Abbey to get a woman deacon

Wymondham Abbey is to get a permanent female member of the clergy for the first time in its 900-year history.Elizabeth Shipp, who is completing her final year of study at Cuddesdon theological college in Oxford, will be ordained deacon and join next June.

Wymondham Abbey is to get a permanent female member of the clergy for the first time in its 900-year history.

Elizabeth Shipp, who is completing her final year of study at Cuddesdon theological college in Oxford, will

be ordained deacon and join next June.

It is almost 15 years since the Church of England voted to allow the ordination of women.

In 2004, the Wymondham parochial church council (PCC) voted to lift a ban on women priests officiating, and the following February the Rev Valerie Watts, from North Walsham, celebrated the Eucharist at the

abbey.

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At the time, the then vicar, the Rev Martin Smith, said: “We don't have any women priests at the abbey and we are not sure whether we want a woman on the staff.

“We are just taking one step at a time.”

In 2002, Morwenna Thomas became the first woman elected by the abbey to serve as churchwarden, and other women have presided at the Eucharist in recent months.

The recently-installed vicar, Canon Christopher Davies, described Miss Shipp's appointment as “a momentous decision” for the parish to take.

He added: “We have made it in the full knowledge that some people will find it a difficult experience.

“We are making provision for those people who will find that difficult, in that on a Sunday there will always be one service where the celebrant is a male, with a similar balance during the week.

“I am very keen to make sure that nobody feels unchurched by the decision, and my new colleague, Elizabeth, feels exactly the same

way.”

Miss Shipp is a farmer's daughter from King's Lynn, who did social work before offering herself for ordination to the Church.

Canon Davies said: “This is a very big step and I have been delighted in the way that people have responded.

“Even those who do not believe in the ordination of women have been very gracious and are prepared to work with the new arrangement.”

And he pointed out: “I have had women colleagues ever since women have been ordained and so, for me, it is not a new experience.

“But I am very conscious that we need to be mindful of those people for whom it is a totally new experience and one which in conscience they find difficult.”

Barry Johnson, lay chairman of the PCC, said the issue of appointing female clergy came at the same time as they were looking to fill the vacancies produced by three priests leaving the parish.

Canon Davies was appointed as the new vicar, but because of the size of the parish it was recognised that a second priest would be needed.

“I think the general feeling was that we had moved on, we don't want to be discriminating and we had to address this,” said Mr Johnson.

“We felt it was unfair to be saying we only want a man. It was discriminatory and there was no reason for doing that.”

The abbey is the second largest ecclesiastical building in Norfolk after Norwich Cathedral and celebrates its 900th anniversary next year.

It was founded in 1107 by Lord of the Manor William D'Albini as a priory of the Benedictine Monastery of St Albans and was granted independent abbey status in 1448.

After Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of monasteries in 1538, part of the building was retained as the town's parish church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and St Thomas of Canterbury.