'It never occurred to me I couldn't be a priest just because I was a woman...'
PUBLISHED: 11:08 13 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:30 13 March 2019
Copyright: Archant 2018
It's 25 years since women were first ordained to be Church of England Priests - and it's something to celebrate, say two Norfolk women ordained into priesthood a quarter of a century ago who remember what it was like waiting to get the news that equality had been granted.
On November 11 1992, Gill Bridges went swimming – she wanted to make sure that when the General Synod’s final vote on the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood was announced, her head would be deep underwater.
“I just couldn’t bear it,” she admits, laughing, “I salute those brave women who were actually there for the result because I was just so nervous that I had to remove myself from the situation completely. I was a member of Norwich’s Movement for the Ordination of Women Group, but when the vote was announced, I had my head underwater.”
At Church House in London, the public and press galleries were full as an expectant crowd overflowed into another hall with a television screen: when Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey asked everyone to stand in silence and prayer as the three houses of the General Synod, the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity, were called to vote.
Members were asked to receive the result in silence: the tension was, as Gillian had anticipated, unbearable.
A two-thirds majority in each House was required for the ordination of women to be approved – the results were read at around 3.30pm: Bishops 39 – 13; Clergy 176 – 74, Laity 169 – 82. By just two votes in the House of Laity, the legislation was passed. Outside, a huge crowd of women erupted in a moment of sheer, unadulterated joy.
“I came home and I remember my husband standing there. He looked at me and he said ‘you got it!’ I thought my heart was going to burst. I hadn’t had the courage to be there to see it, but I was overjoyed to hear the news I had been waiting for. It was quite a day.”
On March 12 1994, in Bristol Cathedral, 32 women were ordained as priests of the Church of England, the first in the church’s 460-year history and a few months later, Gill Bridges was one of the first women to be ordained as a priest at Norwich Cathedral.
Gill felt called to the church for some time and had travelled around the world with her husband Sid, who was in the RAF, before she began her training in 1982.
“I had always been involved with the church but after speaking to my vicar, he told me that he thought God was calling me into the ministry and suddenly everything fell into place and I thought ‘yes!’ that feels right. Not for a single minute have I ever questioned that this was the right path for me,” she said.
The long process of selection and training began, during which, legislation allowed women to be deacons rather than deaconesses. Ordained as a deacon in 1988, Gill found the inequality between men and women in the church difficult to live with, on occasion.
“We had to bite our tongues a tremendous amount. The arguments for and against women being priests were raging and there were some unpleasant things said – I never could understand the arguments that called on the Bible because when I read the Bible I see that Jesus was saying that God was for everyone and that men and women were equal,” she said.
“The equality isn’t just about men and women, though – I remember when I was at college, I was there with a chap from a builders’ merchants and another from Cambridge University. This is a job for people from all walks of life and that means men and women on an equal footing.
“When I started as a deacon, I didn’t dare wear trousers for years because I was afraid it would be an insult, that we would be accused of aping men. While we maintained a dignified silence in public, behind the scenes there was muttering – we rebelled, slightly, by wearing long earrings! To be fair, many of the men I trained with were as upset as we were that women couldn’t be ordained – it caused them as much pain as it caused us.”
Gill worked at Hellesdon, West Earlham and Lakenham and spent nine years in Sprowston, at St Cuthbert’s in Wroxham Road and at St Mary and Margaret’s in Church Lane and today, 10 years after her retirement, she is still an active member of St Catherine’s Church and enjoys being part of a vibrant community.
“The church is a big family and so retirement is just a word, because there is lots of work still to do and I love being part of my church community, which is very lively and has a real emphasis on social action, which is the direction I feel we should be moving towards. I couldn’t recommend a career in the church more,” she said.
Dean of Norwich, the Very Revd Dr Jane Hedges was ordained deaconess in 1980, deacon in 1987 and priest in 1994. She was the first woman to be appointed a Residentiary Canon in the Church of England, serving as Canon Pastor at Portsmouth Cathedral and in 2006 she became the first woman Canon at Westminster Abbey, moving from there in 2014 to become the first woman Dean of Norwich.
“It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to be a priest just because I was a woman,” said Jane, who first felt called by God to be a priest when she was 17 and who feels her “inclusive” parish in Portsmouth had led her to believe from an early age that women had as important a role in the church as men.
“I’d sung in the choir, been an altar server, there was a female deaconess…I just assumed that I could progress in the way I hoped to. When I got to theological college and had to watch men who had the same qualifications as I did and in some cases who were less qualified than I was rise above me in the ranks, it was quite painful,” she admits.
“I was a member of a movement that campaigned for the ordination of women and I remember finding it hard that I wasn’t allowed to entirely run a parish, that a male priest would have to be called in on occasion. But in the grand scheme, when things started to move on the issue, they moved quickly.”
Jane is eminently reasonable regarding the issue of female ministry in the church, sympathising with those who could not – or cannot – accept women as priests.
“It is their right not to accept change. It used to make me angry but now I try to understand everyone’s point of view and I respect it, because it can be difficult to accept something new and sometimes it takes time, and sometimes it’s just too big a change,” she said.
She is encouraged by the growing numbers of women with an interest in joining the church and similarly with the younger demographic evident in figures from theological colleges and echoes Gillian’s enthusiasm for the career she loves.
“It’s an incredibly varied life,” she said, “you come into contact with interesting people and with people who are at all stages of their life and you can play a role in that. And above all of that, there’s the knowledge that you are answering a calling.
“Do I think that women bring something different to the priesthood? I think that every individual brings something of their own to the role – what’s important is that now, there are women and men serving together and I think that’s a very positive thing. Will Norwich see a female bishop? Well, we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
Now the dust has settled on two monumentous decisions within the church, are we right to continue celebrating the ordination of women, or should we just quietly move on?
“I think we should celebrate,” said Gillian, “it was a long road and a hard-fought victory for women. And it’s not just about the church, it’s about equality in general. I remember bouncing out one day after my ordination, wearing my dog collar and into a bakery in Norwich.
“The girl behind the counter looked at me and said ‘I don’t really understand what’s happened, but it’s for all of us, isn’t it?’ She understood completely, really. That the decision was a major leap forward for women. That we were going in the right direction.”
* A service to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women will be held at Norwich Cathedral on May 19 at 3.30pm.
1920: The first attempt to put women’s ordination on the agenda for the CoE
1935: An Archbishop’s commission rules out female priests
1944: Florence Li Tim-Oi is ordained as the first Anglican woman priest when Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong breaks rank
1968: At the Lambeth Conference, it is decided that the arguments for and against female ordination are “inconclusive”
1975: Church of England’s General Synod takes first steps to ordaining women with a vote that there is “no fundamental objection” but the first attempt to bring legislation three years later, fails
1985: General Synod votes to allow women to become deacons
1992: General Synod votes to allow women to be ordained in the priesthood, two years later, the first women are ordained. .Following the announcement, and after the 32 Bristol ordinations in 1994, the feared mass exodus of existing priests did not occur. Less than five per cent left the church
2005: General Synod begins to consider the issue of women bishops, but in 2012 the legislation bid narrowly fails
2014: A vote at the General Synod overwhelmingly agrees that women should be able to become bishops
2015: The first female bishop, Rt Rev Libby Lane, is consecrated as Bishop of Stockport
2018: The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally is ordained into the post, the third most senior in the Church