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Campaign for equality in C of E is not yet over

by
08 October 2021

Being ordained deacon prompts Christina Rees to reflect on how women clergy are still perceived differently from men

AT 18, as I set off for a university 3000 miles away from home, I decided to conduct a simple experiment: for the first month, I would wear my waist-length hair in a bun, looking more like the violin-playing, ballet-trained, classical-voice student side of me, rather than the motorcycle-riding, modern-improvisational-dancer side, who also loved rock and jazz. Perhaps, predictably, I began to attract a somewhat more diverse circle of friends when, at last, I let my hair down.

I thought of this last Sunday when I walked through Sheringham to St Peter’s Church, where I will be serving as the new assistant curate. Having been ordained the day before, I was wearing a clerical collar for only the second time in my life, and so I was unaccustomed to the somewhat different kinds of looks I received. There were more open stares and slight changes in facial expressions as people adjusted the category and pigeonhole into which they had initially assigned me.

Even now, 34 years after women were ordained as deacons in the Church of England, a woman in a collar registers a flicker of surprise — or is it the same for men, too? What do people see when they see a member of the clergy? A lovely, kind person who took a grandparent’s funeral — or a misguided dweller of cloud-cuckoo-land who colludes with an abusive and self-serving institution?

 

WHATEVER the perception of clergy overall, it is clear to me that there are still differences between how ordained women are perceived in contrast to ordained men. Overall, women clergy talk about how people are quickly drawn to them, how they find it easy to establish trust, and how much their ministry is appreciated. But some also tell me of problems with male colleagues who blank them at meetings and leave them off email lists, and of older men and women who absent themselves during the times when they are presiding at the eucharist.

Only a few weeks ago, I was asked whether the campaign for women’s equality in the Church of England was over. Well, yes, in one sense, it ended with the passing of the women-bishops Measure in July 2014 (News, 14 July 2014), and the consecration of the first woman bishop six months later. But, in another sense, women have yet to experience full equality with men. Parishes can still petition for a flying bishop, who must, irrespective of what else they may or may not believe, be opposed to women’s ordination.

During my ordination training, I had to assent to the positions laid out in the Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, and to the Five Guiding Principles. It seems that both reports have slowly been setting into semi-permanent concrete, when the former was explicitly not intended to be a statement on policy, and the latter indicates, in its very title, that it has the authority of guidance, not doctrine — guidance that can be rather thin on the ground when dealing with what “mutual flourishing” looks like for some women clergy.

Last month, a grouping of Roman Catholics met online and in person for a lay-led symposium, the Root and Branch Synod. Heavy-hitting speeches were heard from the human-rights barrister Baroness Kennedy QC, the former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, the former priest and writer James Carroll, and many others, all calling for radical change within the RC Church, including having married priests and women clergy, an inclusive position on sexuality, and democratically elected synods containing ordained and lay people.

While at the Root and Branch Synod, I was asked by an old friend how I now felt about having voted in favour of the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, which led to the creation of the flying bishops. I told her that in my 25 years on the General Synod, it was the only vote that I really regretted. That vote taught me that expediency must never be allowed to trump good theology or coherent ecclesiology.

 

AS A CLERIC, I shall, of course, continue to be loyal to the Church of England, as I have been loyal to the Church as a laywoman, with more than 40 years of all-levels synodical experience and 37 years as a preacher and worship leader. I shall take a deep breath and dive into the latest Governance Review Group (News, 17 September), with memories of the 1995 report Working as One Body, which led to widespread and welcome changes in its time.

But I must confess to the attitudinal equivalent of a small sigh, and, perhaps, one slightly raised eyebrow, as I seek to stay abreast of the latest initiatives and reports. Any Kool-Aid* that I may have quaffed decades ago now seems too bright and sweet and, well, artificial, for my tastes.

I know that there are those in the Church who have stepped sufficiently back from the institution to view the post-Brexit, mid-Covid landscape with the perspective that it requires, in order to understand the kinds of changes needed at a systemic level. The persistence across the Church — indeed, across all Churches and in the country at large — of racism, abuse, gender-based violence, and the many different symptoms of poverty tells of a malaise that touches us all and that will only be responsive to our own honesty, humility, and compassion — and to a vision that far transcends any one institution or group of people.

The Revd Christina Rees is a school chaplain and assistant curate in Norwich diocese, a former member of the Archbishops’ Council and Chair of Women and the Church.

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*“Drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to someone adopting doomed or dangerous ideas because of a belief that they will bring a high reward.

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