Twenty five years on….

Many women who were ordained in 1994 (and it still is the case today)  were ordained to a “non-stipendiary” ministry. In other words, they were not paid.  For some, this was because bishops were still unwilling to ordain a woman to a full time, paid role, particularly if this meant they were in charge of a parish. For others, this was a positive  choice, to be able to be a priest wherever God chose to place them, in workplaces and in their communities. These are the memories of one of these women, ordained in the diocese of Winchester on 24 April 1994.

Did I have a cure of souls?

Once I had an argument with my team vicar at the time. My waist-line was expanding, and there were wrinkles around my middle when I wore my cassock.

“I think I’ll get one of those cummerbund things,” I said to my colleague, “to cover up my waist-line.”

“Cincture,” he corrected me. “You can only wear one of those if you have a cure of souls; and only incumbents have the cure of souls.”

I thought about this for a day or two, and then I said to him,

“I do have a cure of souls. I have all those-ex-pupils who want me to take their weddings or baptize their babies, and all those friends and neighbours, and friends of my children, who want me to take the funerals of their relatives, because they don’t go to church and I am the only member of the clergy they know.”

A little while later I received a present: it was a cincture which my colleague had ordered for me.

But I had never knelt before a bishop, and heard him say those deeply moving words: “Receive this cure of souls, which is both mine and yours” (although I believe that this may have changed in recent years).

I felt from the start of my ministry that my call was to serve those outside the church: the people on the fringes and beyond – the people who were associated with “folk-religion”, who would never become regular church-goers, but who needed the church at certain times in their lives.

I was ordained deacon in 1987, the first year women were admitted to Holy Orders, and spent the first seven years of my ministry as a Minister in Secular Employment, a part-time English teacher in a comprehensive school.

Most parish priests try to reach out to the community beyond the church, but I think MSEs are uniquely placed to be bridges between the church and the wider community, helping to knock down the barriers between the sacred and the secular, recognising that God is out in the world and not locked into a building; and showing that the clergy are not the stereotypes often portrayed in the media .MSEs offer an alternative model of ministry. I think, too, that they are a sign of the sacredness of all work.

I did not have an overt ministry at school. I was there as an English teacher, not as a chaplain. I did, after a while, wear my dog collar to school, because there was another MSE on the staff from a different diocese. He was ordained several years after me, but, of course, priested several years before, and he wore his dog-collar from the time of his ordination to the diaconate. My colleagues urged me to do the same; otherwise, they said, the pupils would get the message that real clergy are men.

So from then on, I had a visible presence as a “vicar” (though I have never actually been a vicar!) in the school, and there were several occasions when this was important and I was called upon to take a clerical role. Once, a young science teacher, whom I hardly knew, came to me in some distress. A friend of his had committed suicide, and the family had removed the body to another part of the country. A number of people wanted to have some kind of ceremony, but my colleague said that he didn’t think the church held services for people who had committed suicide.

I said that that was no longer the case, and with the help of the Team Vicar in the church where I was placed at the time, arranged a memorial service in the church. More than fifty people came, and it obviously met a real need.

However, the real spin-off from my years of teaching came later, when I took a great number of Occasional Offices. Even when I had not been specifically asked for, there was often a connection between me and the people requesting a baptism, a wedding or a funeral. I also became a kind of unofficial neighbourhood chaplain, taking the funerals of neighbours who were not church – goers, but knew me. And I took several funerals for former colleagues, or their relatives.

Stipendiary clergy rarely stay in the town they have lived and worked in before ordination, and, once ordained often move several times during their ministry; but SSMs usually stay in, or close to, the Parish from which they came. I have now lived in Basingstoke for sixty years, and know many people through teaching, neighbours, friends and groups outside the church and through the friends of my three children – as well as the hundreds of people I have met through conducting the Occasional Offices. It is an advantage that you already know someone, when asked to take, for example a funeral.

Because of this sense of identity with the wider community, I was glad that I and two other women deacons were to be ordained priests in our local Parish Church, rather than in the Cathedral. The ceremony was much more intimate, the church packed with people well known to us all. Many of my former school colleagues were there. One of my sons read the Gospel. My daughter, heavily pregnant with my grandson, Felix, carried the wine to the altar.

It was an evening of inexpressible joy. The atmosphere of celebration was almost tangible, and for me much more meaningful than a service in the Cathedral, however splendid, would have been. It was rooted in the community, from which I came, and which I felt called to serve.

My ordination to the priesthood coincided with my retirement from teaching so I was no longer a Minister in Secular Employment. I was now able to give more time to the church, and, as a priest, presided at the Eucharist regularly,

I suppose my ministry became more church focussed, and I loved celebrating the Eucharist and preaching. However, I took on several chaplaincies which kept me in touch with the wider community. I was chaplain to the Male Voice Choir and the Cricket Club, (singularly inappropriate roles, but I was invited to take them on) –largely honorary roles. As theatre chaplain, I was much more active. I went to the first night or press night of every performance, knew most of the permanent staff, and was asked to take a memorial service in the theatre for a stage director who had committed suicide, and the funeral service for a theatre manager who had died suddenly.

But it was in the occasional offices that I continued to have most contact with the fringes. While teaching, I had not been able to take many funerals, but once I was free during the week I took many funerals. In fact, in recent years it became one of my most important and fulfilling roles.

Most of the people requesting funerals were not committed church-goers. . I know that most stipendiary clergy take funerals for people who are not church goers, but I was often asked for, simply because for many people I was the face of the church they knew.

There were times when I pushed the boundaries in a way I may not have done had I been a stipendiary curate. Today, second marriages in church have become much more common, but in the past we were supposed to offer “An Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage” I usually gave the couple the full wedding service, explaining that the legal part had taken place in the Registrar Office.

I also baptised babies from outside the Parish – usually with the permission of their Parish Priest. But if he or she had refused, perhaps because the parents were not married, I baptised the child anyway. I believe that baptism is a sacrament, which cannot be earned by attending church, or even baptism preparation classes, but should be offered unconditionally. Yes, invite parents and godparents to baptism classes, but don’t make this conditional on offering baptism.

For many churches, outreach means reaching out to people to bring them in to the church. I believe that outreach should also be about the church extending its hand to affirm, bless, comfort and serve those who are reaching out to the church. Fortunately I belong to a church which believes in saying “yes” to people whenever possible. It is also registered as an Inclusive Church and welcomes gay, lesbian, transgender people, as they are all made in the image of God.

So – did I have a cure of souls, or was I simply sharing in the cure of souls entrusted to whichever Team Vicar I was working with? I don’t know; I just hope that my being there made a difference to the lives of people who may never have sought the help of a parish priest whom they did not know, and on whom they felt they had no claim. I hope I helped in some way “to keep the rumour of God alive”.

Looking back over twenty-five years I wish I had done more: made more of the chaplaincies I held; followed up more baptisms and funerals.

But I also look back with gratitude to April 24th. 1994, when I had the extraordinary privilege of being ordained as one of the first women priests in the Church of England. In the notices I sent out before my ordination I put a quote from John Masefield:

“O Christ who holds the open gate.”

and that, at least, has been true. The gate was opened to a fuller and more fulfilled life for me at the age when most people retire.

What more could one ask?