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Women in ministry: the next steps

02 March 2018

In response to Women’s History Month, Johanna Derry looks at issues faced by women clergy

Nicky Hill Photography

The Revd Anna Eltringham officiates at a wedding

The Revd Anna Eltringham officiates at a wedding

A CENTURY since the start of women’s suffrage, women’s equality — or lack of it — continues to make the news, from sexual harassment claims to gender-pay-gap revelations.

The Church of England has been part of this narrative, most recently in December, when it announced the appointment of the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally as the first female Bishop of London, the third most senior bishop in the Church of England (News, 22 December 2017). Twenty-four years after women were first accepted for ordination as priests, and three-and-a-half years after the General Synod voted to accept women bishops, has equality finally been achieved?

”I think that no one looks twice now when they see a woman priest — it’s accepted, and most people are very happy with it. It seems normative rather than quirky, and I think we’ve made very quick progress on the way women bishops have been received, too,” the Revd Sheridan James, Vicar of St Catherine’s, Hatcham, says. She is the dean of women’s ministry for the Woolwich Area. “Who could have believed that the next Bishop of London would be a woman? I think that female clergy are doing a great job, and both churches and local communities have been on the positive receiving end of that.”

Prebendary Paula Hollingsworth, dean of women’s ministry for Bath & Wells, and treasurer of the National Association of Diocesan Advisers in Women’s Ministry, agrees: “In most places, there has been a huge culture change. Now, places like the House of Bishops, bishops’ staff teams, and cathedral chapters are seeking to appoint women, if possible, because they recognise they worked better when there were women as part of the team.”

”There has been huge progress made since women were first ordained,” Prebendary Kathy Roberts, dean of women’s ministry in Exeter diocese, says. “The issues now are more subtle: lack of self-confidence, unconscious bias, the lack of young vocations among women, and maternity leave, to mention a few.”

These are significant challenges. “Women are still really trying to fit into a traditional model of ministry predominated by men. There is no judgement about that. It just takes time to change an institutional way of doing things,” says the Revd Anna Eltringham, dean of women’s ministry for Southwark diocese and a team vicar in the Oxted Team Ministry.

The Revd Anna Eltringham with children who made their first communion last month

ONE of the ways to overcome the traditional model is to increase the number of role-models — particularly of young women — in stipendiary positions. “Historically, the balance was that women coming forward for ministry tended to be older, and were applying for non-stipendiary or assistant roles, and men were younger and seeking incumbent ministry,” the Church of England’s head of discipleship and vocation, Catherine Nancekievill, says (Feature, 7 July 2017).

A Ministry Division research officer, Dr Liz Graveling, who is overseeing the Living Ministry research programme, finds that “Women still do tend to come into ministry older. . . That might be because they’ve chosen to raise their families first, for example. The knock-on effect has been there are more women in self-supporting roles than in incumbencies.”

The national young-vocations adviser, Claire Whitmore, has been working to redress that particular balance. “We’ve been asking dioceses to pay attention to speaking about young women’s vocations, and to host vocation days where women can meet others like them in ordained ministry.”

This work is being supported by organisations such as the Allchurches Trust, which has invested almost £700,000 in the Ministry Experience scheme, a year-long programme to enable adults aged 18 to 30 to experience and explore their vocation. The scheme currently has a 50-50 gender split.

Chris DobsonLaura Faturoti with her third child, born two weeks before her training for ordination began

PART of bringing about cultural change also includes tackling unconscious bias — including a tendency among clergy not to identify potential ordinands among women in their congregations.

“It’s not just a change in the perception of women themselves that we need,” Mrs Nancekievill says, “but also in the people leading. It’s easier for ministers to see people like them, and think about them having the same calling. It’s not sexism or racism in an outright way.”

To tackle this, the Ministry Division is launching the Great Vocations Conversation next month: a challenge to clergy to talk about vocation with someone unlike them once a month.

“Some of the difficulties for a woman being seen as a potential minister also apply to black and Asian people, people of different ethnicities, disabled people, and working-class people. But God calls all sorts of different people,” Mrs Nancekievill says.

Even in the past year, progress has been made on this. The number of women coming forward for training increased by 19 per cent in 2017, bringing parity to the training intake.

“My impression would be that, over the last five to ten years, definitely, the average age of women in training — especially residential training — has fallen, and their numbers as a proportion of the whole have risen,” the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, says.

“A generation ago, residential ordinands were predominantly male and young, and non-residential students older and female, though there is probably still something of this flavour around. There’s still quite a lot of cultural change to bring about in the Church more generally, as well as in institutions like this.”

“This year, our intake is just over 50 per cent women,” the Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Emma Ineson, says. “It’s such a delight. Many of those women are under 30, and it’s a great joy to see them being able to follow God’s call for their lives, whatever their circumstances — whether they’re single, married, no children, or children. None of those things should be seen as a barrier, or an obstacle, to what God’s calling them to do.”

Trinity was one of the first colleges to open a full-time nursery on site, and take a proactive approach to make training for women possible.

Laura Faturoti is benefiting from Trinity’s open approach. She had her third child two weeks before her training began, and has been supported throughout her residential course, which she completes this year. “It feels to me that there’s been a fundamental shift in having those conversations openly. If you want women to train, then they’re quite often going to come with children, and you need to work that out. It’s not a barrier: it just takes a few tweaks.”

The Revd Sheridan James, Vicar of St Catherine’s, Hatcham

HOW women balance their vocation to motherhood with their vocation in the Church, however, remains a challenge. “The hours worked and the expectations of parishes — and often clergy themselves — that vicars will work six days a week, morning, afternoon, and evening, make it difficult for some women to feel they can balance family life and ministry,” Ms Hollingsworth says.

“Women will wonder how they can make family life, or a husband or partner who also has a vocation or career, dovetail with this ‘whole-life’ role,” Mrs Eltringham agrees. “Often, they will wait until later in life, or opt for non-stipendiary roles. However, there is a great opportunity here, which has to date only been limited in fruition, for new, more flexible, more creative options. Job-sharing, working part-time, team ministry, and other creative models — these have begun to develop, and are still limited, but could, in fact, be a gift not just to women, but the whole Church.”

There should be a national benchmark on maternity or parental leave, and it should not be left to diocesan discretion, Ms Hollingsworth believes. “At the moment, it is very bewildering for younger women contemplating ministry and wanting to start and continue a family.”

It is something that Ms Roberts has come across in her own diocese. “On paper, the maternity or family-friendly policies look good. In practice, people have found they haven’t worked out as well.”

Chichester diocese has overcome this by receiving input on the policy from active clergy with young children. “We’ve worked hard on our maternity policy, and have a good leave policy for clergy now,” Canon Ann Waizeneker, dean of women’s ministry in the diocese, says.

The Vicar of St Pancras, the Revd Anne Stevens, dean of women’s ministry for the Edmonton Area, agrees with the need for more change. “I think the Church of England is still struggling to come to terms with the Equality Act 2010. Specific exemptions were granted when the legislation went through, but the Church is certainly not exempt from all the other provisions and requirements of the Act.

“We urgently need to put clear equality and diversity policies in place at every level of the Church’s life, and then set up a pattern of regular audits to monitor progress and ensure significant improvement. This is about gospel as well as law, as the continuing presence of discrimination in the Church is now significantly damaging the Church’s mission among younger people.”

“Inequality does not start at the church door,” the Revd Alison Fulford, dean for women in ministry in the Chester diocese, says. “Gender inequality is still a problem in our society more widely. We are bringing problems into the pews and pulpits, as well as finding some already there.”


Canon Ann Waizeneker, dean of women’s ministry in Chichester diocese

IN SOUTHWARK diocese, part-time curacies are now an option, Mrs Eltringham says, “which can help women manage the needs of a young family alongside ministry; and we are in the process of building in a pastoral conversation during maternity leave to ensure women have the support they need, and can explore different ways of working, if they need to, as they return to ministry.

“There is still much more to do, and shifts in bias in parishes, for example, may only come with time, and the gentle challenge of women incumbents and other clergy.”

“We’ve found that encouraging women to meet together regularly, for encouragement of one another, is helpful, as is training in terms of assertiveness — as well as mentoring and workshops for both men and women on how to deal with issues like bullying,” Ms Roberts says.

“Being able to see people like Bishop Mullally in roles like these helps, too,” Dr Graveling says. “She represents people who have worked in other careers as well, which really helps, because one of the barriers for women is that they don’t see themselves as the ‘typical vicar’.”

”I think now it’s more about overcoming the historic stuff,” Mrs Faturoti says. “We need to let women know there aren’t the barriers they think there are. This is a really exciting time for women, because this generation doesn’t question whether this is possible for them. You don’t need to wait to have your children, or to gain life experience. If this is what God is calling you to, then go for it.”

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