Why the fight for full Church equality continues, 30 years on

Flashback to 2014, when the Rev Helen Rengert, the Ven Dr Clare Dowding, and the Rev Heather Crackne

Flashback to 2014, when the Rev Helen Rengert, the Ven Dr Clare Dowding, and the Rev Heather Cracknell joined other women clergy on a procession from Westminster to St Paul's Cathedral to mark the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the first female priests in the Church of England. - Credit: PA

It was 30 years ago that the Church of England cleared the way for women to become priests. Marion Welham talks to local female priests and argues that there are still hurdles to overcome.

The Dean of Norwich the Very Rev Jane Hedges.

The Dean of Norwich the Very Rev Jane Hedges. - Credit: Archant

Amid the turmoil over same-sex marriage at the Church of England's General Synod this month it's easy to forget how many decades it took to clear the way for women to become ordained, first as deacons, then as priests.

When Synod - the Church's 'parliament' - agreed to prepare the legislation 30 years ago this month, it was another five years before that knife-edge vote to allow women to become priests.

That day - 25 years ago in November - has been described by some as the most challenging day since the split with Rome. And that too is significant because the Church is this year marking 500 years since the Reformation. That's roughly 500 years of women-free Anglican priesthood, so it's no wonder the whole issue threatened to split the church when things got going in 1987.

The Movement for the Ordination of Women were already on the march in London, holding aloft wittily-worded posters such as: '12 years in the ministry and only the dog gets the collar!'

By the time of the landmark vote for women's ordination in 1992, prominent Tory politicians Anne Widdecombe and John Gummer, then MP for Suffolk Coastal, had already left the Church of England, later to join the Roman Catholic church along with many other Anglican dissidents.

'It would no longer be the church into which I was born, which I love and in which I pray to die,' said Gummer at the time of the controversy. He had represented the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich on General Synod.

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With only two votes in it, there was dismay and jubilation in equal measure but the road to gender equality seemed clear. Even so, you can still hear the cry 'Not yet ready for a woman' in East Anglia and beyond.

Dean of Norwich the Very Rev Jane Hedges vividly recalls the day in February 1987 when she was ordained in Winchester diocese as one of the very first women Deacons. She had been made a deaconess in 1980 but deaconesses are not in Holy Orders and not allowed to wear the symbolic dog collar or stole and certainly not allowed to solemnise a marriage.

'One of the first things I did, soon after I was ordained deacon, was that I actually took my brother's wedding so that was quite special,' she says.

Not until she became a priest in 1994 – again one of the first – could she preside at Holy Communion or pronounce absolution after confession.

She recalls how angry she was as a younger woman who felt the call to ordination in her teens.

'I did feel very angry about it all as it seemed unjust. You went through university and did exactly the same training as men for the priesthood and then, at the end of it, you couldn't be.'

Today she feels calmer about it all. She talks about how fulfilling her work has been, from the time she was in inner city Southampton as neighbourhood vicar and hospice chaplain, to becoming the first female Dean of Norwich in the Cathedral's 900-year history.

'Although there were some women who would get so frustrated they would leave the church, I never felt that. I was quite clear God had called me and I would just hang in there.'

Although the Dean is tolerant of those who find it difficult to accept women's ministry for theological reasons ('Oh here we go again,' she thought when the vote went against women bishops in 2012) she accepts there's quite a lot to do in encouraging women into senior leadership and in attracting younger women.

'With particular traditions, for example the more evangelical churches, they don't encourage women in leadership quite so much as they encourage younger men so there are still challenges.'

And the Church in decline? Certainly not in this diocese she insists. 'There's been growth and, in some places, very significant growth. The parishes have been absolutely brilliant in paying their parish share and so the diocese, in terms of paying its clergy, is doing very well.'

Reminded that she was once tipped to be the first woman Bishop, the Dean laughs, declaring emphatically: 'Yes and I came here to be Dean instead! You have to be open to what God might have in store for you but, at the moment, I see my future as Dean of Norwich and I love it.'

So at what stage is the Church of England in its moves to bring about full gender equality? The latest report of Women and the Church (WATCH) delivered at this month's Synod, reveals that many more men are ordained to paid posts than women, and that the difference is increasing.

'Each year around half of the women ordained will not receive any financial support from the church for their ministry,' it says. It is also concerned that women are being overlooked for senior posts.

'In 2016, ten people were made bishops but only three of these were women and sadly not one of them was appointed to be a Diocesan [senior] Bishop.'

There are no woman bishops in the East Anglian dioceses of Norwich, Ely, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and Chelmsford although both Norwich and Chelmsford each have a female archdeacon.

All have above average numbers of female rectors and vicars which are usually paid posts but they share the national challenge of attracting younger people. Under 32s currently make up only 26 per cent of all those in training with men outnumbering women by three to one.

That vote of 30 years ago marked a turning point for women but it seeems there's still a hill to climb if churches are to avoid the label of 'male, pale and stale' and appeal to the next generation.

Shared conversations can last only so long.

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