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Poll uncovers obstacles for conservative Evangelical women

20 January 2017

Women who hold conservative Evangelical views are discouraged from ordination, Madeleine Davies reports


Calling: the Revd Carrie Sandom addresses the ReNew conference in Leeds last summer. ReNew’s statement of faith states: “The ministry of men and women is equally valid, valuable, and necessary in God’s eyes, but the Church must take care to obey scripture with regard to preserving the complementarity of roles”

Calling: the Revd Carrie Sandom addresses the ReNew conference in Leeds last summer. ReNew’s statement of faith states: “The ministry of m...

ALMOST no conservative Evangelical women are training, or being put forward for ordination, even to be permanent deacons, a Church Times survey has found.

Reports had been received that conservative Evangelical women who took a complementarian (headship) view of the sexes — and would be unlikely to seek ordination to the priesthood, but might be interested in the diaconate — were being advised not to explore ordination, because no posts were available to them.

At least two had been told that they would have to reimburse their dioceses after training, unless they found a stipendiary position within two years.

Of the 29 diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs) who responded to the survey, four said that they had been approached by women who held a “complementarian” view of the sexes. In this view, women should not hold positions in church leadership that involve teaching, or authority over, men.

The Church of England’s official vocations website invites those exploring ministry to consider the “distinctive diaconate”, and defines deacons as “ambassadors for the Church, relating church and world”.

Conservative Evangelical Anglican women are a distinct constituency. In 2012, more than 2200 petitioned the House of Bishops against the draft women-bishops legislation (News, 25 May 2012). Next week, more than 100 are due to attend the annual Women in Ministry conference organised by the Proclamation Trust for women involved in Bible-teaching ministry.

The Chester DDO, the Revd Magdalen Smith, said that in two-and-a-half years in post she had had one such female candidate, currently due to go to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) in the Spring.

The Southwark DDO, Canon Leanne Roberts, said that she had encountered only one such woman in more than five years in post: “In a very short space of time, it transpired that her incumbent had told her that this [the diaconate] was the only option for her, and that he would withdraw his support if she offered as a candidate for priesthood. Her vocation was clearly priestly, and, despite the process being long, and painful for her at times, she was ordained a priest at Petertide, to her great joy.”

Canon Roberts believes that the diocese has more conservative Evangelical men offering for ordination than any other single group, and said that a large number were sent for selection, and went on to train. “If anything, we see a higher percentage than from other traditions”, she said.

In Oxford, the DDO, the Revd Caroline Windley, did not know whether an Evangelical woman, recently ordained, who wished to remain a deacon, was motivated by a complementarian conviction.

“We do have a number of women who have offered for priestly ministry who have come from churches where the leadership holds to complementarian views, and they have needed to do a lot of work on their sense of identity during training,” she said. “However, they have been convinced throughout that they are called to priestly ministry.”

The DDO in Worcester, the Revd Dr John Fitzmaurice, said that a woman who met the criteria had moved dioceses during the process.

The Revd Sue Field, the Leicester DDO, said that a woman from a conservative Evangelical church was on placement to gain experience of preaching, “as she does feel called to the priesthood. Her incumbent is supportive, even though he does not agree that women should be ordained.”

Thirteen DDOs said that neither men nor women who held the complementarian view were coming forward.

“Although we have a significant number of Reform churches in the diocese who would hold complementarian views, they do not produce ordinands,” the Acting DDO for Lichfield, the Revd Pauline Shelton, said.

The Newcastle DDO, the Revd Ian Flintoft, said that none of the conservative Evangelical parishes in the diocese was putting forward candidates for ordination. He had worked with a male candidate last year, who had given up his complementarian views after working with a female incumbent.

Several DDOs agreed that there was an expectation that stipends were for priests, and that few were available for distinctive deacons. Some questioned whether Evangelical churches were likely to create posts for distinctive deacons.

“The distinctive-deacon role is extremely rare in Evangelical churches, as the emphasis is on preaching and leading rather than eucharistic ministry,” one DDO said. “If you take a view that women cannot lead/preach, then why be a deacon?”

“I’m sure there’s an issue with distinctive-diaconate posts’ not attracting funding,” the Ely DDO, the Revd Anna Matthews, said. “But I think there’s also an issue about conservative Evangelical parishes’ not encouraging women to consider any type of ordained ministry, as our diocesan figures suggest.”

“I wonder if part of the issue is our generally weak support for the ordained diaconate in general,” the Hereford DDO, the Revd Neil Patterson, said. “Certainly my understanding is that many large parishes, of which at least some must be conservative Evangelical, willingly employ full-time female children and families workers, who may even have trained at theological colleges, but either do not wish or never think that this could be a role distinguished by diaconal ordination.”

The Revd Carrie Sandom, a deacon and self-supporting minister at St John’s, Tunbridge Wells, said that she had spoken to several women and their incumbents, who had been told by DDOs, archdeacons, and bishops “very early on — usually over the phone — that it’s a waste of everyone’s time if a formal approach is made, because there just aren’t the jobs available for them”.

Women were also being deterred by the message on funding, she said: “I know of two women who were told they would each have to reimburse their sending dioceses who paid for their theological training if they didn’t find a stipendiary position within two years. This was after they were gladly accepted for diaconal training a few years before.”

She believes that the Church has changed “incredibly” since she was ordained in 1994, at which point the Act of Synod “allowed for those who came from more conservative backgrounds to at least expect there would be jobs there for them. Increasingly, that proved not to be the case.” The Church was “not supporting the permanent diaconate in any serious way any more,” she said.

“I do not know of any conservative Evangelical woman who has got through the selection conference in the past five to seven years, because they do not see there would be a viable job for them at the end of their training if they do not want to be an ordained priest.”

This situation is shaping the advice that she gives to students at the Cornhill Training Course, run by the Proclamation Trust in London, where two days a week she leads women training in biblical exposition. Although the Course is interdenominational, many of her students are “confessionally Anglican”; but she believes that they will be looking increasingly towards the independent churches, or Anglican churches that can fund them directly.

At St John’s, Ms Sandom co-ordinates the women’s ministry, which includes 12 women’s Bible-study groups each week. The complementarian position has been misunderstood in the Church of England, she argues. The idea that those who hold this position are “anti-women” is “nonsense”.

At the General Synod last February, the director of Reform, Susie Leafe, asked a question about the ordination of women who sought a complementarian ministry. She understands that conversations are now under way at a national level. The lack of a clear pathway to the diaconate for such women — who were being “told there isn’t a way of doing it” — meant that conservative Evangelical churches were paying for them to pursue training in other ways, she said.

Some were gaining theological degrees as independent candidates. She believes that the number of women being employed by conservative Evangelical churches is “not far off” the number of female clergy. These churches would “appreciate the role that these women are playing being recognised”. The status quo, that churches were paying for their training, meant that it was easier for women in larger churches to pursue this path.

The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, said that that it would be “very good if Ministry Division could do more to encourage female participation in the permanent diaconate”. He had met one young woman “now pursuing the possibility of a BAP, because I encouraged her to consider the permanent diaconate”.

Many conservative Evangelical ordinands attend Oak Hill, which trains women for both the diaconate and the priesthood. A review of the college published by the Ministry Council last year found that of the 51 Anglican ordinands, two were women. The college had made “significant efforts to try to encourage more female ordinands”, and had been disappointed that invitations to DDOs and sponsoring bishops to visit had not been taken up.

The issue, the review concluded, was “the lack of female ordinands presenting themselves, or being sent, for training at Oak Hill”, and the Church needed to support the college. The review recommended changes to the curriculum as it related to women’s ministry, including the addition of a history of the deaconess movement.

The acting Warden of Cranmer Hall, the Revd Dr Kate Bruce, said that the current cohort did not include any women who held a complementarian view, but that she was not aware of people who were held back from training for the diaconate. The question of “deployability” might be at play, she suggested: “With resources being tighter, there is less money around in the system. I suspect people are wanting lots more for their money.”

A tutor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, said that Miss Sandom’s analysis cohered with his understanding of the situation

“There are plenty of young Evangelical women with Bible-teaching and pastoral gifts, and a vocation to Anglican parish ministry, who hold to a complementarian theology,” he said. “It is frankly baffling that the Church of England shows no desire to recruit, train, and deploy them. They are an untapped resource, and would be a blessing to many ministry teams.

“In our current drive for 50 per cent more and younger ordinands, we need far more imagination in reaching this forgotten female constituency. But that requires our dioceses and Ministry Division to embrace the potential of the permanent diaconate, including full-time stipendiary deacons, in much more creative ways than they do now.”

The Principal of St John’s School of Mission (formerly College), Nottingham, the Revd Dr David Hilborn, said that he was “greatly exercised” by the need to recognise the value of the diaconate.

“While I might not myself agree theologically with women who wish to commit themselves to the permanent diaconate from complementarian motives, it is consistent with the Church of England’s formal position that they should be allowed to test, pursue, and exercise their vocation as permanent deacons,” he said.

“Given this, if female complementarian candidates for the permanent diaconate are being turned down purely on the basis of their complementarianism, that would be wrong.”

He had “worked alongside wonderful men and women of God who take a complementarian position, and whose holiness and dedication to Jesus Christ puts me to shame”.


Annabel Heywood, Associate Minister (Women and Parish), St Ebbe’s, Oxford. I HAVE never thought about getting ordained, because being ordained now assumes leading a church, and there is no longer an accepted and respected diaconate — at least, not one that the Church of England is prepared to support financially and long-term. As a woman, I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to lead a church, but I do feel called to church-based ministry. There is so much work needed to reach, teach, train, support, and care for women in the parish, and in our church, that the extra work of leading a church would diminish the way I could serve women locally. I have worked at St Ebbe’s for 21 years, and hope very much to be able to stay in the Church of England long-term.”

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