Linda Le Vasseur, who was the first woman ordained in Guernsey, was ordained priest in 1996. We are including her story among our memories of the first ordinations of women to the priesthood as a reminder of those women who were the “first” in a variety of places, and as a reminder that it took until 1999 for the legislation to enable women to be ordained priest to become part of the law of Jersey and Guernsey. At the time of writing, the legislation to enable women to be appointed bishops has still not been adopted into the law of the Channel Islands.
“It’s important for you to remember Linda, you can’t make any mistakes.” Words that finished off my interview with a senior member of the Bishop’s staff, a couple of months before my ordination. To begin with, I don’t think I understood fully what he was saying to me. It was, on reflection, I realised that instead of them being totally unrealistic words, they were wise words, warning me that when I became the first ordained woman in Guernsey, like it or not, General Synod’s decision to ordain women to the priesthood would be judged by my mistakes, at least in the island.
To be the first woman deacon and then the first woman priest in Guernsey was an immense privilege and I have never lost sight of that fact. Honesty requires me also to admit that I felt the burden of responsibility. If I messed up I would make it more difficult for those who came after me. I wanted to get it right, but I wasn’t sure what right looked like in a context where no-one had ever trod this path before.
There was a lot of publicity locally when I was ordained, first deacon and then priest, so in a small community, I was even more in the goldfish bowl than most ordained people find themselves. There were times when I was very uncomfortable with this; after all I was ordained to serve people, not to be applauded for the calling that God has made on my life.
Fortunately there were things that kept me very grounded, a husband who was always going to keep my feet alongside him, one or two very supportive friends and the fact that not everyone thought that women priests were a good thing.
I remember the first funeral I assisted with, when I led the cortege into church with the Sentences, there was an audible gasp – the congregation were expecting to hear a man’s voice. After that I made very sure that I was by the door, well before the service, so people could see it was going to be led by a woman. After all, the priest is not supposed to be the star of that particular show! And that’s how it was for most things, my first wedding, my first communion service, visiting different churches to take services, celebrating the Eucharist for the local Synod, every time was a first, it had never been done in Guernsey by a woman before.
Then there was the discussion over where I would be priested. For everyone else in my year, at that time, it was a no-brainer: in the church where they were serving their title. Just weeks before my priesting, Guernsey decided it wouldn’t be “safe” to priest me on island. They hadn’t got around to adopting the Ordinance on woman priests. I could work as a priest under licence, but my ordination would have to happen elsewhere. This decision was incomprehensible to many people, including my training incumbent, who did his level best to have the decision reversed, to no avail. So my ordination to the priesthood took place in Winchester Cathedral, within the service to ordain that year’s deacons. Bishop Michael and his staff did everything they could to be affirming, welcoming and supportive of me and those Guernsey people who were able to travel over to England at quite short notice in order to be present.
The following Sunday the Island showed what many people really thought, when I celebrated the Eucharist for the first time. There were over four hundred people present and the police, for safety reasons, had needed to introduce a one-way system around the church. I did find all this a bit of a pressure as events unfolded in the lead up to the service, but as I came out of the vestry, the love and support were tangible and it’s a day I will ever forget.
Over the years since, life hasn’t always been a picnic. I have made some stunning mistakes, but I have learnt that nothing we do is ever totally lost or wasted; God can bring good even from the worst situations. I have also learnt that being the first woman priest, as well as a challenge is also a great opportunity. If there were no role models on island for me to follow I had to attempt to blaze the trail and try to show in my way what women can bring to ordained ministry. Times have changed in Guernsey now, there are a number of very good women priests on island, gender is not the big talking point that it once was and maybe, in the not too far distant future we may have a full-time, stipendiary woman in post. It is my hope and prayer.