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Women’s ministry: a question of confidence

06 March 2020

What barriers still exist for women’s ministry, asks Tim Wyatt


Worshippers during a service of celebration at Lambeth Palace, in March last year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England

Worshippers during a service of celebration at Lambeth Palace, in March last year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the prie...

FOR those who are not avid readers of the annual ministry statistics produced by the Church of England, it may be surprising to discover that, for the past three years, more women than men have begun training for the priest­hood. But, if increasing numbers of women are responding to the call, what awaits them on their journey?

Despite the progress made in recent years, I am told that barriers still remain that prevent women pursuing a vocation in the Church. Among the most common issues raised is the lack of self-confidence needed to push themselves forward felt by many women. “Women in general will shoot you down for saying that, because it’s not true of all women, [but] it is still the case,” one senior female tutor at a theological college said.

Alice Ormondroyd

The Dean of Women for the Edmonton Area in London diocese, the Revd Jess Swift, who is the Vicar of St Ann’s, South Totten­ham, says that many women she speaks to “self-disqualify”, and need others to encour­age them to believe that their vocation is real. The Dean of Women at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the Revd Dr Liz Hoare, concurs. In her experience, women are more likely to think of the “barriers and negatives and obstacles”, she says.

What can dioceses and colleges do to mitigate against this, and draw out suppressed or unrecognised callings?

Women-focused vocations events are essential, Dr Hoare says. Wycliffe holds one annually, including sessions on what the Bible says, “to help women gain confidence that they’re not being disobedient to God, or breaking any unspoken rules”, she says.

The Revd Lucy Gardner, tutor in Christian doctrine at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, agrees that such events are important. She says that all vocations materials and events — including photos, quotations, and even times of meet­ings — must be designed specifically with women in mind. “Model that this is available for women, and this is important for women.”

While work done to encourage vocations among women is bearing fruit, as the statistics show, does more need to be done by the Church and theological institutions to help women who are wrestling with doubts?

Alice Ormondroyd, a final-year ordinand at St Mellitus College, in London, says that each time she encountered a barrier in the road to ordination — largely related to her baby at the time — she had to work out how to negotiate it on her own. “It wasn’t presented to me up front as: ‘We can see these issues, and we’re going to support you,’” she says.

The Revd Jules Middleton, Associate Vicar of Trinity Church, Lewes, in Chichester diocese, and author of Breaking the Mould (published last month by SPCK), about being a mother in ministry, spoke of a similar ex­­perience. All the planning on how to fit train­ing around her primary-school-age children had to be done herself.

The Revd Jules Middleton

”Many of us feel like we are having to work out our own mode and model of ministry, and that can be quite exhausting,” she said.

Nicola Harris, who is studying at Trinity College, Bristol, said: “I generally found that the diocese that I came from were [like]: ‘This is the track you go on’ and there’s not a huge amount of deviation. But they were willing to send me to Bristol, which is great. Trinity itself is much more flexible.”

This was part of the problem, however, Ms Middleton said. There was a huge lack of consistency from diocese to diocese, and from college to college. While some dioceses were working imagin­atively to back younger women candidates, others had still not even appointed a dean of women’s ministry.

Ms Middleton happily pursued the part-time regional-course pathway into stipendiary ministry; but she knew of other young women and mothers in the diocese who had pushed for residential training and been told that, because they had children, or might soon start families, they had to be self-supporting.


THERE is a strong case for the Church to appoint someone centrally to oversee the issue, Ms Middleton suggests — someone able to prompt dioceses with examples of best practice and en­­sure greater consistency.

The closest equivalent at present is the Transformations working group. Born a decade ago out of frustration at the pace of progress of the women-bishops legislation, this small group of senior female clerics and advocacy groups meets three times a year, with backing from Lambeth Palace.

While it has counted successes — including the young female-vocations roadshows since 2013, and consultations with the Ministry Divi­sion on family-friendly policies — the group acknowledges that experiences still vary widely across the C of E. As well as self-perception among women, and family re­­spons­ibilities, key barriers to vocations among young women, as identified by a Trans­forma­tions report in 2015, include rejection or hostility to their ministry based on gender, and a lack of female role-models.

Dr Hoare says that many women belong to churches where there are no women leaders to inspire them to pursue ordination. Ms Mid­dleton found only one other woman in the same diocese who was full-time, stipendiary, and had young children like her. Women with families “who get ordained, or are going for training . . . are all basically pioneers trying to work out and build a ministry that works for us,” she said.

Recently, she approached a senior figure in Chichester diocese to sug­­gest setting up a mentoring scheme to tackle this, but was told that it would reinforce perceptions of the dio­­cese as anti-women. In its ab­­sence, her greatest form of support has been a closed Facebook group of clergy mothers, she says. “It has been the best and the most encouraging thing in my ministry.” If she had not had the advice and help from that online commun­ity, at times she would have “jacked everything in”.

Mentoring schemes are vital, Dr Hoare says; Wycliffe Hall tries hard to give women students place­ments with female incumbents. Ms Ormondroyd feels that the climate is changing fast: while previous gen­era­tions had almost no senior women leaders to follow, she will shortly be ordained by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, before being sent to work under a female training incumbent.


SURROUNDED by supportive fe­­male role-models and at a college that is 50-50 men and women, Ms Ormondroyd says, her biggest chal­lenge has been childcare. As she had had her first child just before she began discernment, many of her worries have revolved around how she can be a young mother while also pursuing her vocation.

Nicola Harris

Although far from being easy, her experience so far has been broadly positive, she says: her husband stayed with her during her Bishops’ Advisory Panel, to ensure that her baby could stay close; St Mellitus has been happy for her to breastfeed during lectures; and, having had a second child during train­­ing, she has been given permis­sion to delay submitting some essays, while still being ordained as planned this summer.

Ms Harris says she survived full-time residential college in Bristol because her husband changed his work hours, and spent most of his time at home with their children. The mixed-mode model, which would have re­­quired her husband to continue work­ing full-time, would have “tipped us over the edge”. In contrast, Ms Mid­dleton chose her regional training path­way in part because it meant that her three chil­dren could stay in their current schools.

She believes that the residential system still largely relates to an era when ordinands were men whose families were happy to “tag along”. She has heard stories of mothers who persuaded their dioceses to send them to residential college, only then to struggle to find childcare, bring children to lectures, or manage under the financial provision.

Theological training has been built on a “patriarchal model for centuries”, and requires “dramatic changes” to make it more accessible to women, she says.


WHILE changes undoubtedly still need to be made, many colleges are now catering better for families. Some have crèches, and ordinands with young children are no longer a rare sight. But perhaps the last missing piece of the institutional jigsaw relates to maternity leave during training.

Identified as another barrier by the 2015 Transformations research, it remains the case that no national policy exists, and that most dioceses and colleges improvise arrangements on a case-by-case basis. Wycliffe Hall, for instance, does not have a written maternity policy, Dr Hoare says. Instead, it takes each case as it arises with the hope of being as flexible as possible.

Ms Swift says that it is not a niche concern but of primary importance, and makes the difference between mak­ing training possible or im­­pos­s­ible for some candidates. While she acknowledges that current funding for ordination makes the issue com­plex, she says that “I’ve been or­­dained for 18 years now, and it is only in the last three that the dio­­cese of London has been thinking about maternity leave. It’s crazy.”

Ms Gardner agrees that there is a good case for the C of E to create some kind of framework for dioceses and colleges. And movement on this issue may be just around the corner.

Last year, the interim director of the Ministry Division, Canon Mandy Ford, said that the biggest barrier for younger women was the lack of family-friendly policies, and that guidance was being pre­pared on maternity leave to “give comfort to younger women” (News, 6 September 2019). Members of the Transforma­tions team confirm that they have been in discussion with the Ministry Divi­sion about maternity leave and childcare arrangements.


THE picture for women remains mixed: awareness of the particular challenges facing women has prob­ably never been higher, but the list of potential barriers that have been identified is still a long one. To a lack of role-models or mentors, internal insecurities, un­­in­terested dioceses, and an absence of maternity policies have been added theological opposi­tion: an area raised in research under­taken by a lecturer in Early Christianity and Anglican Studies at Yale Div­inity School, Dr Gabrielle Thomas (Comment, 28 June 2019), and con­­cerns about leader­­ship pro­gression (News, 13 April 2017).

But to some interviewees, every challenge can also be a blessing. Women often emerge with a greater ability to identify with the margin­alised or oppressed because of their experiences, they say. Dr Hoare concurs: “Part of your formation is to grow in resilience. . . To be able to think through theologically and prac­­tically what this is all about.”

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