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A Woman at the Table - A Personal Reflection on Ten Years of Women as Priests

By Angela Berners-Wilson.

On the 11th November - Armistice Day - 1992, I was present at Church House Westminster for the historic vote in General Synod to start preparing the legislation for the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in the Church of England. The previous day I had travelled up to London from Bristol, where I was senior Anglican Chaplain to the University of Bristol, in order to take part in an all night vigil outside Lambeth Palace. In the afternoon, after visiting a friend who worked at the Royal Academy, I had popped in to St James', Piccadilly for a prayer. I remember that they had some special holographic exhibition, and in front of the altar was a full size hologram of Christ crucified, except that instead of being nailed to the cross, his arms were outstretched before him, as if inviting the beholder into an embrace. I felt that this was a sign, and hoped it meant that the vote would get through, although at that stage no-one knew what would happen the next day. Whatever that figure was saying to me, I felt strangely comforted and deeply loved by Christ, and quietly hopeful.

The rest, as they say, is history. The vote did get through, although the needed two-thirds majority in the House of Clergy was only just achieved. I shall never forget waiting outside in Dean's Yard, watching the enormous screen that the BBC had rigged up so that the assembled hundreds could see what was happening inside. When the results were given by a very serious faced Archbishop George Carey (who had to try to show impartiality as he realised that for many it would be a day of sorrow rather than rejoicing), a shout went up outside, and someone let off a firework.

I have never received to many kisses from Bishops as I did that evening as members of the General Synod filed out! Then one of my parishioners in Bristol, a General Synod member who had been tireless in her support for the Movement for the Ordination of Women for many years, came out. As I ran to embrace her, she whispered "not now", for she was with a member of the opposition and did not, despite her own feeling of joy at the result of the vote, want to be triumphalist as she knew the feelings of her neighbour who was in tears. A salutory reminder of the fact that not everyone was rejoicing on that historic day.

It took another sixteen months for the first Ordination of women to take place, at Bristol Cathedral on Saturday 12th March, 1994. On that occasion, thirty-two of us women were Ordained Priest in a packed Cathedral, under the full glare of the TV cameras. Because the then Bishop of Bristol (Barry Rogerson) always ordained people in alphabetical order, and my surname begins with 'B', technically speaking, you could say I was the first woman to be ordained in England. However, officially no-one is ordained until the final 'Amen' has been spoken at the end of the service, and in all the many interviews I had to give to the media, I always stuck firmly to this line.

The journalists had other ideas! In the same week I was described by different newspapers (I leave the reader to guess which ones!) as: "Angela with her shocking pink jacket and flashing smile has always been on the radical side" to "her greying hair and school-mistressly expression" and "solicitor's wife to be the first woman priest" - as if my husband's job had any bearing on my vocation!

Towards the end of the Ordination, a man stepped up to the Altar and took the microphone from the Bishop. "Oh no" I whispered to my neighbour Carol, "here comes the threatened protest". Then, to my amazement, we heard this short Belgian gentleman, who turned out to be a Roman Catholic Priest, pray that the Roman Catholic Church would soon have the courage to emulate her Anglican sisters and ordain women in their Church too. I could hardly believe my ears!

In fact the following year the Bishop of Bristol and I were invited to go to Belgium and Holland, as guests of the Catholic Churches there, and speak at a conference in Holland. I was invited to con-celebrate in no less than three Churches, which sadly I was unable to do, as I had been invited by my Bishop, and was in episcopal obedience to him, and as we were both in the Anglican Diocese of Fulham and Gibraltar, and Bishop John Hinde had clearly stated that I should not con-celebrate as that would upset ecumenical relationships with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, I had no choice but to obey. However, it was very hard to explain that to my more radical Catholic hosts. In any event I was robed in alb and stole, and asked to preach, to administer the chalice and to give the Blessing at the end of the Masses in both Holland and Belgium.

Nine months after our Ordination, I had a three month sabbatical. I decided that it would be good to see how my sisters in other parts of England were faring almost a year later, and then to do a comparison with women in the Anglican Church in New Zealand, the country that boasted the first woman Diocesan Bishop, the Right Reverend Penny Jamieson, Bishop of Dunedin (Incidentally, the first woman Anglican Bishop was in America - Barbara Harris - but she was a suffragan).

I then went to Sweden to do a final comparison with women in the Lutheran Church who had been ordained for over 20 years, but had been suffering a backlash.

Understandably I chose to visit those Dioceses in England where I had friends among the female clergy from theological college days, university and subsequent campaigning for MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women), Higher Education chaplaincy contacts and my earlier ministerial life in London. So besides visiting twelve colleagues in Bristol Diocese, I travelled to Bath and Wells, Oxford, London, Southwark, Birmingham, Worcester, Manchester, Sheffield, Leicester, and St Edmondsbury and Ipswich. Although everyone I met was profoundly grateful to be priested at last, experiences varied. There were many discrepancies in how women clergy who were married to male clergy were paid, or refused stipendiary posts. Another problem was deployment - suddenly, between our Ordination in March and the final Petertide Ordinations of the first women, there were 1,400 women priests, many of whom sought parochial jobs, and it was not possible to accommodate all of us overnight.

All that seems a long time ago now. I want now, first, to speak a little of my own journey, then to look at the struggle for women bishops, then to give a few reflections on the last ten years. Upon return from my sabbatical, which took me literally around the world, it seemed rather strange to be back in the Ecumenical Chaplaincy of Bristol University. Within a month of my return I received a letter from the Provost of a Cathedral, inviting me to apply for the post of Cathedral Chaplain and co-ordinator of women's ministry for the Diocese. Although sorely tempted to do so, as it looked an interesting job, two things held me back. First, there was my long-suffering husband to consider. When we first moved to Bristol from London, he retained his job in Lewisham. After eighteen gruelling months of commuting, he had re-located to Reading Council, which was a shorter journey from Bristol. The thought of returning to south London and doing that awful commute in reverse was more than he could bear. Second, I heeded the advice of the then Archdeacon of Swindon, who said that, having already done two Higher Education chaplaincy jobs, I really needed to get experience of an ordinary Parish.

After all, I had struggled long and hard to be allowed to be a priest, so now was the time to put that into effect and have a go at actually being a parish priest. I communicated this to my Bishop, and the fact that I felt ready to move from the Chaplaincy. Within a very short time, I was given the papers of a newly vacant United Benefice (a group of small parishes) to look at by the Archdeacon. To cut a long story short, we came to Colerne and North Wraxall. My institution was on a freezing December night, ten days before Christmas. The main parish, of Colerne, comprises a large village, with a total population of approximately 3000 people, including an Army Camp, home of the 21st Signals Regiment. The second parish of North Wraxall comprises five rural hamlets, with 2 churches, one of which had not been used for worship for a few years. Both the parish churches were beautiful medieval buildings, accommodating 260 and 80 respectively. North Wraxall's main diet of worship was almost exclusively 1662 Book of Common Prayer - quite a change from the inclusive language (a concept not even heard of in my new parishes deep in rural Wiltshire!) and experimental Taize style worship of the University Chaplaincy Church.

Seven and a half years down the line of parochial ministry, I have found that it is a totally demanding, often exasperating, immensely privileged, usually enjoyable and never dull job! In addition to running two parishes, I am also Officiating Chaplain to the Forces up at the Army Camp one half day a week, I am on the Diocesan Liturgical Committee, the Bishop's Advisory Group for Healing, and for two years chaired the Diocesan Board for Education, as well as serving on Diocesan Synod for two terms, and the Vacancy-in-See Committee which was involved in the appointment of our new Diocesan Bishop.

Being able to celebrate the Eucharist is a tremendous privilege for which I never cease to give thanks - especially after waiting nearly fifteen years to be able to do so. During my time in parish ministry, I've worked with and been there for people from all social backgrounds and ages from a few hours old to 103 years, in their moments of joy and their moments of sorrow. I've conducted baptisms, weddings and funerals, anointed the sick and prayed with a teenage rape victim. I've helped with the toddlers, taken school assemblies, visited the elderly and housebound and those in hospital.

All this makes up the daily round, punctuated always by the daily offices, preparing and preaching sermons and attempting to bear witness to the love of God in the community.

However, that is not the end of the story. What of women's place in the leadership of the Church at large? I quote from The Most Reverend Vivienne Faull, the only woman Dean of a Cathedral (Leicester), in the chapter she wrote for Voices of this Calling, edited by Christina Rees, and to which I was also asked to contribute a chapter:

"When I cheered outside Church House Westminster in 1992 (and was hugged by complete strangers in Great Smith Street and congratulated by commuters on Paddington Station), what was being celebrated was, I believe, something much more than the possibility of a small group of women in England being able to become priests. At my theological college in the 1970s, the ethicist David Cook had put a stark question to us: 'Are women people too?' On 11 November 1992, the Church of England seemed to be saying, 'yes'. But a few months later, in passing the Act of Synod (which allows for the so called 'two integrities'), its response seemed less assured. It said, at least as I heard it, 'well probably'.

So the theological debate (argued with energy in the nineteenth century, when women in the Church of England were first made deaconesses) continues over biblical texts, and the authority of the Church of England, and what it means to be human, and the significance of Jesus' maleness. These are questions of the utmost importance, not just for our ministry, but for our mission."

Although our former Rural Dean in Chippenham was a woman, and there is now one female Archdeacon, as well as one female Dean, women's progression to the higher jobs in the Church is slow. There is a real glass ceiling, and until new legislation is brought in and passed to allow women to become Bishops, then there is no true equality in the Church of England.

People ask why more women do not apply for the higher jobs. The answer to this is not simple. First, the appointments system of the Church of England is often veiled in mystery. One is 'approached' for the higher jobs, and Bishoprics are not advertised.

Second, I think, for those women of my generation, who were ordained as Deaconesses in the 1970s and 1980s, our whole training was about being assistants to the Parish Priest. We were trained for a diaconal role. So thrusting ourselves forwards for every possible promotion does not come naturally. Again speaking personally, having had almost twelve years working in the Higher Education Sector, I have to admit to feeling more at home working with people on the margins, than being embroiled in dealing with church regulations about churchyards, etc. Canon Susan Shipp, ordained at the same time as me in Bristol, and who is now senior co-ordinating Chaplain with the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, describes it thus:

"The journey so far has been hard, but that was to be expected: 'What did you go out into the wilderness to see?' Since ordination, the deeper awareness, that priesthood is not gender specific, has been confirmed, so that my role models are both male and female, and those particularly who work on the edge, going unrecognised, blowing open the narrow understandings of what priesthood is about."

And, she goes on to say that until women bishops are a reality "a sadness continues to dog my steps."

Certainly in 1994 it was hoped that women would be Bishops within the next ten years - in other words, by 2004. We know now that that was too optimistic a hope. Perhaps another ten years will see women on the English Episcopal Bench, and perhaps by that time the Church of England will be disestablished, and the next monarch will be Defender of Faiths, not 'the Faith', as Prince Charles wants. Who can tell? Meanwhile let us give thanks for the priestly ministry of all our sisters, and pray for that day when we are fully accepted by everyone in the Church of England, and that those who feel so called may go on to wear purple not just as a fashion accessory.

Just a final thought. Having struggled so long and hard to gain acceptance as a female priest, through the heady days of MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women) demonstrations, vigils, and being a founder member of the St Hilda's Community in London, once one finally is a parish priest, there never seems to be the time to get really involved in women's groups within the wider church.

So, although I am both delighted and fulfilled in having my vocation recognised, there are times, when preparing to chair a tricky PCC meeting, that I look back with some nostalgia to my days as a mere Deaconess and curate, when there was time to reflect and theologise and organise acts of witness at Cathedral male-only ordinations. Sometimes I yearn to be on the margins again, which is why I may very well look for my next job in the field of industrial chaplaincy, or a place where canon law does not play such a large part as it does in administering two country churchyards.

But I love my flock, for the most part I really enjoy my job, and being a priest is both a privilege and a challenge, of which I hope, with God's grace, I am worthy.

The Revd Angela Berners-Wilson is a parish priest in a group of rural parishes in the Diocese of Bristol. As the article makes clear, she was, technically, the first woman to be ordained Priest in the Church of England.

Ministry Today

You are reading A Woman at the Table - A Personal Reflection on Ten Years of Women as Priests by Angela Berners-Wilson, part of Issue 29 of Ministry Today, published in October 2003.

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