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Wanted: young women priests

14 October 2016

Churches can take positive action to encourage vocations, says Liz Clutterbuck

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YOUNG men (32 and under) training for stipendiary ministry currently outnumber young women by nearly three to one (News, 23 September). Young ordinands make up 26 per cent of all those in training. The Church of England wants to increase that to 50 per cent, and boost the number of women among them — a noble aim.

I was 29 when I was selected as one of this minority within a minority — even more so; for, as someone from the Evangelical end of the Church’s spectrum, I fell into the least-represented category of young women.

To meet its target, the Church needs to be intentional in its theo­logy and practice. Increasing the number of young women in min­istry will not happen unless direct action is undertaken, barriers are removed, and potential ord­inands are encouraged. There is no point in trying to urge women to be ordained if they cannot see a place for themselves within the Church.

A huge amount of progress has been made in recent years. Some of my friends pointed to the ordin­ation of the first women priests as a turning-point in their vocational journey, and perhaps the same will be true as more women are appointed to the most senior posts in the Church.

Gender is still an issue, however, and many women may be hesitant to join a Church where their calling can be rejected in certain circles. The evolution of the post of Dean or Adviser in Women’s Ministry in most dioceses has gone a long way towards demonstrating the encour­age­ment of women. My experience of them has been both positive and encouraging.


ONE of the best ways for the Church to encourage women is to involve them in local ministry. In general terms, there is parity in the number of female and male clergy, but there are exceptions — particu­larly in larger churches, where male incumbents are a significant major­ity.

If you dig a little deeper into the leadership of churches, many have female clergy elsewhere in their teams. If, however, a church is led by a man, or by a predominantly male team, there are few women who can set an example.

One opportunity has been offered by theological colleges where ordinands take up long-term placements with parishes. A female ordinand complements male clergy, and provides an example of women in leadership. During my own placement, when I was training at St Mellitus, I worked alongside a team of male clergy in a church largely made up of young adults.

Over the three years I was there, at least three women made the decision to go forward for ordina­tion. I am not saying that it was all due to my influence, but I was one of several women who regularly joined in leading worship, and
set an example that others could follow. Another large young church chose, two years ago, deliberately to balance the genders among those who led services and preached, bringing lay people alongside male clergy.

Ensuring that women are seen preaching or leading services helps to demonstrate a theology that supports women in leadership, pro­vides examples to inspire women in the congregation, and encourages people’s gifts. Letting young women “have a go” is also a great way for a church to demon­strate its intention to foster vocations. It can be done in a relatively safe space such as a home group or small service.

An invitation to take part in lead­ing worship is also seen by many young women as a vote of con­fidence in their calling. Recent re-
search into vocations among young people suggests that women find such encouragement par­t­icu­larly important in their journey to ordination.


YOUNG women also need to be accompanied: to be in a place where questions can be asked, fears aired, and reassurance given. This could involve something as simple as an occasional coffee with someone able to guide them through the process, outside the official world of voca­tions advisers and diocesan di­rec­tors of ordinands; or it might be a gathering of women who are ex­­ploring their callings together.

For many, it might mean inten­tional mentoring. This is particu­larly important in contexts where women are absent from leadership, and where the men­toring of women by men is regarded as inappropriate.

If a church cannot provide a suitable mentor from within its team, it needs to take on the respon­sibility of finding someone else. Plenty of women will agree to do this, or will know someone else who can. Enabling women to know that this is even an option can, however, be a struggle.

The demystification of female priests is also essential. Among male clergy, there are many different ways of being a priest, but it can be difficult to find a similar variety of women. Fears about what becoming “a vicar” might mean for a woman’s relationship status or family life are a common theme among younger age groups.

There are also questions about whether it is harder to find a hus­band when you are ordained, or whether being a mother is compat­ible with being a priest. Hearing from women who have done this is essential. So is an increased aware­ness and co-ordination from dio­ceses regarding practical issues such as finance, housing, and maternity leave. The last is a particularly big issue, as each diocese formulates its own policy.


IT IS the struggle to find mentors, to network, and to meet other fe­­male priests which makes vocations conferences so important. It takes less confidence to attend a big gathering — particularly one that is all female — than it does to have a one-to-one conversation. Network­ing with other women is an excel­lent way to share concerns and find guides. It is also a place where the different facets of life in ministry can be presented.

In the Stepney area of London diocese, we have recently held a low-key vocations morning, looking more widely at leadership, not just in a church context. In such a way, more women might begin the process of thinking about their vocation in general terms. I have already witnessed the ordination of women who attended a female young-vocations day I was involved in three years ago: they do have an impact.

Women are not going to be en­­couraged into exploring ordination without the intentional actions of others. If you are not in a position to help with any of the actions mentioned above, there is one more important part that you can play: pray. Pray for those who are explor­ing God’s call, and for those who journey with them. I hope that God will do the rest.


The Revd Elizabeth Clutterbuck is Assistant Curate of Christ Church, Highbury, in the diocese of London.

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