the picture is gradually changing.

The National Adviser for Young Vocations, the Revd Liz Boughton, reports that the figures from 2014 show that the gender ratio is now almost 2:1 men to women.

Yet there is still much work to be done to capitalise on these improving statistics. There remains a complex web of factors that contribute to the under-representation of young women.

In 2011, a conference held at Lambeth Palace explored the theology and experience of women in ministry. From this came the Transformations Agenda, and some initial research, carried out by Dr Liz Graveling, which highlighted several inhibiting factors for young women candidates.

These included: perceptions about themselves and ordination; lack of role-models and mentors; not enough opportunities to experience ministry; gender-based hostility; and some ill-fitting aspects of the Church’s processes and structures.

The importance of role-models is emphasised repeatedly whenever the issue of female vocations is raised, and cannot be overestimated. Where women have experienced the ministry of female clergy, this is highly significant for their own perception of what is possible and appropriate.

The Deputy Warden of Cranmer Hall, the Revd Dr Kate Bruce, asks: “Do we know how visually powerful it is to see a faithful, vibrant, punchy young woman, whether married, single, or with children, up front, leading a congregation? And what an impact that has on congregation members who are struggling with being married, single, or bringing up a family?”

The Dean of St Mellitus College, in London, the Revd Dr Andrew Emerton, talks about the importance and impact of appointing women to positions in theological education institutions (TEIs): “We have an equal gender balance on our staff team. Fifty per cent of our full-time mixed-mode ordinands are under 30 when they start training; 48 per cent of the current ordinands are female.”


WHEN it comes to mentors, there is often the problem that some male clergy consider mentoring young women to be inappropriate, which causes a deficit.

Some are sent to the wives of church leaders, who themselves have been given positions of leadership without selection or training, suggesting subliminally that women can exercise leadership by proxy only, and if they are married.

The Revd Lis Goddard, who chairs Awesome, a network of female clergy from across the Evangelical spectrum, says that “There is a real need for those of us who are incumbents to develop a habit of nurturing vocations.

“All the evidence shows that the majority of parishes who are producing young vocations tend to produce predominantly young men, unless there is a reason to look for the young women.”

This includes many of those classed as “larger churches”. It is worth noting that, of the 177 churches with an average Sunday attendance of at least 350, only three are currently led by women.


RUTHI BANBURY, an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, reflects on her vocational journey. She remembers a conversation with a woman who told her that, if she pursued this path, she might never get married or have children.

Many female clergy, some of whom are now married, acknowledge that they once feared this to be true. “No one would want to marry a vicar, would they?” one said. Some were even told this by their Diocesan Director of Ordinands.

Modern dating norms are not what the Church or society expects of clergy. There can be an unrealistic expectation that relationships remain invisible, increasing the pressure to get married quickly, in spite of the difficulty of dating in the goldfish bowl of a theological college or curacy.

For married women who have, or hope to have, children, negotiating the interweaving of vocations can be both deeply rewarding and highly stressful.

Which way the balance tips depends on numerous factors, including personality and preference, models of parenting, wider family support networks, finance, and the expectations of those who are responsible for recognising and nurturing vocations.

Of course, these issues have an impact on male ordinands with families, too, but women still predominate as the primary care-givers.

The DDO in Chester diocese, the Revd Magdalen Smith, says: “When young women come to me, they are full of the practical questions about how discernment, training, and ministry will work with the demands of a young family. On the whole, I find that young men don’t come with these kinds of questions.”

The difficulty of managing other people’s expectations, a culture of endemic overwork, lack of clarity about what incumbency with children looks like — particularly, perhaps, for women within the Catholic tradition — are all factors in the equation.

Nobody speaks of these as deal-breakers, though: there is a ready acknowledgment of the potential released when new models are created, and a growing recognition that this generation must forge them.

Ten years ago, while exploring ordination, Jodie Stanford was told that “everyone knows that young women are a poor investment, because, when they have kids, they can’t hack it full-time.”

More recently, and in stark contrast, Rebecca Bell attended a Bishops’ Advisory Panel when she was eight months pregnant, was given an en-suiteroom, and then asked by the solicitous chef what exactly she could eat at that stage of her pregnancy.

Katie Lawrence, an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, brings her experience as a dancer and mother to her priestly formation: “I’ve found that having a famil, rather than acting as a barrier has actually enhanced and deepened my understanding of ‘call’.”

The Revd Catherine Williams, formerly a National Adviser for Vocations and a Selection Secretary, agrees that those involved in the discernment process should appropriately encourage candidates to be “informed about the joys and challenges, and have realistic expectations about the pressures”.

What is not acceptable is to withhold recommendation for training on the basis of cultural assumptions about gender roles.


THE Revd Dr Emma Ineson is Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, where, since 2009, eight women have given birth during training, and there is an OFSTED-registered nursery on site with significantly reduced fees.

“If we are going to welcome increasing numbers of younger women ordinands,” she says, “we will have to recognise that some young women have babies, and make that a source of blessing for themselves and others rather than see it as a problem.

“If the priesthood is to be fully representative of humanity, that will include breastfeeding mothers.”

Through a case-by-case approach, she says, and by being flexible about the order in which work is completed, it has always been possible to ensure that training requirements are fulfilled.

Anika Gardiner started at Trinity when her first child was two years old. She has since had a second baby, who comes with her into college. It is both “lovely” and “hard and exhausting”, she says.

“It makes me sad if women think that they have to wait to have children first, and then explore their calling. How often do we hear of men delaying their exploration because they want to start a family?”

The fact that maternity pay is not available during training is also seen as a significant factor in delaying ordination.

Once women are ordained, a lack of readily available information — without having to ask — about maternity leave, family-friendly policies, and the possibility of flexible working, is off-putting.

So, also, is the huge disparity between provision in different dioceses. Although some dioceses offer generous cover, many offer only the statutory minimum, which leaves many women with little choice but to return too soon to a job with long and potentially difficult hours.

A colleague who has worked extensively with assistant curates observes: “An ordinand is vulnerable if she gives birth towards the end of training, because she is not entitled in curacy to more than the very basic maternity pay and leave. Anything extra is at the discretion of the diocese.

“The Church just needs to own the cost as the price for having young, vibrant women in leadership, with the added benefit of some women using those years to engage in types of ministry with their own peer culture that older male clergy are far from.”

Donna Wilkie fell pregnant in her third year of training. Her training parish agreed that she and her family could move into the curate’s accommodation immediately after she finished at college, but delay the start of her curacy for three months. At the same time, the diocese of Bath & Wells continued to pay her the equivalent of her training grant.

She has now started her curacy part-time, and will become full-time when her daughter is 12 months old. “We had a sense that I would be supported as a mum, and that there was a wider view of mission,” Ms Wilkie says. “I feel that God’s people are all sorts of shapes and sizes, and, to be missional, leadership should reflect that.”

The Revd Karen Sharman writes: “We have to be strong (and humble) in order to hear that some people won’t accept our authority, don’t want us to visit them, or won’t receive communion from us.”

The Revd Faith Claringbull, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands in Birmingham, cautions that a whole generation may have to grow up without hearing protests at ordinations before young women will come forward in equal numbers.


THERE is a fundamental difference between telling young women that they are welcome to come but they have to shoehorn themselves into the way things have always been done, and actively encouraging women to inhabit the old roles in new ways.

The latter requires theological imagination, institutional flexibility, and the willingness for us all to go beyond our comfort zone.

Rachel Mallin, an ordinand, feels strongly that “Not fitting is part of why I think God has called me into all this. If we continue to fail to hear young women’s voices, and slot them into the ‘machine’, we run the risk of losing the beauty of those who do not fit, who choose not to fit, who are called not to fit.”

Can the Church make that cultural shift, and respond positively to those who look, sound, and feel different from previous generations of clergy — not only young women, but people from minority-ethnic backgrounds, with different social or educational experiences, disabilities, sexualities, or lifestyles?

We confidently proclaim that we are all made in the image of God. Do we have the courage to reflect that image more fully in the life of the Church, and to the world?


The Revd Rosemary Lain-Priestley is Dean of Women’s Ministry and Associate Archdeacon designate of the Two Cities area in the diocese of London.

Some names have been changed.

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