This week marks the 20th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England and what a celebration this is! The first ordinations were held on the 12th March 1994 at Bristol Cathedral. The alphabetical “first” of the first 32 women to be ordained in England was Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson and WATCH is delighted to publish her account of the day as well as an account from Barry Rogerson, the retired Bishop of Bristol.
Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson
The alphabetical ‘first’ of the first 32 women to be Ordained in England.
It seems almost impossible to believe that it is twenty years since that wonderful day in 1994 when thirty two of us women were – finally – Ordained into the Priesthood at Bristol Cathedral on 12th March. Memories of that day: as we left Glenfall Retreat House near Cheltenham the coach turned the corner of the drive and we saw a sheep that had just dropped 2 new born lambs who were staggering to their feet. “I hope one is a boy and one a girl” shouted one of my sisters. That was the whole point, at last women could take their rightful place alongside their male colleagues behind the altar. It was never – despite what the press said – a case of women trying to push themselves ahead of men, but rather a recognition of the equality of all God’s children, so that those women who felt called by God to this role, and who had been accepted through the Church’s rightly rigorous processes, could at last have our vocations recognised.
The service itself was amazing, moving and spirit filled. The feeling of expectation and joy emanating from the congregation as we processed up the aisle at the start of the service was almost palpable. We were each allowed to invite just 4 or our friends/colleagues to lay hands on us alongside the Bishops and Archdeacons at the moment of Ordination. I wanted a woman to be one of my four ‘pairs of hands’, so I invited Rev. Alice Medcof, a good friend who was a priest in Toronto, Canada, to come over for the occasion. She had to produce not only proof of her Ordination but also her Baptismal certificate before she was allowed to take part.
Towards the end of the service a man came and stood in front of the microphone. Oh no, I thought, here we go, here is the dreaded but half anticipated protest. Not a bit of it! This man turned out to be a Roman Catholic Priest from Belgium who prayed the most amazing and unexpected prayer that the Catholic Church would soon see the error of her ways and follow the Church of England’s example and allow women to be Ordained! After the service was over I was mobbed by yet more journalists from the BBC and I remember saying that this was “a spring time for the church.”
Well 20 years on and things have changed considerably. Nearly a third of our clergy are women. We now have women Deans, Archdeacons, Cathedral Canons, and let us continue to hope and pray that by the end of this year it will be possible to have women as Bishops in England. Then it really will be “summer in the church” after the long wait, the floods of disappointment in November 2012. Meanwhile, happy anniversary to the cohort of 1994!
Barry Rogerson – retired Bishop of Bristol
It had been thirty six years since I had argued as student that women should be allowed to be ordained, and now it would happen. I had watched those who were ordained move from being Parish Workers, Religious and Deaconesses to being deacons and now they would be priests. I had listened to people change their minds about whether women should be ordained or not, for in the end the argument was won by the way in which women deacons had exercised their ministry. So the Ordination Service was an occasion of joy, tinged with a certain anxiety that someone would object. They didn’t. The only demonstration was outside the Cathedral asking that women be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.
What do I remember most? Thankfulness to all those who made the liturgy run so smoothly and beautifully. Thankfulness that so many people came from other parts of the Church, not least the World Council of Churches and a couple of Roman Catholic priests from Belgium. Thankfulness that above all it was an outward and visible sign of an inclusive community which was such a central part of the message and mission of Jesus of Nazareth.
There were many letters and newspaper articles, which arrived by post, but one I treasure above all. It came from a lady in Hampshire, whose Church does not ordain women. After watching the service on BBC2 her daughter said, “Mum, you know that bottle of champagne you gave me for my 21st birthday, let’s open it, because this is about us.”