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Thirty years’ experience of women priests — and advice for the next generation

08 March 2024

To mark the 30th anniversary of the first ordinations of women priests in England, some of the original cohort tell Pat Ashworth what they would advise women now

IT IS 30 years since the first cohort of women deacons were ordained to the priesthood, in Bristol Cathedral. They ran the gamut of protesters, police, and the world’s press, and, for security reasons, had to make their entrance through the back door. In the distance, the bells of St Philip and St Jacob (“Pip ’n’ Jay”), Bristol, rang a dirge.

For Canon Brenda Dowie, walking into the cathedral on that March day in 1994 had been quite extraordinary, she reflects: “a rare gift from God that remains full of surprises and joy”. She was one of the first, but confesses that she has always felt something of a fraud. “There were women there who had been fighting the good fight for years,” she says.

Canon Brenda Dowie on the Sunday after her ordination in 1994

Since then, her life has come full circle. Born and brought up in Stromness, in the Orkneys, she has returned there as Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s. Her first career was as a teacher on Orkney. It was followed by a spell with Crosslinks, in Tanganyika, and a period of academic research, before training at Trinity College, Bristol.

She served a three-year curacy at Christ Church, Downend, but knew that her calling was to hospital chaplaincy — a transition that required some boldness to make. “I told the Bishop I had a real sense that my vocation was in health care,” she remembers. She followed her calling in hospital and hospice settings from 1995 to 2022, and was appointed a Canon along the way for her work with the dying.

Women’s priesting did intrinsically change things, she reflects. “That’s not because it’s a better or worse situation, but because the other half of the population that is female brings something different. If you can bring the two faces of God together, it’s undoubtedly richer.

“I’m a great believer that God is other. I remember the first time where someone who was dying refused to have me. I was the chaplain on call that day, and some of my male colleagues were quite uptight about it and wanted to make a thing of it. But I said someone was dying, and they had a theological position: we don’t have to like it, but we do have to attend to it.”

She would change nothing about her journey. Her advice to women being ordained today would be: “Remain completely true to what it is for you to be a woman who has received a call from God — because what we bring is our pure nature of being female. We bring ourselves. And when you add that into the mixing pot of male and female, something becomes more complete.”


THE applause that erupted as the women made their entrance in March 1994 was indicative of how momentous a day this was, and, for some, it had been a long journey. Canon Karen McKinnon — at 29, the youngest of the cohort — can trace back the first stirrings of a call to when, sitting idly on the swings outside her school, she thought she’d like to marry an Anglican priest, because “you couldn’t even dream of being that yourself.”

She went to Exeter University to read theology, and was inspired by the life’s work of a retired deaconess. Afterwards, she took a job at Malvern Girls’ College, then went to a selection conference and was told she was too young; so she canvassed the dioceses to seek experience and got a job as a pastoral assistant in Hull, in an urban priority area, where she spent two years, “learned a lot, and grew up”.

Canon Karen MacKinnon at her ordination, with her mother

Another selection conference, another rejection: this time, they suggested that she had probably “forgotten her theology” in the two years that she had spent away. She tried to jump through all the hoops; so ,when it was “strongly suggested” that she go on the foundation course that was the Aston Training Scheme, she swallowed her reservations — not least the fact that she had a 2:1 in theology — and took a part-time sales-assistant job, to pay the rent.

Aston insisted that she must go on every residential, but the store couldn’t release her during busy periods. In frustration, she wrote to the Archbishop of York. “I forwarded everything I’d done. I told him I didn’t think what was happening was moral or ethical.”

The Archbishop wrote back and said that she could go to Lincoln Theological College the following September, provided that she first undertake some written assignments for a diocesan director of ordinands (DDO). His response to her first essay was that he couldn’t mark it as he didn’t feel that he was at the same academic standard — after which she “just went to college,and that was it”.

The first few years in her Bristol parish were hard. “Gender politics then were not as they are now,” she says. “When I phoned up clergy to take services while I was on holiday, a common response was that they couldn’t come to my church because it was contaminated. I was told that menstruating women defiled the sanctuary.”

She ran the parish single-handedly, had a baby, and later answered an advert in the Church Times for an assistant chaplain. It was a post that came with training opportunities. Since that first chaplaincy for Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust in 2000, she has gone on to be its spiritual-care manager and, finally, its manager of well-being services.

On what she might say to her younger self if she could go back in time, “I think I would tell myself to trust myself more: to know that, though there will be days when the struggle for equality and respect seem so hard, you will make it.” And, to the women being priested in 2024, she reflects: “The world and the Church has moved on a lot in 30 years. But . . . I’d say that whilst the ministry is important, especially the pastoral care of those in your care, what is first and foremost is your own well-being. Making that a priority, not an add-on.”


THE Revd Faith Cully has vivid memories of the day, and especially the acts of kindness from well-wishers. The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Barry Rogerson, had been very supportive, but had “really put us through the mill”, she says with respect. “He sent us a letter saying what we must do in case of doubt, because being the first, and standing up in front of the world’s press, was a very hard thing to do. It was clear he wasn’t going to ordain anybody just on the nod.”

Knowing the cameras were going to be on her when she presided at her first communion service, on Mothering Sunday, she asked her incumbent at St John’s, Fishponds, to take her through the service in advance. “He said, ‘But you’ve been standing beside me all this time!’” she remembers. “I said, ‘Yes. But this is different.’”

She was presiding at a midweek service soon after, when a group from Chile made a surprise appearance. She had worked as a missionary there, and knew that they were likely to be Roman Catholics. But they gladly received from her. “That really undid me,” she remembers. “As I was giving the bread, I thought, this is what our Lord did. You’re breaking that bread and blessing that wine, just as he did. I don’t know whether the women being ordained today have a sense of how momentous that was for us.”

After studying at Trinity, Bristol, and serving her first curacy in the city, she spent the rest of her working life in parish ministry in Southwell & Nottingham. Of the occasional hostility that she encountered as a woman in the early days, she remembers the advice given by a friend: “Tell them, you wouldn’t refuse a love letter from the postman. This is a love letter from God; so does it matter whether it’s delivered by a man or a woman?”

And she would tell those being ordained in 2024: “Enjoy it. Given the history, don’t take it for granted. Just be yourself.”



IT IS abundantly clear from a sample of deacons being ordained to the priesthood at Petertide this year just how broad the cross-section of backgrounds, ages, and ministries is. What they owe to the women of the 1994 cohort is also described by many.

The Revd Vanessa Hamlett says: “At 28 years old, I recognise I’m able to respond to God’s call on my life because of the women who have gone before me. I didn’t grow up with vicars being in the family; this calling wasn’t affirmed by the school’s careers office, but was a slow and gentle walk with Jesus from a life of being a lawyer to being a priest. I’m so encouraged by the congregants who are excited about having a female priest leading them, even more so a female priest with blue eyeliner.”

The Revd Emma Halliwell

Coming from an Anglo-Catholic tradition, the Revd Emma Halliwell, Assistant Curate at Christ Church, Skipton, says that the path to ordination was always, perhaps, going to be a bumpier ride. “It was a very gradual sense of calling, a bit like having a pebble in your shoe.” She is self-supporting and part-time, continuing to work as a senior lecturer in property law and art law at the University of York.

Her first year of training at St Hild College was during the pandemic and entirely online, but, she says, “We were just so grateful to be able to carry on. It was such a positive thing to be doing in the midst of a testing and difficult period.”

She became national chair of the Ordinands’ Association, getting to know people from the different traditions. She regards choral music as a form of mission, and pays warm tribute to her training incumbent, Canon Kathia Shoesmith, for “giving me a lot of trust and letting me try things out, giving me that sense of freedom. I’ve settled in well and quickly.”

She acknowledges: “I’m still getting to grips with being self-supporting. My workplace is very secular. But Kingdom values can come into it when I’m talking to students pastorally, or we’re thinking about something from a policy point of view, without it necessarily being obvious that they are Kingdom values.”

She considers the advice from the women of the 1994 cohort to be very sound. “Being kind to yourself is really good advice . . . One of the hardest things is just to remember that the only voice we need to hear is God’s voice. Coming from a tradition where there have been voices saying, ‘Oh, that’s not something you should be doing as a woman,’ it can be easy to get swayed.

“I think the best thing I experience is when people just see me as Emma. They’re just willing to listen and to walk along with me as we try to find out more about what God’s intending for all of us.”

THE Revd Dr Alison Bruton, a deacon and Assistant Curate at Tettenhall Wood, in Wolverhampton, first felt a call to ministry as long ago as 1982. She approached the minister of the Baptist church that she and her husband were attending at the time, and was more than nonplussed that the only option he could suggest to her, as a woman, was to “Perhaps go and be a missionary in Africa?”

The Revd Dr Alison Bruton

She decided then that she would find a vocation in education. A theoretical physicist by qualification, she taught physics, and spent 40 years in secondary education, culminating in 13 years as head of a girls’ grammar school. She got an MA and a doctorate, and, at 60, asked herself: “What now? Where now?”

With the old calling surfacing, she took herself in some trepidation to the rector of her church. “You’re probably going to tell me I’m too old,” she told him. “He said, ‘You’re never too old,’ and referred me to the vocations adviser.” She studied at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, acquiring a certificate in biblical studies along the way.

She works half-time, is self-supporting, and exults in her calling. “I feel amazingly fulfilled. I had wonderful years in school leadership, and the inter-personal skills I used as a head teacher have come in handy,” she says. Her priesting will “increase my usefulness to my colleagues, in that I can take the pressure off them. But the whole business of being able to preside and to bless is such a privilege.”

Of the experiences of the first cohorts of women, she reflects, “I think it helps that [my husband and I] have swapped roles throughout our married and working lives: one of us being the breadwinner, the other being at home. I’ve never been in a career where women were not on an equal footing with men.”

THE Revd Dr Edith Iheama, a qualified hospital doctor in Nigeria, came to Britain in 2008 to study for an MA, which she gained in 2010. Since her daughters were at risk of female genital mutilation if they returned, she decided to seek permission to stay: a process that took until 2018. During that time, the family were constantly on the move, and at times homeless.

She has described those years as “debasing and dehumanising”. She was not allowed to work, but spent the years helping others caught up in the asylum process.

The Revd Dr Edith Iheama

Leave to remain was granted. Now Assistant Curate of St Anne’s, Worksop, she first trained as a lay minister, but “always felt there was more that God was asking me to get involved in. They asked me why I wasn’t thinking about ordination. I said I was battling with that in my own quiet time.”

She is full-time and stipendiary, wanting “to give it my all”. Her parish is semi-rural and predominantly white, but, after three years, she encounters very little hostility, and has found what she describes as a sense of peace and calmness.

“I came here knowing nothing about the parish, but I do love an adventure. It’s that sense of trusting God, knowing that I don’t have to do it in my own strength. I’m happy and flourishing, and I know I’m in the right place. When you go out of your comfort zone, when you see things from another perspective, you learn more and you trust more.”

The Revd Marion Barella, Assistant Curate of St Barnabas and St Paul, York, turned down a first invitation to be ordained. From a Charismatic background, she had returned to the UK from several years working with YWAM in Romania, describing herself as “a hardened YWAM-er, and quite scared of getting too involved with the Anglican Church”.

She was working full-time as a schools worker, and worshipping at St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, when the pandemic began: an experience that led her to ponder how people whose experience of church had only been online were to get used to being in a church setting.

The Revd Marion Barella

Her vicar, the Revd Matthew Porter (now Suffragan Bishop of Bolton), detected a big vision, and said that she should consider ordination. For her own part, she queried how, as a self-confessed “highly extroverted activator who is slightly dyslexic and thinks in pictures”, she would fit the mould. The surprising answer turned out to be St Hild College, and a tutor, Canon Janet Williams, who ensured that she got strong academic support. She earned the reputation for being “kindly curious” about other traditions, and has continued to “cultivate a really healthy respect where we disagree well. We need to be able to do that in an honest way.”

As a woman over 50, she had to fight for a stipend, she says — something that she regarded as essential to achieving a work-life balance as a pioneer minister. “There’s still an assumption in some quarters that women in leadership are supported by husbands,” she reflects. “It was challenging, but the diocese of York has been very good and really helpful.

“Having a stipend allows you to take a day off a week and a retreat day once a month — to be kind to yourself, as the women of 1994 were advising. That’s why we deserve one.”

The Revd Hollie Butler with the Archbishop of Canterbury

The Revd Hollie Butler, Assistant Curate of St Luke’s, Maidstone, was a cardiac physiologist for 22 years, and then a pastoral assistant for children and families. She felt a growing desire to explore a call to ordination, trained at St Mellitus, and reflects: “I’ve never done any job as a stepping-stone, never felt as though I was doing the wrong thing, and have now found my passion. It’s just where God has called me on to.

“I like the advice of the women to ‘Be kind to yourself.’ I know God has called me to be a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, and a friend, as well as a priest. Running yourself ragged is not a healthy thing to do if you’re trying to show people a loving and love-giving way of life, following Christ.”

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