In a faded copy of the minutes of a meeting of my PCC, it is recorded that “Mrs Rees was thanked for entertaining the Harvest Supper, also she asked that the PCC should vote on the proposals for the ordination of women.” The date of the meeting was 8th October 1984.
That brief note marked the beginning of my synodical involvement with the issue of the ordination of women, and from speaking in my parish and deanery, and then more widely across the diocese of St Albans, I stood for and was elected to General Synod in 1990. Two years later the vote allowing women to be ordained as priests was passed. Before that, I had been brought on board the Movement for the Ordination of Women, doing publicity and acting as a spokesperson, under the quiet and steady leadership of the Revd Cathy Milford, along with Caroline Davis and Jenny Standage as the Executive and Administrative Secretaries.
The indomitable Dame Christian Howard was then also on General Synod, as was Prebendary Donald Barnes, and, among others, deacons Jean Mayland, Patience Purchas, Katharine Rumens, Joy Carroll, and the Revd Susan Cole-King, who had been priested in the United States, but who had returned to England, unable until the first ordinations in 1994 to minister as a priest. There were others – so many others: Bishop David Jenkins speaking in the decisive debate in 1992, in tears of righteous outrage, asking what it was about women’s hands that was so dangerous, and the fiercely incisive Monica Furlong, whose book A Dangerous Delight – Women and Power in the Church, became one of my campaign bibles, written in 1991, the same year Bishop Peter Selby produced his visionary BeLonging – Challenge to a Tribal Church.
One of the most painful developments of the past 30 years came in 1993, almost exactly a year after the euphoria of the ‘yes’ vote, when the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod was swept through General Synod without reference to the dioceses, creating a separate stand of bishops. Monica Furlong responded by pulling together a damning collection of essays, Act of Synod – Act of Folly?, in which Judith Maltby scathingly observed, “Your bishop can deny the resurrection, the Trinity, and the incarnation; he may be a racist, liar, or thief – but no one will offer you a PEV (Provincial Episcopal Visitor, the official designation for flying bishops). But if he ordains a woman to the priesthood, you can call in a ‘safe pair of hands’.”
Several years later there was a review of the Act, when hundreds of critical submissions were ignored, all painstakingly collected and documented by the late Lyn Ferraby. By then, National WATCH had come into being, taking its name from London WATCH, and I was elected its first Chair in November 1996, and continued as Chair for the next 13 years until I stood down in 2010, handing over to the Revd Rachel Weir.
In the 20 years between passing the legislation for the ordination of women as priests and the consecration of women as bishops, the Church of England slowly changed. Incidents of ordained women being spat at, called witches, physically accosted, left out of meetings and asked by parishioners before communion services if they were menstruating, began to diminish. Instead, stories of thankfulness, gratitude and joy were told, as women brought their manifold gifts and experiences to their priestly ministries. Having women as priests became normal.
The crash and burn of the women bishops’ legislation in 2012 galvanised General Synod and the wider Church: a new measure was drafted and passed 18 months later. Within a few months of the Measure being ratified by the Houses of Parliament, the Revd Libby Lane was appointed as Bishop of Stockport. The rest, as they say, is history, with further appointments of women as bishops now being made almost on a monthly basis.
WATCH is in excellent heart, and goes from strength to strength under the leadership of Hilary Cotton and her magnificent team, but there is still much to accomplish. G. K. Chesterton famously wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Part of WATCH’s challenge is to remove the remaining obstacles that keep women bound and render their lives diminished by the very Church they love and serve. When that is done, we will all – men as well as women – see more of the truth of who we are and who God is.
After 25 years, I have decided to stand down from General Synod. I hope I am replaced by an eager, passionate woman in her 20s or 30s, standing on a firm theological foundation, and gripped by a vision of what Christ is calling his church to be now.
8th July 2015