Lambeth service marks 25 years since women entered C of E priesthood

04 March 2019

Women who ‘struggled over decades’ recalled at Lambeth Palace

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The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, sings a hymn at a service at Lambeth Palace last Friday, to mark the 25th anniversary of the first ordinations.

The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, sings a hymn at a service at Lambeth Palace last Friday, to mark the 25th anniversary of the first ordina...

SOME of the first women to be ordained priest in the Church of England were joined by female ordinands at a service at Lambeth Palace last Friday, to mark the 25th anniversary of the first ordinations.

Many of those ordained on 12 March 1994, in Bristol Cathedral, packed into the Palace chapel, where they were joined by women bishops, priests, and ordinands for a service which was later broadcast in Sunday Worship on Radio 4.

Among those who contributed to the service was Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson, the first woman to be priested on that day 25 years ago, thanks to their alphabetical order.

The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane — who, in January 2015, became the first female bishop in the Church of England — expressed the feelings of many when she said during the service that she had come to “honour those women and men who worked and prayed and struggled over decades [or] centuries” to open up ministry to both genders.

“When I began training for ministry, women couldn’t be ordained priests, never mind bishops; but I did it anyway, because it was better to be faithful and perhaps frustrated than ignore God’s call,” she said.

“My becoming a bishop was good news for so many, a sign of hope.”

JOANNA FORBES L’ESTRANGESinging it: the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, with the composer, singer, and songwriter Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, whose song and video “Twenty-first Century Woman” are due to be launched on Friday — International Women’s Day

The pain of waiting was also recalled. Canon Emma Percy, Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, and also in the first female cohort ordained in 1994, recalled how she had “hit the glass ceiling” in 1991, when she was ordained deacon.

She and her husband were curates in the same parish. “A year later he was ordained priest, and I, as a woman, was not. This was very hard for us, placing an inequality in our marriage that we did not want.”

Hannah Barr, a first-year ordinand at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, spoke for a new generation of women entering the priesthood when she praised the trailblazers who had gone before her.

“Thank you for teaching me that being a woman is not a barrier to following God’s call,” she said. “It’s such a privilege to be training at a time when I have so many women to look up to and be inspired by.

“I look at my fellow female ordinands at college and I feel profoundly hopeful.”

Introducing the service, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that it was a fair question to ask how long the Church should continue marking these anniversaries. “In a sense, you want the ministry of women to become unremarkable, just part of the normal fabric of the life of the Church. [But] we need to recognise that we are not there yet.”

Each reading, reflection, and prayer was delivered by a woman, among them the long-standing campaigner Christina Rees. Archbishop Welby’s Chaplain, the Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, gave the homily. All the hymns sung by the 100 guests were either written or composed by a woman.

Dr Hamley preached on Anna, who prophesied over Jesus as a baby in the temple. She was, she said, in her own way a “trailblazer”, perceiving the gift of God’s presence in the Christ-child — “a gift blindingly obvious to those who pay attention, but a gift hidden and sometimes ignored, or even denied.”

After the service, Archbishop Welby told the guests that he had a surprise message from Bishop Barry Rogerson, the former Bishop of Bristol, who had conducted those first ordinations 25 years ago.

Bishop Rogerson, now aged 82, wrote: “Perhaps, today, we might give a thought for all those women, worldwide, whose vocations to the priesthood have still been neither recognised nor tested.” His words prompted the Archbishop to urge those present to pray for Churches around the world, including some Anglican provinces, which did not yet ordain women as priests. “May they find the liberation to pursue the way that you call them to.”

Despite the celebrations, there was still much work to be done on inclusion of women in the Church, Archbishop Welby said. “Avalanches start with snowballs and end up being unstoppable. We are all past the snowball stage, but we are not at the avalanche stage. That’s my prayer for the future.”

Download the order of service here. You can also read more on our letters pages here.

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