Over the past few months, WATCH has posted recollections and reflections on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood from a few of those ordained that year. It was a significant moment for the Church of England and for women, but the majority of women active in the church were, and still are, called to vocations which do not depend on ordination. Helen King is one of these women, and shares some of her memories and thoughts with us.
As we celebrate twenty-five years since the first women were ordained priest in the Church of England, let’s not forget what that meant and still means for the majority of women in our churches, who have no calling to this particular ministry.
I was a member of General Synod for Guildford Diocese from 1985, the year in which Synod gave Final Approval to the Deacons (Ordination of Women) Measure, to 1993: the years in which it all happened. When I stood for re-election in 1990, I wrote on my election address ‘You may like to know how I would vote on particular issues. I sometimes change my vote when I come to appreciate why others feel as they do; surely this is why we have synods and debates! I do, however, strongly support the ordination of women. I see no theological objection to the proposal that a woman can stand at the altar to make present Christ’s incarnation as fully human, fully divine’.
I hadn’t always felt like this. I became a Christian in a conservative evangelical church; experienced Anglo-Catholic worship with a friend who was exploring his own vocation; and then in my late teens joined my middle-of-the-road parish church, to which I could walk easily and where the vicar supported having younger people involved in church government. I was soon on the PCC and Deanery Synod, as well as becoming the first woman to be a sidesman in this church. That wasn’t achieved without some opposition; some men thought a woman wasn’t strong enough to carry a pile of hymn books, others suggested instead making the coffee! At the Annual Parish Meeting at which I was elected, another woman also stood successfully, having previously had no idea that women could take such a role. Once she realised, she was enthusiastic to join in.
Yet I kept the priesthood in another box in my mind, and it took some years before I accepted that this, too, was a place for a woman. Following an instant conversion to this view after hearing Mary Tanner speak at our Deanery Synod, I went straight home and filled out my Movement for the Ordination of Women membership form, so I had been a member for a few years before I was elected to General Synod, and occasionally even took part in a service at which a woman presided. It felt oddly transgressive, just from being so unfamiliar. As one of a handful of Church of England delegates to the 1986 meeting of the Conference of European Churches, I saw and heard yet more ordained women, from the Lutheran tradition. On the flight back from that meeting, I had a long conversation with an ordained man from our delegation in which he asked me whether I had a vocation to priesthood. I appreciated the direct approach which helped me in thinking this question through. I knew that there were women who were profoundly aware of such vocations in themselves – some among my friends – but I found that my own answer was simply that I couldn’t say. Until it became a real possibility, this was like asking me if I had a vocation to be a rock; it wasn’t something open to me, so how could I consider it seriously?
Yet the assumption of many people, in the church and beyond, was always that I was fighting this fight for myself. And, much as I deplore the language of victory and defeat, of us and them, it was a fight. I remember a televised debate from All Souls, Langham Place in which one speaker argued that women could not be ordained because of menstruation; this sort of approach made it very clear to me that there was far more at stake here than the role of priest.
After the ordination of women became possible, I found my vocation to be lay steadily firming up. I think there’s something very positive about Doing Church Stuff without ordination; I hope it empowers and inspires others to feel they can, too. Occasionally I am serving at the altar at the same service at which I am preaching (as an authorized lay preacher), and then I abandon the cassock-alb in favour of ‘normal clothes’; on the one occasion when I wore the white item, someone in the congregation assumed I was the team ministry’s female Local Ordained Minister. I’m thrilled that we have her, but I’m lay: and that’s important to me.
The existence of women clergy makes me very happy. I have women friends who are priests; I acquired a step-daughter who became a priest; with my husband, I watched as some of our friends travelled that same path. For me, what is most powerful is the sense of inclusion as I see women processing into a cathedral, or wearing their dog-collars in meetings, in services, in hospitals and just in the street. I remember crying when an entirely male procession swished past me in Guildford Cathedral in the 1980s. Other memories: passing the legislation in 1992, and running out of Church House into the square to greet my deacon friends. More recently: in church the Sunday after the failure of an earlier attempt to approve women bishops, there happened to be a baptism of a baby girl and I found myself in floods of tears again, hearing the language of the service after the unsuccessful legislation emphasizing to me that, if this girl grew up to have the gifts that would make her a fine bishop, she was going to be ignored merely on account of her sex. It’s wonderful that all orders of ministry are now open to us.
Having women as clergy changes the whole picture towards inclusion. It should challenge the damaging ‘Father knows best’ pattern in which some women collude; it makes us into adult people responsible for our own lives. It should open up debates about who does what in the church, and about how to support all God’s people. I say ‘should’ because I am not yet convinced that we’ve explored all the possibilities. It’s too easy for women priests to model themselves on the men whose ministry formed them, but as a new generation comes forward, I hope that things will shift even more.
Dr Helen King, Professor Emerita, Classical Studies in The Open University, was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England for Guildford Diocese from 1985 to 1993.