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From the archive: First 57 women are ordained as priests in four ceremonies

12 March 2019

Twenty-five years ago today, in Bristol Cathedral, the first 32 women were ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. This story was published on the front page of the Church Times on 18 March 1994


The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Barry Rogerson, enthroned in his cathedral, addresses 32 deacons before he lays his hands on them and says the prayer that makes them priests, on 12 March 1994

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Barry Rogerson, enthroned in his cathedral, addresses 32 deacons before he lays his hands on them and says the pray...

‘Warmly welcomed’, 32 new priests emerge at Bristol and 25 at Sheffield

by Betty Saunders

THE first 32 of the 1200 women to be priested in the Church of England between now and July were ordained in Bristol Cathedral between 5 p.m. and 7.15 p.m. last Saturday with the eyes of the world upon them. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said on Saturday morning that the majority of people in the Church believed the move to be God’s will. “We believe that this change is warmly welcomed by most of our fellow citizens and that it will strengthen our Church’s ministry to them,” their statement said.

No one outside Bristol Cathedral as the queues began to form in the chill wind would have known that any other point of view existed. No “anti” demo materialised. The Revd Francis Bown (who unveiled a placard about the murdered Church of England) and Canon Malcolm Widdecombe (who had his funeral bell tolled from St Philip and St Jacob’s a mile away) accounted for the anti movement.

There were demos, but they were all pro. Banners on College Green turned out to belong to the Roman Catholic Women’s Network. “Equal rites for RC women next”, the banners said; and “RC Church — women priests yes, misogynists no”. MOW, the Movement for the Ordination of Women, was there with purple flags proclaiming “Woman’s place is in the House of Bishops.”

The first sight of Bishop Barry Rogerson raised a cheer from one of the queues. He emerged in pale grey, very dapper, to tell the waiting faithful that when they reached the presentation (the point in the service at which the congregation is asked if it wishes the candidates to be ordained priest), “I don’t want to hear any Anglican mumbling.” This was also the point at which a verbal objection might have been made, but a young Evangelical clergyman who wrote to Bishop Rogerson asking permission to read a statement was told the answer was no. And when it came to the presentation — after a sermon in which the Bishop spoke of the Spirit of God being at work in the 32 — he heard not a mumble, but a concerted shout of acceptance.

Bishop Rogerson ordained, assisted by the Rt Revd Peter Firth, Bishop of Malmesbury, and each of the candidates had chosen four priests specifically to lay hands on her. The area was crowded with comings and goings; but this was nothing to the movement when, after a huge burst of applause, the peace broke out. The hugging and kissing went on for 15 minutes, as must have been expected, for towards the end of the hymn “Lord for the years” the order of service said: “Members of the congregation are requested to return to their seats by the beginning of this verse.”

The communion hymn would have been familiar to the absent ones for whom the Bishop prayed, “those to whom this is a day of sadness”. It was the one which prays that wanderers may be brought “Back to the faith which saints believed of old, Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep”. And there was another surprise slipped into the service before the dismissal. A Flemish Roman Catholic priest from Flanders, Fr Mark Cornells, went to the lectern and prayed “that also the Roman Catholic Church may finally be able to overcome ossified and discriminating legislation, and allow women to be ordained and lead the way in preaching God’s word, in celebrating the eucharist, and in showing ways for the community of faith to go.” He represented a Flemish group, Priests and Monks for Justice and Peace.

The 32 women priested were: Angela Berners-Wilson, Waveney Bishop, Christine Clarke, Judith Creighton, Faith Cully, Brenda Dowie, Canon Carol Edwards, Margaret Embry, Annis Fessey, Janet Fortune-Wood, Susan Giles, Jane Hayward, Jean Kings, Karen MacKinnon, Audrey Maddock, Canon Charmion Mann, Helen Marshall, Glenys Mills, Jilliane Norman, Clare Pipe-Wolferstan, June Plummer, Susan Restall, Susan Rose, Susan Shipp, Margery Simpson, Sylvia Stevens, Judith Thompson, Anita Thome, Sheila Tyler, Pauline Wall, Sister Rosemary Dawn Watling, and Valerie Woods.

Three days at Sheffield

HARD on the heels of Bristol came Sheffield, the first northern diocese to ordain. Ten women were priested in Sheffield Cathedral on Tuesday, eight on Wednesday, and a further seven were due to be ordained yesterday, all by the Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt Revd Michael Gear, but in the presence of the diocesan bishop, the Rt Revd David Lunn.

Lord Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was the preacher on Tuesday. “In days when exclusively male leadership has been abandoned elsewhere, a priesthood which is purely male is up against huge obstacles in fulfilling its task,” he said. “Many Anglican communities already have experienced the riches which a woman’s pastoral care can bring.”

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