A week after Easter 1994, MOW organised a final conference and a national service of Thanksgiving that women were finally to be ordained as priests. It took place in Ripon Cathedral and was an occasion of great joy. The Rev Elizabeth Baxter, who has written this, is the Director of Holyrood House, a retreat house and place of wholeness and healing near York. ( http://www.holyroodhouse.org.uk/)
This inspiring service took place in the middle of the last conference of The Movement for the Ordination of Women, which was held at Queen Ethelburga’s College, Ouseburn, close to Holy Rood House in Thirsk and Ripon. The previous year I had moved from inner city Leeds to pioneer a therapeutic and theological centre in Thirsk, with Stanley, my late husband, who had also been very involved in the campaign for women priests over many years. As MOW co-ordinator for the Ripon Diocese I was pleased to help set up this conference and service at Ripon as for several years we had held an all-night vigil at the Cathedral, prior to ordinations, with the support of the Dean, the Very Revd Christopher Campling, who always provided supper for us in the Deanery. We gave out badges and book marks with the words ‘Pray for all called to be priests’. During the 1992 ordinations, almost everyone, including the Bishop was wearing a badge!
Also I had met Penny Jamieson, Bishop of Dunedin, previously, having shared a taxi with her once in London, so it was marvellous that she was willing to be involved. I still have the letter from the Bishop of Ripon, David Young, who was one hundred per-cent supportive; nevertheless he had to explain that Penny would be unable to wear her mitre for the occasion! When it came to it, all the Bishops processed without their mitres in solidarity, with the exception of David Young, who made it very clear that as the Bishop of the Diocese he was personally welcoming and supporting her. Indeed, he followed this up with his superb after dinner talk back at the College that evening.
The post-Easter service was an extraordinary event. Many of the women, especially those who were waiting to be ordained priest, and those who had been ordained priest already, gathered in the garden opposite the Cathedral, whilst the men who had been involved in the campaign stood outside the Cathedral doors. I had invited Peri Aston, whose artistry had inspired me previously, to lead the procession with her rainbow kite on the end of a long pole. She whirled this above our heads as we gathered to hear the reading of Mary Magdalene in the garden, read simultaneously in the Cathedral to the waiting congregation, by Bishop Stanley Booth-Clibborn. This was followed later with another resurrection Gospel reading by Bishop Ronald Bowlby. A young girl server, from Sowerby Parish Church, close to Holy Rood House, stood with us in the garden holding a candle – she was the ‘Christ-light’. Sarah’s family was the only black family in Thirsk at that time, and she and her mother, a teacher at Thirsk School, were pleased to support us. Sarah followed Peri Aston, and following the reading all the women followed the ‘Christ-light’.
We were just about to cross the road to the Cathedral when Francis Bowen came along in his van, with side hoardings declaring ‘The party after the murder. Today a bishopess joins in the “fun” in Ripon Cathedral as the priestesses and their friends celebrate the killing of the Church of England.’ It was one of those moments when you have to think fast! ‘Go on!’ I called out to Peri – ‘just stand there!’ With a huge whirl of her rainbow kite, Peri stepped across in front of him – followed by Sarah, the ‘Christ-light’. They stood there together as all the women walked across with heads held high. It was a moment I shall never forget.
Peri and Sarah then took the lead once more, to the singing of ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God’, by the Topcliffe Parish choir, as the men opened the Cathedral doors wide and the procession of women went in and Peri danced up the aisle whirling and swirling the rainbow kite over the heads of those already seated and waiting for us. This procession was followed by a procession of 16 children several from Topcliffe Parish, all carrying lilies, as a symbol of the 16 years of MOW, and the Bishops, including the Rt Revd Mary Adelia McLeod, Bishop of Vermont, in the US, mingled with other clergy, followed by Cathy Milford, Moderator of MOW, who had been ordained Priest in Maybush Parish church in Winchester diocese, just 2 days beforehand, and was to be the first woman priest to preside at the Eucharist at Ripon Cathedral, supported by Deaconess Diana McClatchey, a former Moderator of MOW, and the Bishop of Dunedin, Penny Jameison, who was to preach, and finally Bishop David Young.
Penny Jameison’s sermon was strong and challenging. The resurrection, she said “calls us to refuse to be a victim. This is undoubtedly not the end of the difficulties that women, both lay and ordained, will experience in this church; but never, never think that God sanctions abusive suffering. If as women we tolerate abusive treatment of ourselves, the dreadful consequence is that we in turn legitimate the suffering of other women, and there is far too much of that around…as our suffering is not legitimated but is transcended by the resurrection, may we never forget the suffering of others.”
It was a joy to be part of a gathering using inclusive language in liturgy, hymns and prayers. Our final hymn was ‘We shall go out with hope of resurrection’, written by June Boyce-Tillman, and sung in many a Cathedral since, including Ripon, at the Celebration Evensong in September 2018, of 25 years of the Ministry of Healing at Holy Rood House.
Our offering amounting to £1,000 went to support the movement for the ordination of women in Wales as all the women from different provinces of the Anglican Communion has been supporting and following progress over the years.
Looking back at this most amazing and challenging time, I find myself committed to a new wave of consciousness raising, as it seems there has been a sliding back in our alertness to the challenges we faced then, which as Penny Jameison alluded to – we still face today in the Church. There seems to be little commitment to the empowerment and liberation found through inclusive language and a celebration of embodiment. As I reflect on the last quarter of a century of my own priesthood, and as I experience the Church today, I long for the mutuality of holding the pastoral and prophetic together, so the wonder of being Easter people can inspire mission that leads to the flourishing of the many ways of being human within a world that also groans for liberation.