Starting on March 12th this year, and lasting over three months, more than a thousand women will be celebrating a Silver Jubilee: the 25th anniversary of their ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England. Bristol Cathedral led the way, with 32 deacons ordained priest, and the following week three ordinations took place in Sheffield diocese on the 15th, 16th and 17th March, when twenty-five women were ordained as priests, and ordinations continued in other dioceses through April, May and June.
To call this anniversary a Silver Jubilee seems very appropriate, for a biblical Jubilee is a time for the restoration of the true liberty of the children of God – and the ordination of women was a sign that in the church, men and women were being restored to a right relationship with each other and God by the affirmation of the priestly calling of women as well as men. There was a real sense of overflowing joy in the church and parishes during the three months of these ordinations, particularly for those women who had been waiting almost a life time for this day, but also for those who first saw a woman ordained priest, and celebrating at the altar and pronouncing a blessing, and who can remember the unexpected and profound effect it had on them.
Twenty five years on, there are many people, including some of those being ordained this year and exploring their own vocation to priesthood, who will have no personal memory of 1994 and the deep joy that permeated so many congregations and communities as women were finally ordained as priests. Even those who remember 1994 may not remember the people and the sheer hard work which made that day possible, and who do not know what MOW was and what it achieved (MOW was the initials of Movement for the Ordination of Women – which describes what this group was set up to do), nor that MOW began forty years ago this year : it was launched on July 4th 1979. Forty years is a good long biblical number, but the long struggle for women to be seen as called by God to all ministries has been going on even longer.
Women have been part of the church and its leadership since Christian churches began. In Britain names like Hilda of Whitby and Julian of Norwich, Mary Sumner, and Catherine Booth remind us of the many women who are part of our history. In the 19th century, one way women found to be allowed to preach and teach, was to become missionaries . Despite the hardships and difficulties, some women spent nearly all their adult life abroad in this way. In Britain, particularly in cities, other women became members of one of the Deaconess orders, working amongst those areas which were most deprived socially.
Campaigning for the ordination of women in the church of England began in a more focused way in the 1920s. Some early campaigners had also been active in the campaign for woman’s suffrage. They also had the example of Constance Coltman who was ordained as a Congregationalist minister In 1917, and Maude Royden who became an assistant preacher at the City Temple in London in the same year. Groups were set up, working to raise the issue among church leaders, including the Lambeth conference. Theological foundations were laid for ordaining women, but no other visible progress was made.
The first ordained women
The most significant step towards ordaining women in the Anglican church happened during World War II, and on the other side of the world from England. On January 25th Florence LI Tim-Oi was ordained priest by Bishop R. Hall, in order to continue to offer sacramental ministry to the congregation in Macau, cut off by Japanese occupation. Once the war was over, pressure on Bishop Hall led to her resigning her licence to protect him, but she never resigned her orders.
Hong Kong continued to lead the way in recognising the vocation of women to the priesthood when on Advent Sunday 1971, two more deacons were ordained priests. The Anglican Consultative Council had agreed that the decision to ordain women was a local provincial decision, and once Hong Kong had agreed to this, Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett were ordained. Joyce was the first English woman to be ordained priest.
Three years later, in the USA, eleven women were ordained in Philadelphia. These were irregular ordinations, but they were accepted by the Episcopal church a year later, and a year after that Canada agreed to ordain women. Suddenly women who were priests were a living reality, not a theoretical argument.
Campaigning grows in England
News of these ordinations, and frustration at the lack of any progress towards ordaining women in England, led to a change of pace and approach among those who were convinced God was calling women to the priesthood in England too, and groups sprang up, prepared to campaign more widely and visibly. One of these groups, the Christian Parity Group, included Una Kroll as a founder member, and began to campaign more urgently, integrating prayer, study, worship and action.
Then, in 1975, thirty one years after the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, the issue of the ordination of women was introduced to into General Synod. As so often in this long saga of working for the full inclusion of women in the church’s ordained ministry, the result was a mixed, almost contradictory, message. The first part of the motion,
“That this Synod considers there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood. “
was carried, and so from this time the official view of the Church of England was that there were no theological arguments to prevent women being ordained.
However, the second part of the motion, asking for legislation to be drawn up to enable women to be ordained was defeated, with many making the argument that “the time is not right”. Campaigners for opening orders to women, whether deacon, priest or bishop would hear these words over and over again.
Three years later, campaigners tried again to get Synod to start the process of legislation. This time it was passed in the Houses of Laity and Bishops but defeated in the House of Clergy. This was the occasion of Una Kroll’s famous cry, from the gallery of church House:
“We asked you for bread and you gave us a stone”.
The Movement for the Ordination of Women
By this time it was becoming became clear to those longing for the day when women and men could share in ordained ministry, that a single, focused campaign group that linked grass roots campaigning with the slow process of working through Synod, was needed. A year later, on 4th July 1979, the Movement for the Ordination of Women was founded, with Stanley Booth Clibborn, the Bishop of Manchester, as its first Moderator.
MOW’s campaigning developed along two main strands: inside Synod, and outside in parishes and the wider world. A small, dedicated group, mainly members of General Synod, continued with the long, painstaking work of getting legislation introduced and through Synod’s long processes. Alongside this task, MOW began to create groups of supporters and campaigners in every diocese, ready to write to Synod members when needed, but also to continue to raise awareness of the campaign and the issues underlying it in their own churches, and get involved in actions which continued to remind people of the campaign. It was the time of vigils before ordinations, of giving Michaelmas daisies to those attending ordinations as a sign of those still excluded, of silent, prayerful demonstrations within ordination services with the support of Cathedral chapters and of prayer for all affected in one way or another.
MOW also realised the need for continuing to nourish those who were longing for the time when women would be ordained, but who needed spiritual succour for the long journey, so it was also the time when MOW meetings and services experimented with creative liturgy that was not eucharistic, and which called on female images, languages and stories.
Synod starts to legislate: very slowly
It was 1984 before General Synod voted to start the process of preparing legislation to ordain women, but it would be another eight years before it finally was agreed. It was a very long process and needed all the patience and tenacity of those who were working in Synod. Pressure from opponents to ordaining women meant that the legislation included “safeguards” for those who did not agree with ordained women, and financial provision for those who decided to leave the ministry of the Church of England when women were ordained priests. It was the end of 1989 before the legislation was ready to go to deanery and diocesan Synods for discussion and approval, before it finally came back to Synod.
During this time, most deaconesses were ordained into the diaconate in 1987, and in future years, women were ordained directly as deacons. This meant that people in churches were getting used to the sight of women wearing dog collars and the same vestments as men; getting used to them taking most services, and began to ask why “ their deacon” couldn’t also celebrate communion. The ordination of women as priests became an issue that was not just something that “they” were talking about in London, but something that many church members felt was a very real matter of justice and a response to the working of the Holy Spirit.
One or two women who had been ordained priests abroad were also now living in England : Joyce Bennett had retired and Susan Cole-King, ordained in the US, came back to England in order to share her experience and support women in England. They were forbidden to celebrate the eucharist publicly, but their presence continued to inspire and support MOW members and others. .
The legislation was discussed and voted on across the country, and results on voting in the dioceses showed that the mood of the majority of the church was in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood. The final vote on the measure was scheduled for November 1992. In Synod in July the legislation got through the penultimate stage of the process, but voting figures showed that it still had not reached the two thirds majority it would need to pass in November. MOW members kept up the pressure: General Synod members found they were receiving piles of letters, often many from a single parish. In October MOW organised a national service in Coventry Cathedral a few weeks before the final vote, and supporters who had travelled from across the country to pray and hope together, gathered in the ruined cathedral and then followed a kite flyer into the new cathedral – a sign, those there hoped, of the joy and new life to come.
November 11th 1992
November 11th was a day when all those who cared about the outcome of the vote seemed to be holding their breath all day. Campaigners had kept continuous vigil outside side Lambeth Palace for several nights and days beforehand. The gallery was full. People were listening on radios throughout the day. No one knew what the outcome would be, even those most involved in the debate and managing of Synod itself. But when, at the end of the afternoon, the result was finally read out by the Archbishop, those who had done their sums knew it had passed. The chamber of Synod remained silent (as requested) but outside, campaigners who had gathered burst into cheers and song, and a rocket went up into the dark evening.
What those who had campaigned for so long for this day had not realised, was how much the result of the vote mattered to anyone and everyone. Women in dog collars found themselves greeted and congratulated as they walked along the road, in pubs, in shops. Women deacons came home to flowers, bottles of champagne and cards. There was a real sense of liberation and joy in faith, in a God who calls everyone. Messages poured in, not just from England but from across the world, all sharing the same joy and exhilaration. The root of this joy was perhaps summed up in a message sent by Bishop Stephen Verney: ”As the days went by, it seemed that something very big had happened. As the symbol at the heart of the church had changed, everything had changed with it. Man and woman, now partners, and with that breakdown of the wall of partition, all sorts of other walls were tottering down…We are no longer drawn up in battle array. We can proclaim the glory of God together, through forgiveness and compassion. Alleluia!”
The Act of Synod
But it took another year of work, more debates in Synod and more campaigning before the legislation to enable ordinations to actually take place finally became law. The Church of England is a state church and Parliament also has to approve church legislation. As it turned out, most MPs and members of the Lords supported the ordination of women, but opponents took their opposition to Parliament and the members of the committee with responsibility for getting legislation through Parliament. The bishops had spent much of their time since the vote listening to those who were shocked by the result of the vote (much less time was given to women) and so perhaps overestimated the extent of the opposition to ordaining women. In the end the bishops, and after more tense debates, Synod were persuaded that in order to get the decision through Parliament, and to show generosity, additional legislation (an Act of Synod) was needed. In addition to the existing “safeguards”(parishes being able to pass resolutions A and B, to prevent a woman from leading worship, celebrating Eucharist in a church or being an incumbent; in addition to financial provisions for those who felt they could not remain as clergy once women were ordained) was added the 1993 Act of Synod which provided for additional bishops (Provincial Episcopal Visitors or “Flying Bishops” ) to act pastorally for those parishes who felt they could not accept the sacramental ministry of their diocesan bishop.
But finally, the measure passed by Synod in November 1992 became law and dioceses could start planning for ordinations in 1994. Ordinations took place on different days in different diocese over England . Finally, in all of these services, the pent up joy of waiting, exploded into praise and thanksgiving, not once, but over three months from mid March until the end of June. For those there, a moment they would never forget. For the church, the beginning of making real a genuinely shared ministry of men and women.
Much of the information in this has been taken from the best and most complete account of the long progress towards the ordination of women is told best in a book by Margaret Webster: “A New Strength, a New Song” published by Mowbray in 1994. It is no longer in print, but second hand copies are still available