The Rev Dr Carrie Pemberton Ford was one of those ordained priest in Ely diocese in 1994, and was one of the members of WATCH’s first committee. Here she remembers her ordinations as deacon and then priest, and reflects on the changes that have and have not taken place in the church in the following quarter century.

1987 was some year: it saw the Fall of the Berlin Wall, GPS and the Ordination of women to the diaconate in the Church of England, although the women deacons had to wait for another seven years until 1994 to be ordained as priests, when  hundreds of women, fertile, pregnant, infertile, post-menopausal alike, lined up in file, to have hands laid upon them by male Bishops – as any female Bishops present from ‘over the pond’ were deemed too problematic to countenance during these ‘charged and emotional’ days. Here was a rupture in the system, which had begun with the fracking of deacons across the UK in 1987.  The patriarchal narrative of male privileging, women silencing, Apostolic authority authorised by the Catholic and then Reformed Anglican tradition, noted so powerfully by Radford Reuther in her 1985 salvo across the decks of the western churches, Women-Church, was opening up under sustained pressure, to other voices, in a higher register.

Like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the deconstruction of this man-made barrier had been many decades in the realisation, and cost many, lost years of life.  And as in Putin’s Russia, there have been forces at work, which have meant that the full liberation hoped for, and the thorough-going flourishing of new regimes, have been less than initially hoped for.

No-one bothered to count the lost vocations, years of depression, insults and various injuries to women’s vocations during the three quarters of a century between the first ordination in 1912 of Olive Winchester, the first woman to be ordained in the United Kingdom, the fifty years’ since 1944 and the first ordination of a female in the Anglican Communion, Li Tim-Oi,  ordained in 1944 as the priest for  a Christian congregation in Macau when no male priest could get through to them,  or the twenty five years of organisational rumination over the validity in the church of England of the  priesthood of Joyce Bennet, again ordained in Hong Kong in 1971.  Some were crushed by depression consequent to their inability to realise their call, some lost faith entirely in the institution, and some lost faith in the possibility of faith itself; women and some men looking for an age of deeper inclusion, of gender equality, burnt out by the struggle and the bullying from hierarchies protecting the patriarchal ‘status quo’.

In 1987 I was ordained deacon in Ripon Cathedral, weeks before moving onto Brussels and then to the North East corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to undertake work as a theological college lecturer and pioneer deacon for the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Boga-Zaire. Seven years,  a life time of cross cultural learning and challenge, and three children later, I stood in Ely Cathedral under the octagonal dome with scores of other women who had undertaken similarly long journeys to the realisation of a promise with-held, an identifier of public recognition and commissioning which had been denied them.  For some it had been a matter of a few years, for others, decades.

The year was 1994.   The early summer sunshine, drilled through the gothic windows, high up just under the roof line.  I knelt at the altar rail, and was bathed in the iridescent light which washed across the golden painted saints, standing sentry across the Octagon, looking down on the long line of women, taking up their baton of faith, promising allegiance to the Queen, and obedience to their Bishop, in the solemn rite of ordination to the priesthood.  It was a hopeful time. For many it was a time of vindication of years of struggle, and labour for change.  Without doubt a paradigm shift was being announced to those who had ears to hear.  The few of my generation who had become actively involved as volunteers in the struggle across church politics, theological graft, preaching and apologetics for a ‘gospel shaped’ equality, while also exercising effective pastoral ministry, had achieved a significant breach in the wall.  There could be no turning back from this, although the speed of change, and the nature of the political transformation would be more problematic than many hoped for.

One augur of the slow pace of transformation was sounded by the announcement across the dioceses that there should be no major rejoicing, no laurel wreaths for the initiators, no reflection on how the church had landed up in patriarchal captivity for so long.  Although the packed cathedral broke out in spontaneous applause at the moment of reception of the ‘new priests’, wave upon wave of positive energy flowing over us, as we stood on the edge of the shore line, wondering where the Holy Spirit might call us, as we re-set our co-ordinates, with ‘Home’ as newly ordained women.

It was a time of spoken and unspoken woundedness, by those whose beliefs and formation had somehow been entangled with the exclusivity of male ordination and  male ‘apostolic’ privilege and some clergy were hence on their own exodus, taking wives, households, and pension packages with them.  Some were received into the welcoming arms of the Catholic Church, others into early retirement. There was talk of ‘constructive dismissal’ and the requirement for appropriate financial compensation to be made.  At the time, many women wondered where and when any conversation around ‘reparation’ for the years of long excluded struggle, lost years of stipendiary employment and yes, the impact of professional ostracism whilst servicing the barricades of the revolution might  emerge, and be entertained with any seriousness.  We were warned by older Amazons, like Monica Furlong, Una Kroll, and Jean Mayland, that there would be few plaudits, and a great deal more struggle to come. Our eyes were set on the future.  A church where there was radical equality, intergenerational respect, a church beyond the power asymmetries, elite practices, and closed doors of patriarchy. A church, in which all women, whether priests, parishioners, or pundits, could find home, and set about redesigning its architecture and articulation of purpose, for all.

Hopes deferred

There had been over the previous three decades before ordination a steady decline in congregations as the church increasingly fell out of step with its parishioners and political community.  In our physical journeys, Geo Positioning Systems (GPS) were enabling radical independence for drivers, runners, even round the world navigators, whilst the church was immersed in medieval discussions on a par with whether the earth was round or flat.   There was a total failure to capture young hearts and minds for the future of a church with social equality at its heart. There was a radical failure of trust from the centre to release churches, into expressing Pentecostal inspired faith, centred on the unifying purpose of searching out authentic ways,  locally and globally, to announce the freedom of the Kin-dom of God- as Mary Daly provocatively, but accurately described the non-hierarchical and gender-neutral affinities which should be in play.

Resources for liturgical, theological, missiological and pastoral exploration on the central themes of developing an inclusive ‘kingdom’ shaped and  values driven church called for by many in the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and its daughter and successor Women and the Church (WATCH), were squeezed out of theological colleges and Continual Ministerial Education, lest they ‘cause offence’ and further ‘rock an unsteady boat’ in choppy waters.  Liberation theologies which might have provided some of the tools to understand the increasing distance between churches and the communities they had been established to serve, were left at the exotic edges of theological labour.

In House Challenges

The fundamental problem was that the organisational hierarchy in Lambeth and across the dioceses in synods and Bishop’s retreats, was not completely convinced of the direction in which it was headed. Lacking any form of Human Resources function the church across its diocesan structures was slow to embed the gender equality it announced in the ordination of its initial cohort of hundreds of women. The impact was professionally deleterious and morale sapping for many of the first cohort. The problem was made more challenging, where clergy couples were involved. All kinds of conundrums started to be encountered, as the dioceses and their then uniformly male hierarchies, started to consider requests emerging from the ‘newly ordained’ ranks.

Extraordinary questions were posed, advice administered and unilateral statements made. I was asked on more than one occasion:

‘What will you do with your children during services?’
‘Don’t you think that congregations might be concerned about personal and pastoral matters being discussed as ‘pillow talk ?’’
‘Have you finished ‘producing’ children?’

‘your role as a mother is to be at home with your children’ (neglecting to add in parenthesis the ‘role’ of the father – frequently present at these scandalously gender skewed meetings of male senior power, talking to apprentice power).

Or told

 ‘you shouldn’t be taking another full time stipendiary post, there is already one priest in your household – it will be impossible to manage’
‘no need for you to have a house with your parochial appointment – one ‘tied’ house is sufficient for the diocese to resource’ (neglecting the fact that the tied house is deemed as part of the ‘stipendiary compensation’ for a full-time priest)

‘Non Stipendiary work is an honourable estate’ (much like marriage I suppose)

Or chillingly

‘some parishioners just don’t like women presiding – whether it’s concerns about menstruation, or perhaps being pregnant – its not up to us to upset them’!

From the mouths of Bishops, Diocesan Theological Advisers, Directors of Ordinands, or Diocesan Secretaries.

None of these comments showed any consideration of how unilateral decisions made without consultation or indeed curiosity about the potential of the ‘new thing that was happening’, impacted on terms and condition of service, gender equality in remuneration, or professional progression.  What they did make visible,  were the unrecognised assumptions about the hidden resource which the often maligned and certainly under protected clergy wife, had been over many generations, servicing ubiquitous ranks of male clergy, parishes, the dioceses which relied on their tolerance of public service, parenting, Sunday school teaching,  galvanising of voluntary groups within the parishes, Mother’s Union organising, and frequently clergy household rescuing income, (“Wife Own Money”  was a well known acronym when my husband was in training in the seventies).

Some of the above concerns have been worked through across the last 25 years but many still require fundamental redress. It is said that Thomas Cranmer brought his wife over from Germany in a chest, in order to both protect her from molestation, and his reputation as a priest in 16th century Europe in the throes of reformation, from public vilification and innuendo.  Now that wives can be ordained alongside single women, mothers take priestly appointments, divorcees lead parochial ministry, widows progress up the professional ranks, openly lesbian women alongside straight women find appointment as Bishops (in the US and Sweden), isn’t the struggle for equality surely over?  Unfortunately, as noted by a recent WATCH survey, noting 500 parishes in the Church of England which deny the ‘right’ of a female priest to be appointed to their living, and continued reports of women priests being rejected as inappropriate to undertake funerals, undermined in public by male colleagues, touched inappropriately by congregational members, even on occasion still spat upon,  and with patriarchal domination of senior posts, liturgical language, work practice and terms of service, means that all is still not completed in the organisational revolution which the first ordinations in 1994 announced.

Mind the gaps

 The gender pay gap, when one can stomach looking at the financials within the Church of England, is a long way from equality.  Many women who were assigned Non Stipendiary Posts, or half time posts for the first years following their ordinations, were placed in impossible situations where their full potential giftings for the church would never be fully recognised by the wider church, because they were not fulfilling the ‘normal for male’ lines of progression and organisational endorsement.

Some moved onto Self Supporting Ministries in an effort to regain self-respect, some commensurate remuneration and autonomy.  Others, traumatised by the years of marginalisation, hate-speech, ostracism, institutional side-lining and neglect they had experienced on the years either side of the 1992 synodical ‘breakthrough’, retired from the processes of pastoral ministry altogether. Yet others continued valiantly, but found that certain dioceses were unwilling or unable to take hold of the opportunities of diversifying their appointment procedures. Job shares, part-time appointments, or years of sacrificial Non Stipendiary Ministry, part and parcel of the historic journey towards priesting of women, were discounted as valuable qualifications for senior appointments against ‘serious’ male counterparts, or those non disrupted by family, as they reached their late fifties and early sixties.

For the church, and for its ongoing ministry to the communities in which it is set, without a doubt, there is much to give thanks for. Despite falling church attendance alluded to, which continues, there are women and men responding to calls to ordination to serve in rural, urban, market town, and international locations, from the ranks of the Church of England. When looking across at other countries of the Anglican Communion, few regions now sit outside of the technical freedom of gender equality in ordination.  However, across the board the onward challenges for radically rethinking the boundaries of what it means to have ‘the freedom to be sons and daughters of the living God’ are being grasped, painfully slowly.

Progress in gender mainstreaming – addressing the gender pay and progression gap, facing up to the cultural misogyny which has been layered across the liturgies, narratives, and ‘business as usual’ of the church, has been glacial.  Recruitment on the other hand of the next generation of female pioneers has been healthy enough, although a recent Church of England report noted that those seeking ordination in their twenties were still predominantly male.  At the other end of the age spectrum addressing the inequalities in pension and post-service provision for those who gave much of their professional life to the struggle for equality, has been disappointingly under-resourced and under-attended to.

A Long Legacy of Misogyny?

 When I was ordained priest 25 years ago, I was one of just a handful of young mothers being recruited into the priestly cohort of the Church of England. Being a priest who happens to be a mother, or even grandmother is now a part the journey of ‘normalising’ the church, in its journey towards the Galatians 3:28 baptismal cry.

Some might say that the Church of England was birthed in the misogyny and narcissistic desires of an English Prince.  Many of my colleagues in the first two decades of the work of Women and the Church, looked actively for a new Reformation in the promise of the ordination of women.  We were eager to birth a new theology of a hospitable church, a radically inclusive church, open to all.  We believed our efforts were inspired by the radical equality of God, based on the creative mandate of sacrificial love and mutual flourishing, announced in the incarnate Christ.  The contemporary world, facing momentous challenges with our devastation of the environment, ongoing abuses posited on race, post-colonial privileges, economic inequalities, sexual, age and gender violations, is in desperate need for direction, the transformation of lament, true repentance, the grasping of a fresh unifying vision, infused at every point with loving kindness and care. This was the type of church many of use were yearning to help re-birth.

No longer a Boys’ Club?

 As Church, our attention needs to be focussed like the eyes of God, within and without.  We are called to radical honesty. All of us who went on our pre-ordination retreats were reminded of this self-examination, which is a sign of maturity, and the only place from which healthy ministry can emerge. So we should not continue to hide our shameful and protracted practices of patriarchal elitism and deny the hostility which is shown in so many of our places of decision making and indeed worship, to the presence and ‘voice’ of the ‘outsider’ whether female, migrant, disabled, pensioner, youth or queer. Mary Beard reminds us in her book Women and Power (2017), that the essence of patriarchal control embedded in the narratives of the Classical world, is the effective silencing of women.  Every year, every decade which slips by with women’s contribution silenced, or those who are deemed as ‘not acceptable’ in the classic patriarchal ordering of the world, is the loss of not only lives, but irreplaceable opportunities for us all. The paradigm shift of female ordination was a call to bring in a fuller equality and transformation of practice. It was not the Machiavellian goal of including some females into a ‘boys club’, regardless of how multi-ethnic and apparently ‘post-colonial’ that boys’ club had become in its international membership.

New recruits join, and the call from Lambeth to pay attention to the unequal ratios of women and men responding to vocation in their twenties and early thirties, indicates that the story of challenge for women during their years of child birth, and early child rearing, is clearly an ongoing arena for  concern.  Without doubt there are a range of practical alterations in the form, terms, and conditions of service through which ‘professional’ ministerial work can be shaped. Job sharing, more flexible work contracts, and longitudinal progression, with time out to develop new initiatives outside formal parochial ministry that should not be ‘discounted’ but understood as potentially, vitally enriching.  There is undoubtedly a whole swathe of fresh ways of conceiving team ministries, lay and ordained function and calling, with a wholesale reappraisal of the wide range of skills now urgently needed, for successfully resourcing contemporary ministry and the equipping of the church for the global and local challenges being faced.

At the heart of it all though remains the inclusive heart of a God who loves each one regardless of all the multiple ways we seek to divide, rule, and undermine.  That vision was the one which inspired me to press on despite innumerable put-downs, bullying behaviours, ridicule and rejection, towards ordination first as a deacon in 1987 and priesthood in 1994.  I would argue it is a vision which could successfully set the course for any church desirous of a relevant, gospel aligned and just announcement of what it means to be followers of Christ for the next decades, as multiple scenes shift and the very base of our earthly home is queried.  Back to Genesis then, but this time, with GPS with full satellite coverage we pray, removing the shadow of patriarchal devastation which has so waylaid the journey of discipleship, for followers of the ‘way’ , and hampered our enjoyment of the KIN-DOM of God, over the last two thousand years.

Revd Dr Carrie Pemberton Ford, author, speaker, academic and priest, was a founding committee member of National WATCH. She was ordained Priest at Ely Cathedral in 1994 and served her title as the founding  Missioner Priest of the Shared Churches in Cambourne Diocese of Ely. She was the first ordained clergywoman to be appointed to Government Office as a Woman’s National Commissioner under the Blair Government in 2004

She was the founder of the National counter Trafficking charity Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe which transformed the provision of safe housing for survivors of trafficking in the UK, (2003 -2008)  and is currently the Executive Director of the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking which collaborates with several departments in the University of Cambridge and is a leading Think Tank working on countering Modern Slavery.

In 2017 she established the network, as a forum for those needing to explore areas of poor practice by Churches (interdenominationally) which require some form of internal organisational redress. She runs an occasional on- line study course on some of the key feminist theologians of the late twentieth century to which members of WATCH are more than welcome to join.

She is the delighted mother of five children and grandmother of one grandson.