25 years on.
On the 11th November 25 years ago I, along with many others, spent the day waiting. I did my waiting in London outside Church House Westminster. The day began with the singing of songs and the waving of banners as I joined other members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women greeting the members of General Synod as they went in to debate the Measure to allow women to be ordained as priests. Technology and social media were not in today’s league so, for much of the day, those of us outside had little sense of what was going on inside. Later we discovered that there was a video link from the chamber into a room in the basement and it was there that I watched the end of the debate and the voting.
We knew that it would be a tight vote. The measure needed two-thirds majority in each house. I was a young clergywoman, ordained deacon two years earlier, working as a curate in Bedford alongside my husband who a year after our ordination as deacon had been ordained priest; because he was a man. When the voting numbers were announced I was struggling to do the maths then someone called out ‘its passed.’ We ran out to join the crowds on the steps of Church House. There was joy, relief and celebration amongst those there. My friends and I moved on to a local pub where, much to our surprise, a group of men seeing our clerical collars bought us a bottle of champagne. This decision was received as good news by the wider public.
In the following days there was a coming down to earth. Amongst the wonderful messages sharing in the joy were those who felt this was the time to tell me why they would not be able to accept my ministry as a priest. We were told by our Bishops not to be ‘triumphalist’ and to remember the many who were hurting. The measure had to be sent to Parliament and we were told that Parliament might not think that enough was being done to support the opponents. There followed 18 months of waiting during which the controversial Act of Synod was passed creating ‘flying’ bishops. In the Spring of 1994, the first ordinations of women as priests in the Church of England happened. For me it was alongside 61 other women in St Albans Abbey on St Georges Day 1994.
It is now 25 years later, almost half of my life, and the young people I work with have never known a Church of England without women priests. Women vicars are part of culture appearing in TV, adverts, novels; both fictional and real examples. Yet, tensions over the role of women still continue in the church. There are still those who think for a variety of reasons that women should not be priests, church leaders or bishops. The debates around women bishops meant that the church’s continuing uncertainty about really welcoming women into all orders of ministry was played out for the wider world to see. Sadly, this means that many younger people think the church is out of step with gender equality.
25 years on I rejoice that the church has benefitted, and continues to benefit, from the priestly ministry of so many women. I rejoice in the ministry I have been able to have. I hope that we can continue to encourage women to serve in this way and that the Church of England will find ways to truly celebrate the momentous decision made 25 years ago.
Chair of WATCH