Chichester Diocese May 15th

In 1992, the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Rev Eric Kemp, was one of those most vehemently opposed to the ordination of women as priests. Chichester became a diocese where priests who continued to oppose ordained women felt welcome. The same could not always be said for women with a vocation to priesthood, though local parishes were often very affirming. 

These are some memories of one of the women from Chichester diocese, who was ordained in 1994

Beyond doubt, being one of the first women to be ordained priest in Chichester Diocese on May 15th, 1994 was a thrilling moment. Yet even on the day itself there was a potent mix of light and shadow, joy and sorrow.

The journey from the passing of the Measure to our ordination was littered with difficult moments:

We had been through the same selection process to be deacons as our male colleagues, whose subsequent priesting was more-or-less automatic. Yet we were required to go slowly through a fresh process of discernment of our vocation to priesthood. Within Chichester Diocese, where the Measure was not widely welcomed, the sense of powerlessness and vulnerability to the doctrinal position of others about women’s ordination was palpable.

Of those women who wished to be priested around half were refused, not because their vocation to priesthood was any less but because of accidents of circumstance – including the fact that women often have less freedom to move location than men, and that the views of incumbents about priesthood were prioritised.

It was finally decided to ordain twelve of us, but neither the Diocesan Bishop nor either of the two Suffragan Bishops were willing to ordain us themselves.

Our Cathedral at Chichester was unwilling to permit our ordination to take place there – whether this was the decision of the Dean or of the Diocesan Bishop I do not know, but it stung.

Such were the sorrows and keenly felt absences that accompanied us as we went on our preordination retreat hosted by Guildford Diocese, then made our way to St Swithun’s Church in East Grinstead for our ordination.

But not all was shadow. If we did not feel much welcomed by our Diocese we did feel welcomed by the national church and by our parish churches. Nothing could detract from the knowledge that we were part of a significant moment in history. The clear affirmation of our vocation by the then Bishop of Dorking, David Wilcox, as he led our retreat and then ordained us as priests stays with me.

At the close of the ordination service I returned immediately to an evening service in my church, All Saints  Lindfield, to celebrate Holy Communion for the first time. To this day I carry a sense of quiet joy as I recall that, recorded for history or not, I was the first woman ordained in the Diocese of Chichester to celebrate Holy Communion. Standing at the table to lead God’s people in the Eucharist has never lost its wonder.

I left Chichester Diocese in 1996. To the best of my knowledge none of the women in stipendiary ministry who were ordained that day found incumbent status posts in Chichester Diocese. Priests or not, outside of our parishes opposition to women remained sadly usual within the Diocese at that point. Opportunities for women even now are something of a Diocesan lottery.

As I look back across twenty-five years and recall the struggles that led up to and followed our ordination, I rejoice to have been included in that very moment when the door, closed for centuries, opened to us. Now we have seen women appointed not only as Deans and Archdeacons but finally as Bishops. Yet writing this has made me remember that many women were wounded on the way, just as now many of our LGBTQI Christian community are wounded on the way. The wounded are too easily forgotten. My prayer going forward is that, learning from the past, fresh changes and inclusions may be made in ways that are less wounding, less constricting, less privileging of those who already have. A way which pays more heed to Christ’s word that his way is one of generosity, bringing abundance and freedom to all his people.

The Rev Marion Clutterbuck