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Women describe pitfalls on path to priesthood

03 July 2020

Mixed experience of selection, training, and maternity issues

Huw Ryden

Ordination of deacons in Exeter Cathedral, at Michaelmas last year

Ordination of deacons in Exeter Cathedral, at Michaelmas last year

CLERGY WOMEN have said that the Church of England’s selection and training process is “deeply, deeply flawed” and stigmatises those who speak out against sexism.

Statistics released by the Church of England last month showed that, while the numbers of women being accepted to train for the priesthood were increasing, men still accounted for the majority of ordination candidates who began training at the age of 39 and under (News, 19 June).

The Director of the Ministry Division, the Rt Revd Chris Goldsmith, said last month: “The proportion of clergy who are female has increased overall, but the growth continues to be slow. Also, although the number of female bishops has increased, that progress is not yet equally reflected in the number of women in other senior posts within the Church, such as archdeacons and cathedral deans.”

There has also been criticism of the new guidelines on pay and parental leave for clergy and ordination candidates, introduced earlier this year (News, 13 March). Some female clergy say that it does not go far enough to prevent people from “falling through the gaps”.

A priest who recently reached the end of her curacy, and who chose to remain anonymous, said: “If you move diocese as an ordinand, then again as a curate, and then again as an incumbent, then legally your employer will have changed; so your maternity entitlement re-sets. You can also end up being entitled to very little support if you get pregnant in between training and placement. I’ve come across people who got pregnant in their final year of training, and were offered only £500 by the diocese as a ‘good-will gesture’.

“If you have fertility issues, but want a family, then you can’t afford to only try for it in times that are convenient for the Church. You can end up being left high and dry if you don’t have a financially solvent partner to support you, if your only option is to take unpaid leave. Many young women are therefore still not going for ministry, as it means having to give up their fertile years.”

She continued: “Women who had an awful time at college when they got pregnant, sometimes being terrified of not being able to feed their families due to being given so little support, often change their stories now and claim it wasn’t so bad, probably because they feel under pressure to do so.”

The Vicar of St James the Less, Vauxhall Bridge Road, in London, the Revd Lis Goddard, chairs Awesome, a group that seeks to support the ministry of Evangelical women clergy. She said that the figures from the Ministry Division showed problematic trends.

“The fact that most women wait to come to ministry in their forties means it’s harder for them to progress into senior leadership roles,” she said. “There have been instances of diocesan directors of ordinands’ [DDOs’] telling women to go and get married and then go through the discernment process, which holds them back.

“Clergy couples have also been told before that they can’t expect to both have paid jobs as priests, and the expectation is that the woman will be a self-supporting minister. This makes juggling two ministries complicated.” With regard to the new maternity policy, she said, “the trouble is that each diocese operates as its own little fiefdom, and it’s very rare for things to get done across the whole Church.”

Canon Emma Percy, who chairs the campaigning group Women and the Church (WATCH), said: “Some of the churches actively encouraging people to go into ministry don’t tend to support women, but the language that’s used around the vocations process doesn’t always reflect this. People are expected to be very articulate, and women often find it harder to talk openly about their calling, which is seen as being incompetent. The discernment process can therefore end up being quite a lottery.”

She also spoke of problems faced by women who spoke out. “You’re in quite a vulnerable position when you’re going through ordination. It’s very easy to get seen as a troublemaker, and there’s a sense that, if you are too outspoken, you’ll be labelled a ‘difficult woman’. Even though women have been welcomed into the club as far as becoming bishops, there’s the added pressure to be less outspoken if you want to ‘climb the ladder’.”

Some women have had more positive experiences. A vicar, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she felt encouraged throughout the selection and training process, but thought that it was important to consider the bigger picture around women’s ministry.

“I’m thankful for the women who have gone before who did the trailblazing, but we need to think about wider issues in society about how women are encouraged to behave,” she said. “We’ve been taught for too long to fight for each other and to believe there aren’t enough places at the top for women.”

A lay licensed minister at St John’s, Hyde Park, in central London, Georgina Elsey, also reported having a positive experience in selection and training, but said that she thought that “the criteria for ordination are too vague. There’s no centralised guidance from DDOs, and it can be such ‘pot luck’ who gets through. In the effort to get the right people, the process can be too intrusive and problematic, and lose sight of the humanity at the heart of it.”

The partners of prospective clergy have also complained that questions posed to those going forward for selection can be too intrusive, and that having intimate questions asked about their personal lives has damaged their relationship with the Church (Features, 6 March).

The vice-chair of WATCH, Dr Esther Elliott, said that this had been her experience on Bishops’ Advisory Panels (BAPs). “I was left for years in BAPs interviewing candidates on my own with no one checking what I was doing in that time or the questions I was asking,” she said. “That’s what leads to the absolute power that DDOs’ hold — and often perform — within the system.

“I was in a selectors’ meeting, having to discuss how a woman candidate who was breastfeeding was going to ‘cope’, and the special arrangements that had been put in place for her to be ‘processed’. Also, I saw how a woman who had left school at 14, who had a wealth of life experience but no qualifications, who went through selection and training, was constantly talked about as a ‘special’ case. Having to challenge the patronising language used about her was quite wearing.

“The whole selection process is deeply, deeply, flawed. There is an implicit cultural assumption that white, male, educated, and heterosexual is the norm — anything other than that is a ‘problem’ or an ‘issue’. I look back with some personal distress that I was part of an organisational system which processed people and found boxes for them, rather than supporting them and encouraging them on their personal journey.”

A priest with knowledge of the BAP process, who also chose to be anonymous, said that, although questions about candidates’ personal lives were meant to flag up possible safeguarding issues, there was a lack of scrutiny over what could be asked. “Things have changed a lot. BAP advisers and panel secretaries try to be rigorous about unconscious bias, and give people their best shot at showing their best self,” she said.

“However, there’s a huge number of advisers, and interviews are one-on-one; so there’s nobody to see you as an adviser doing your interview, and the questions are not checked beforehand, particularly as the Church of England is exempt from employment law. Online BAPs have helped since Covid [News, 8 May], as they have meant interviewing people in pairs, which allows for a lot more accountability and is, hopefully, being considered for ‘live’ BAPs in future.

“What you’re looking for is anything disordered or covert that could be harmful to vulnerable people later on. DDOs are meant to police this beforehand, but it’s very tricky. People know they can be open to accusations of turning down a candidate based on theological differences around certain issues rather than because a candidate doesn’t fulfil the criteria. Issues in Human Sexuality has yet to be updated, and conversations around it keep breaking down.”

The priest, quoted earlier, who chose to remain anonymous also spoke of how the lack of transparency over churches that would not receive the ministry of female clergy made the process of applying for jobs more challenging for women: “It’s not always clear in job adverts that some places won’t take female priests, even in a coded way. You sometimes have to phone the Archdeacon to ask what that parish feels about women. It needs to be clearer.”

She spoke of a lack of scrutiny over questions that she was asked when applying for her curacy, even in a parish that accepted women: “I was alone in a room for 45 minutes with a man old enough to be my dad asking questions about ‘the workings of my ovaries’, as well as questions about my bowels.

“You shouldn’t get asked that sort of thing, but there’s no safe way to have conversations about any medical issues or your future plans, as you have to wait until after you get the job to have a medical exam rather than the other way around. Even if that’s how it should be, it means the pressure is on you to have that conversation with the person you might be working with.

“In one instance, a priest interviewing someone didn’t even wait for a response before telling the bishop whether or not they wanted them. It’s hard to complain, as each diocese does its own thing; so it’s hard to know who to go to. The power dynamic in those interviews also feels very imbalanced: you need a curacy, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get one.”

The Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Canon Rosie Harper, who is the Vicar of Great Missenden with Ballinger and Little Hampden, in Oxford diocese, said: “There’s something going on, as people still don’t dare to speak out. The Church operates like a club, and prizes loyalty hugely, and sometimes it’s just the fact that you’ve broken ranks rather than what you’ve said that gets attention.”

The Church of England continues to be dominated by a paternalistic, “heroic model” of theology, she said. “It’s this idea of a special leader who is called by, and gets special messages from, God: someone in that position can become quite entitled. It’s hard if you don’t believe in that ‘command and control’ view of God: it’s not the way most women want to lead. Women are far more interested in growing people from the grass roots and collaborating rather than the more confrontational ways we’re used to.”

Furthermore, Dr Elliott said, pressure for ministry candidates not to find joy in their calling had compounded problems in the selection process: “BAPs were one of the toughest things I have ever done: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. During the last meeting with candidates, the panel secretary is always required to say something to the candidates about making sure they are physically safe on the journey home, with the assumption that they will be exhausted. The theological model of vocation in use is one of struggle and hard work, not joy and delight in creation.”

One of the anonymous priests said: “Telling women that their calling is a sacrifice is a complex thing. Plenty of women are used to giving more than they should. Theologising this makes it damaging, as then you can’t question it.”

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