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Obituary: Canon Marlene Parsons

07 January 2022

Canon Marlene Parsons with her identical twin sister, Mary

Canon Marlene Parsons with her identical twin sister, Mary

The Ven John Barton and others write:

CANON Marlene Parsons was Birmingham’s redoubtable Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) and Dean of Women’s Ministry from 1990 until her retirement in 2004.

She had played a significant part in the development of women in ordained ministry and was a member of the working group of the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry (ACCM) which, in 1990, produced the report Deacons Now. This evaluated the effectiveness of women as deacons and helped to clear the ground for the 1992 General Synod vote that led to women’s ordination to the priesthood.

Marlene and her identical twin sister, Mary, were born in 1943 in Street, Somerset. At 16, she left grammar school to work in a Church Army hostel for women who had been released from HM Prison Holloway. Later, she trained at the Church Army College, one of the few places to offer women a theological education, and was commissioned as a Church Army Sister in 1966.

In 1976, she was admitted to the office of deaconess, and served for 20 years in parishes in Southwark and Birmingham dioceses. Her ministry during an interregnum at St John’s, Coulsdon, prompted the churchwardens to write to the Church Times: “This parish is very grateful for the opportunity of having a deaconess as our ‘curate’. It has shown us new insights into ministry. We wish that our experience could be more widely shared. The ordination of women to the priesthood would, from the experience of this parish, seem a logical step in the development of the ministry.”

Marlene was made deacon in 1987 and an honorary canon of Birmingham Cathedral shortly afterwards. When she was ordained priest in 1994, a group of Spanish Roman Catholic nuns, whom she had met at an ecumenical gathering in Dublin, came to support her. In a life centred on God, she never sought status for herself; disciplined in her prayer life, she made retreats at Ammerdown and St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre. Others sought her guidance and advice, recognising her integrity, and knowing that she did not evade difficult issues, and that their confidences would be respected.

Successive Bishops of Birmingham wanted her on their senior staff. She was appointed Bishop’s Adviser for Lay Ministry and Vice-Principal of the (ecumenical) West Midlands Ministry Training course, before becoming Dean of Women’s’ Ministry and DDO.

Fiercely protective of her charges, she showed aggression only when she believed that others were being criticised unjustly. As the sole female voice at the meetings of senior staff, she spoke infrequently, but would intervene if she felt that her colleagues had stepped out of line. Bishop Mark Santer says: “Marlene exerted enormous influence without ever making a noisy splash. I could rely utterly on her judgement and thoroughness.”

Marlene’s encouragement of would-be ordinands was not unconditional: she did not shrink from presenting truth that needed to be heard, even when that meant that people would be disappointed. She established good relations with those who could not accept women priests and was keen to increase the number of BAME candidates, male and female.

One has written: “Marlene was capable of creating silences that could instil fear in the bravest of ordinands and possessed a chuckle that could dispel the deepest of worries. She possessed a wisdom that was hard won from years of ministry, often practised in an institution in opposition to her priestly vocation.”

On her retirement, Marlene continued to assist in her parish church, until 2015, when her sister died; her own health deteriorated, and she began to show signs of dementia. In 2019, she moved to the Gracewell Care Home, in Edgbaston. There, and in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Biringham, she received excellent care and was renowned for her welcoming smile.

She would never have quoted this for herself, but those who knew her are reminded of 2 Timothy 4.8: “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Canon Marlene Beatrice Parsons was born on 20 December 1943 and died on 25 October.

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