Twenty-five years on…..A Hard Road to Priesting

Not all memories from 1994 are joyful one. Janet recalls her road, which at times felt more like an obstacle course,  to her ordination on 23rd April in the diocese of Manchester.

I knew it was going to be a hostile interview as soon as I walked into the room. The two interviewers (whom I will call A and B) were sitting with their backs to the light, and far enough apart so that I couldn’t look at both of them at once. As the interview proceeded they alternated questions, so every question came from the one not in my line of vision. It was a set-up calculated to put candidates off their stroke.

Early in the interview I was asked to recount the history of my vocation. My sense of calling dated back to when I was 9 years of age and my family were attending a Baptist church in the USA, so I answered at some length. A and B listened with apparent attention. Then one of them said, ‘That can’t have happened.’ Incredulous, I asked, ‘Why can’t it have happened?’ ‘Because the Church hadn’t made its mind up then.’ I couldn’t understand their apparent assumption that God had no foreknowledge of the decision the Church of England would make, and had made no provision for it. I pictured God, on that November afternoon in 1992, being taken off guard and desperately scrabbling around to find some women to call to the priesthood. It was the more ridiculous because at my selection conference in 1983 there had been no pretence that my vocation was to the diaconate rather than the priesthood. So I replied to A and B, ‘Are you telling me God can only do what the Church of England decides to do?’ This did not go down well.

The whole interview was traumatic and for some days afterwards I was shaking and ill. Nor was I alone; women reported coming out of their interview and vomiting, or having repeated nightmares in the days and weeks following.  A number of women were turned down on clearly spurious grounds. All but one of these had the decision reversed on appeal. I hope these women will recount their own stories.

When my report arrived, I found to my relief that I had been recommended for ordination. However, the report was so intensely negative that I didn’t see how they could have reached a positive conclusion. I could not have recommended for the priesthood someone with the qualities A and B attributed to me. I showed it to my spiritual director, an Anglican nun well versed in the ways of the Church of England. She said, ‘It makes me feel sick.’ She couldn’t understand the ordained female interviewer, whom she knew, taking part in this abusive process.

I was concerned that this very critical and unfair report would remain permanently in my file and affect future job prospects, so I asked the bishop to remove it. He declined. I am grateful to several clergy and lay people who then wrote to the bishop with an alternative – and more positive – view of my personality and abilities. One or two of these at least were retained in my file, as I discovered last year when I sent for it.

This was the background to my ordination as a priest on 23 April 1994. I was being ordained at St. Philips Salford, along with eight other women who were sector ministers like myself. The diocesan bishop, Christopher Mayfield, was presiding and we had been warned that there might be demonstrations by those opposed to women’s ordination. At the rehearsal we had been taken through what would happen if someone objected to our ordination. This added to the tension and the usual nerves about something going wrong. In the event, there were no demonstrators. And when Bishop Christopher asked, ‘Is it your will that these women should be ordained?’ The cry ‘IT IS’ was deafening. It was balm to my wounded spirit.

Afterwards one of my Roman Catholic friends who was there said, ‘If someone had objected he would have been hustled out by a very angry Catholic!’ He was the first to ask for my priestly blessing. A friend who was a Catholic prioress went along and was asked to process with the clergy. A Catholic neighbour gave me a crucifix which was a replica of the one on the Pope’s papal staff, and had been blessed by him. These and others were among a group of Catholics who asked me to celebrate a home eucharist for them on Corpus Christi. It was a memorable occasion on which we were all moved to tears. The warm welcome I had from these Roman Catholics made a strange contrast to the hostility I had encountered from some of my fellow Anglicans.

The ordination service was wonderful. From the processional hymn, ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty’ to the blessing it was full of joy. But the process to get there was far more difficult and painful than it need have been. And those who had deliberately made the discernment procedure brutal in order to placate our opponents (as one of them later admitted) were present at the retreat and at the services. That was not easy; though as a gesture of forgiveness I did ask one of them to bless a cross for me.

My first celebration of the Eucharist the next morning was wonderful too.  My sense of God’s presence was strong, but I was also very aware of other women all over the diocese, presiding for the first time. Bp. Christopher held a reception for us on the Monday evening and we compared notes:  ‘How was it for you?’

Those first few years were full of firsts. When I was deaconed in 1987 I got used to people’s reactions as they saw a woman in a clerical collar for the first time. Now it was people’s responses as they heard a woman pronounce the absolution or saw her preside at Holy Communion. Tears were not unusual – especially from women who had survived abuse. Having a woman in a priestly role made a big difference to them. As a university chaplain I often covered for services elsewhere during the vacations, and nearly everywhere I took a service, I was the first women to have done so. There was a powerful sense of being part of history.

Looking back, I feel privileged to have been one of the pioneers of women’s ordination. I’m glad that having a woman vicar is no longer unusual, that not only the Church but the nation has got used to seeing women in dog collars. The cost has been high, and that needs to be remembered. We should remember too those whose vocations were never recognised by the Church; those who died too soon, or who by 1994 were considered too old to be ordained. It was a bittersweet day for them. And I remember, and give thanks for, all those who campaigned year in year out, so that women could be priests.


Janet Fife