About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Ordination of Women as Priests - 25 Years On

This is one of a handful of photos that mean more to me than I can say.

It was taken at Coventry Cathedral on 11 May 1994. You will probably guess the occasion: the ordination of the first female priests in the Diocese of Coventry. And what a celebration it was! I've regularly attended glorious liturgy in no fewer than four cathedrals. But I knew on that day that this was a ceremony that would not just live on bathed in a kind of generalised afterglow. I knew that it would be unforgettable in its detail as well. Such as singing "Be still for the Spirit of the Lord is moving in this place" and, for once, truly recognising that she was.

When you are a cathedral precentor, as I was then, you train yourself to know the liturgy in all its particulars, to become familiar with the soul of it, inhabit it from the inside. Even when you have written the rite yourself, as you do on many a special occasion, you still have to learn the grain of it, intuit how it is going to "feel" in the particular liturgical space it's devised for, how the community that gathers together to celebrate is likely to respond to the words and actions, the silences and the music that you have so carefully devised for it.

We all knew that this ordination of women would be a once-for-all event, unrepeatable as a history-making act of worship. For many months I worked on the service with a small planning group of women who were due to be ordained, together with Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward and Director of Ordinands Canon, now Bishop, Mark Bryant. That 
preparation process was a remarkable experience in itself, both for the joy of looking forward to a great event in the life of the church and of the ordinands and their families, and for the deep sensitivity that was felt towards those who could not accept the validity of their ordination and for whom this ordination day would be one not of joy but of pain. 

I want to pay tribute to one of them in particular, Barbara Baisley who was then chaplain at Warwick University and the Dean of Women's Ministry in the Diocese. She and her husband George had both been students of mine at Salisbury (indeed, her brother Robin taught me English at school). I mention Barbara not only because of the skilled way she led those women through the delicate (and for some, highly controversial) process of becoming priests, but because she died a few years afterwards, long before her time. I also remember that a curate in the Diocese at that time by the name of Justin Welby joined the planning group in order to get a feel for how a major liturgical event is planned in a cathedral. I recall that he had his own gentle wisdom to contribute to the process.

All this was twenty-five years ago. It was in March 1994 that the first female priests were ordained in Bristol Cathedral. For those of us who had long wished and prayed for our church to take this step and had campaigned for it, the outcome of the vote in General Synod on 11 November 1992 was also a night to remember. That day, Armistice Day, is also
 the birthday of our youngest daughter who was nine that year. So we deferred the family fireworks that year by a few days, and as soon as Archbishop George Carey had announced the result of the vote, and we had taken it in (and shed a few tears of relief), we went out in the garden to light rockets and sparklers to celebrate what felt like a double birthday. 

As (now Archbishop) Justin Welby said this week, the contribution female priests have made to the life of the Church of England has been immeasurable. Women are now occupying every conceivable role in the church as priests: as chaplains and bishops, area deans and archdeacons, incumbents and cathedral deans. We had our ups and downs in the General Synod I was part of when it came to the question of female bishops. I won't say all that is forgotten - we mustn't airbrush out of history or our present experience the pain of those who dissent from these decisions, nor the fact that many of our sister churches have not taken these steps. My first cousin made the journey from Anglican to Roman Catholic priesthood because of the ordination of women as priests, and that made it a family as well as a church matter. Like #Brexit, you feel things in more pointed ways when they intrude upon your personal relationships. (But he and I have always remained good friends and colleagues in ministry, I'm glad to say.)

While I was taking part in that service 25 years ago, I thought back to my own memories of ordination in 1975 and 76. Ordination services have that effect on us who are deacons and priests, and it's a good thing that we're reminded of our ordination vows from time to time (even in retirement). But I had - I have - a very specific memory of the night before I was ordained deacon. Our Bishop (of Oxford - Kenneth Woollcombe) saw each of us for an hour that day. What he said to me would be imprinted on my memory for a lifetime.

The Bishop had led the campaign in General Synod that year in support of the resolution 
that "there are no theological objections to the ordination of women". He said to me: "Michael, you know what the Synod has resolved this year. From now on, everyone who is ordained as a deacon and thereby becomes an officer of the Church of England understands that this is the publicly stated position of our church. You must not say that the rules were changed during your public ministry. If you can't be content with that, now is the time to step back from receiving holy orders tomorrow." I imagine he said the same to all the ordinands. (But perhaps he thought I might have concerns about male "headship", trained as I was at a conservative evangelical theological college - whose last Principal, Emma Ineson, has just been ordained a bishop!). 

I've often thought back to that interview, and how influential it was, not in coming to a conclusion I'd already embraced, but in having the confidence to speak up for it publicly. It was my first experience of facing the reality of diversity in our church and learning to see it as a gift that enriches and ennobles us all. But I'm also trying to learn what Justin Welby has taught us to see as "good disagreement", how to listen carefully, practise generosity and charity alongside holding deeply to this and other matters of conviction (I'll not mention the B****t word a second time).

The Church of England still has a long way to go before it can claim to be a genuinely diverse institution. In particular, we are a long way from recognising and celebrating committed gay relationships as joyous, God-given and loving, let alone affirming and solemnising same-sex marriage - as we must, I believe, soon. Regular readers of this blog will know that I've tried to stand with my LGBT friends as they find a place of genuine, unreserved acceptance in our church. If I began to discern anywhere how we must all work tirelessly to become a more just, more equal, more caring church, it was at that marvellous ordination service in Coventry in 1994. 

Thank you to the women in the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate with whom it's been, and continues to be, such an inspiration to serve in the public ministry of the church of God. This silver anniversary brings fond memories of past ordained female friends and colleagues "who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light", "those angel faces I have loved long since and lost awhile". And to those ordained women who read these words, congratulations to each one of you. This blog comes with gratitude, admiration, prayers and expectancy for all that is yet to be in the next quarter of a century.


*** I want to add a postscript to this blog in the light of Twitter comments it’s received so far. 

One person reminded us that it is too easy to simply celebrate  without acknowledging the cost born mostly by women. An acknowledgment of the pain caused needs to go alongside a celebration of where we have got to. It is too easy to bypass the former. Another added: true, and it still goes on. Until the Institution recognises how the barriers it has imposed inhibit the full flourishing of women’s ordained ministry the cost will continue unjustly.

I responded: Yes. I can see that for all its good intentions, this [my blog] is a man’s perspective who perhaps wants too much for it all to be well. Or wants it prematurely, before real healing has had time to happen? Or doesn’t see the injustices that are still being perpetrated in our church? I wish I’d written more sensitively in the light of this. I’m aware how much this is also true for LGBT clergy in our church. We say we intend to listen and learn from people’s experience but in practice the Church goes on “othering” those who don’t fit its theological template. The recent disinvitation of bishops’ same-sex spouses to the Lambeth Conference was a case in point (the website has now removed that offending parenthesis). Nevertheless I still want the church to rejoice with and for its women who are deacons, priests and bishops, however long the road ahead that we must continue to travel.


  1. Thank you, Michael. I was at the service in Coventry a week after I had been ordained priest in Oxford Diocese. I appreciate your postscript. When we tell the story of the long road to priestly ordination for women in the C of E we must not forget how long it took and how painful it was. A couple of years ago I was invited to tell this story in Thessaloniki. The extraordinary response from the Orthodox women present reminded me of the need to support this in other Christian traditions who still have a long way to go.

  2. Thank you for your postscript. I have been refused a mortgage because I am female. I have been refused hire purchase to buy a much needed washing machine for the same reason. I have been turned down for a job because a ma "needed it more". And I have been overlooked for promotion in favour of a woman who was prettier than me. Within the church, I am habitually addressed in the voice usually reserved for children and animals, not just because I am female, but because I am not ordained. I hope you will understand why I think we do too much for those who cannot accept women as equals. And not nearly enough enough for the women who still suffer prejudice. Sorry. Rant over.

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