Archdeacon reflects on the ordination of women priests
13:33 06 May 2014
The Ven Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich, looks back on an emotion-charged event in London which marked the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women priests.
Procession will always be remembered
Sadly I was unable to take part in the procession to St Paul’s from Westminster Abbey, but those from Norwich who walked through the brightly sunlit London streets spoke of the scenes, will always remember:
• Gathering for a photograph around the statue of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhust, the great campaigner for women’s right to vote.
• The wonderful atmosphere - people gathering, mingling and talking with folks from other diocese; a festival or carnival atmosphere with banners, laughter, hugs, conversations, photos, a sense of the joy, poignancy and significance of the day.
• People cheering, beeping car-horns, clapping and waving as we walked by; there was a huge amount of encouragement from passers-by and much curiosity about the march.
• Inspiring to see people pushing relatives and friends in wheelchairs all the way and to see one woman get out of her wheelchair and use her walking sticks to walk part of the final stretch to St Paul’s, so determined was she to share in the walk.
• Those ordained in 1994 greeting those they haven’t seen for 20 years, but with whom they share such a special and important bond.
• The female priests who were ordained in 1994 but who had worked tirelessly for decades before as parish workers, deaconesses and deacons, now elderly and infirm but determined to be there.
• A letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in which he had written: “I congratulate the Church of England, and you yourselves my dear sisters, on this 20th anniversary of the Church of England’s splendid decision to ordain women to the priesthood... We realised how much we had denied ourselves until 1992. Now we have the first two Anglican women bishops on the African continent and we are asking ourselves why we were so stupid for so long. Yippee!!”
When the General Synod vote to allow women to be priests was passed, those present in the voting chamber were asked, out of respect for those who found the result difficult, to receive the news in silence.
On Saturday, as I made my way to St Paul’s Cathedral in London to take part in a service of celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women as priests, I realised that I had maintained that same apologetic silence for 20 years.
Clearly I was not alone and as 700 of the first female priests to be ordained in the Church of England gathered on the steps of St Paul’s, the silence could be contained no longer.
As the “class of 94” processed into St Paul’s, the congregation ignored the instruction to stay seated, and rose to their feet as one to applaud, cheer, hug, grin and cry with those of us who were the Church of England’s first female priests.
The procession took 10 minutes. The applause never abated. It echoed around the dome of St Paul’s like peals of thunder as 20 years of keeping quiet came to a definitive end.
The message was clear. Female priests are now an accepted and valued part of the Church of England. There are still those who won’t receive our ministry, but we have proved ourselves, and we are here to stay. The sea change was palpable.
I hadn’t anticipated just how emotional I would find the service, but the memories came flooding back.
Memories of hurts, slights, ploughing on in the face of sometimes vicious opposition.
But memories too of moments when God’s grace has been utterly present, in birth and death, in marrying and baptising and burying, in the breaking of bread and in the service of the voiceless and dispossessed.
I found myself turning round to scan the sea of faces. Women’s faces, hundreds of them, young, old, able-bodied, disabled, yet every single one a pioneer. Holy faces, faces freed at last to smile and celebrate without apology all that has been achieved over the past 20 years.
The Archbishop of Canterbury in his address acknowledged that we’re not there just yet. We won’t reach full maturity until women can be ordained as bishops, and women and men, who only together reflect the face of God, can minister as one at every level.
But on Saturday, the Church of England came of age.