In the summer of 2012 I moved to North London to become the vicar of St Pancras Church. The parish is part of the Edmonton Area of the Diocese of London. Edmonton has over a hundred churches, and by then women had been priests for 18 years in the Church of England, yet I was only the second female vicar the Area had ever appointed. As we have seen in other long-established institutions – Parliament, the law, the City – changing the rules of admission doesn’t necessarily result in rapid and profound change.
Dame Minouche Shafik, formerly Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and now Director of the LSE, has been saying for a while that the image of the glass ceiling is unhelpful. ‘It implies that, if you could break through it, then everybody could get through and it is not quite that simple. In my experience it is more like a sticky door. In order to get through it, you have to give it a nudge because it won’t open automatically. And it helps a lot if you’ve got allies on the other side of the door giving it a pull.’ On Desert Island Discs earlier this year she took the image further: ‘Often even if you get through the door, the door shuts again, and it sticks again, and it takes another person to nudge it and someone else to pull it open for them before it stays open for everyone.’
These days, the situation in Edmonton is beginning to look and feel remarkably different. A number of factors underlie this. The following list may look obvious – many dioceses blazed these trails long ago – but it bears repeating for areas and dioceses that are still struggling with the sticky door. Senior staff were appointed in Edmonton who actively promoted women’s ministry and worked closely with parishes to help them feel confident about appointing women incumbents, team vicars and curates for the first time. All vacancies were openly advertised, and they made a point of saying that applications from under-represented groups would be welcome.
A Dean of Women’s Ministry and a Dean for Black and Minority Ethnic Affairs were appointed to offer pastoral care and support to those groups and to speak on their behalf in senior staff meetings. Some of the negative speech and behaviour that had previously gone unchallenged in the Area was publicly named and shamed. Most recently, as part of a diocesan initiative to help the leadership of our churches look more like the diverse city we serve, senior staff and all those involved in appointments panels have been undertaking unconscious bias training.
Some of these initiatives are easier than others. Some require a substantial investment of time and money. Others require uncomfortable truths to be named and addressed. All of them require an openness to the possibility of change, and a commitment to seeing that change come about. In an age where people outside the church often see it as a place of bigotry rather than love, it is a gospel statement. We live in a wonderfully diverse world, and the good news of Jesus Christ is still about setting people free and enabling them to be the people God made them to be.
A few years ago, keen to see more diversity in the scientific community, the Royal Society produced a brief animated video on Unconscious Bias which can easily be found on most internet search engines. It ends with the statement, ‘We can’t cure unconscious bias, but with self-awareness we can address it.’ In Edmonton we still have our biases, conscious and unconscious, and most of us remain firmly attached to them. But little by little we are being helped to understand them, and to suspend them where we can, tugging away at the door so that it can genuinely be open to all. And we are discovering that there are some amazingly talented people pushing on the other side, wanting to come and work here, sensing that it might be an inspiring and creative place to be. Coming from so far back, we are under no illusion that we still have a long way to go, but the door is definitely less sticky than it was.
The Rev’d Anne Stevens is Vicar of St Pancras Church and a Trustee of WATCH (Women and the Church)