Learn from the past and build for the future – Rev’d Joanna Penberthy

Learn from the Past and Build for the  Future: Preparing Women for the Episcopate


Joanna Penberthy

The  process that led to the ordination of women to the priesthood in Wales  in 1997 was made real by the support that women deacons received from one  another and the wider church. Preparing for Church in Wales’ women to exercise  episcope within the Church in Wales will require an honest assessment of how  the Church has received the priestly ministry of women thus far and a concerted  effort to ensure that women have the necessary experience to prepare them to be  those from whom future Bishops are chosen. If the opportunity presented both by  the present priesting and future consecration of women is to be fully taken up,  the Church needs a wider debate both about how the gendered life experience of  women can enrich the public life of the Church and the appropriate way episcope  should be exercised to allow the Church to be salt and light in contemporary Wales.

By the publication of this edition of  Theology Wales, the Church in Wales is initiating the next phase in the long  history of women’s admittance to orders within this province of the Anglican  Communion, a process which began in 1861  when Dr. Tait, the then Bishop of London  laid hands on Miss Elizabeth Ferard, and made her a deaconess. The Bench of  Bishops wants to encourage debate across the province prior to the formal  consideration in Governing Body as to whether women can be admitted into  Episcopal orders within the Church in Wales. The Church in Wales is in full communion with Anglican  provinces where women exercise episcope, but the Governing Body will be asked  to decide whether or not to pass legislation that will remove any possible  doubt as to whether the consecration of a women as a Bishop within the Church  in Wales would be a canonically valid act. There is a view  that by the ordination of women to the presbyterate, the Church in Wales has already declared it possible to  admit women to Episcopal orders and that this bill is unnecessary. In practice  the only condition for a person so chosen to be admitted to Bishops’ orders is  that they were already in priests’ orders. The passing of this bill  would not only remove any possible grounds for doubt, however, but would also  firmly express the will of the Governing Body in this matter and commit the  Church in Wales to create the conditions which would  make possible the election of a women from the Church in Wales to a Welsh see. I have been asked to  reflect on the first ten years of women in priests’ orders in Wales and to suggest what this experience  might have to teach us as we begin the process of considering consecrating  women as Bishops within our Province. One of the major differences between  the process that led up to the first ordinations of women to the priesthood and  any process that culminates in the consecration of the first woman to a Welsh  see, will be the relationship of the permissive legislation to the consecration  itself. On both occasions when the measure to allow the ordination of women to  the priesthood was debated, it was given reality by the women deacons who, were  the measure to be passed, were ready to be so ordained, women who had been  working both as stipendiaries and non-stipendiaries, as deaconesses and deacons  and in some cases, women who had been in sole pastoral charge of parishes.  Those on both sides of the debate, knew that, should the measure pass, women  would definitely be ordained as priests within the Church in Wales both because  women, whose vocations had been tested, who had been trained and who had gained  the necessary practical experience, were ready and waiting and because in the  modern Anglican communion, it is normal practice for those already ordained  deacon to be ordained as priests, usually after a year. Both sides of the  debate knew there would be no gap between the theory and its enactment.

Putting legislation in place that  removes any possible doubt about the canonical status of any women consecrated  as Bishop is different. Whereas the vast majority of people ordained deacon go  on to be ordained priest, very few priests go on to be consecrated Bishop so,  unlike in the matter of ordaining women to the priesthood,  there can be no automatic assumption that  just because the legislation has been passed   women will ever be Bishops within the Church in Wales. In this case,  there is a large gap between enacting permissive legislation, should that  happen, and the creating of conditions which will allow that permissive  ordinance to be enfleshed. If it can be assumed that by passing the  legislation, the Governing Body is expressing its intention that women should  exercise episcope within the Church in Wales, and why would Governing Body pass a  bill that it wanted never to see enacted, then passing the legislation is only  a part of the process.

The tenth anniversary of the first  ordinations of women to the priesthood in Wales approaches and it gives a good  opportunity to take stock. How did the women deacons, the parishes and the  hierarchy of the Church in Wales prepare for women exercising a priestly  ministry before the measure to ordain women was passed, how has the priestly  ministry of women been developed and supported and to what extent has the first  ten years of women being ordained priest in the Church in Wales begun to create  the conditions for the exercise of episcope by women and what more remains to  be done to ensure that this legislation, if passed, has a reasonable chance of  being enacted?

More than 70 women were ordained priest  in the Church in Wales at Epiphany 1997, women some of whom, with others who  did not live to be ordained, had been patiently exercising a ministry for more  than twenty years never knowing when or if, they were ever to be ordained  priest. One of the factors that culminated in the ordinations that weekend was  their dogged offering of their vocations to the Church as evidence that the  Church should, by the will of God, change its position on whether or not women  could be ordained priest. All of us who were ordained that weekend felt called by God to this persistent witness and without it, it is unlikely  that the church would have changed its position on the ordination of women.  There is an obvious difference between this and consideration of the  consecration of women to the episcopate. No-one can have a vocation to the  episcopate outside a specific call to a specific see. So it is encouraging to  see the Bench bring forward this legislation for consideration without needing  to be pushed by a campaign.

The move to create all the conditions  necessary to see a Church in Wales’ woman priest consecrated as Bishop  for one of the Welsh sees is one that requires the support,  commitment and perseverance of the church, if it is to succeed. Unlike the  issue of ordaining women to the priesthood, the Church cannot rely on the  momentum supplied by the women who, in that case, had been prepared to bear  witness to their vocations.

Despite the pain and difficulty of the  debate that led up to the ordination of women as priests, the women who made it  to Epiphany ’97 received a lot of encouragement along the way. All of us were  kept going by the positive support we received from parishioners whether at  parish level or by those who came along to Women Priests for Wales gatherings. We valued the contribution  of our male colleagues who made this cause their own and who were happy to work  together in ministry alongside us. Many of us found meeting together as women  deacons at diocesan and provincial level invaluable and it is important to pay  tribute to Tony Crockett, now Bishop of Bangor, who when Secretary of the Board  of Ministry always found something in his budget to enable women deacons to  meet together provincially once a year. The ordination of women to the  priesthood would not have happened without the dogged perseverance of those  women who acknowledged and followed their call but neither would it have  happened without the support of those within the hierarchy of the church who  began to recognise in the increasing numbers of women coming forward a kairos  moment and who recognised that  to  support women’s ministry is not an abstract adherence to a cause but a  practical commitment to support the individual ministries of the specific women  who are coming forward to exercise ministry. Many Bishops in the Anglican Communion  supported the campaign for the ordination of women, they spoke in favour of it,  they made women deaconesses and then deacons. Bishop Alwyn Rice Jones, later  Archbishop of Wales, went one step further; he employed them as deacons in  charge of parishes, a move that on a smaller scale was followed by other Welsh  dioceses. It was therefore not surprising that Bishop Alwyn’s diocese of St  Asaph had the highest number of women deacons when the time came for women to  be ordained priest in Wales. Along with numerical strength, it  also had women who had been in sole pastoral charge for some years providing  both role models and giving a depth of experience that normalised the  transition to women exercising priestly ministry. It was this positive and  practical support of the ministry of specific women by parishioners, colleagues  and those in positions of authority in the Church in Wales that made the ordination to the  priesthood of those women who offered their vocations to the church a reality.  To see women consecrated as a Bishops from and in the Church in Wales within the foreseeable future will  need a similar effort of practical support by the parishioners, clergy and  hierarchy both of women who are now priests and of those who may consider  vocations in the future.

So, how well has the Church in Wales supported and developed the ministries  of the women whom it has ordained or licensed at and after 1997?

To what extent has the province  supported and encouraged the ministry of women post 1997 as Tony Crockett did  before? To what extent do Bishops nurture and encourage the ministries of the  women they have licensed or to whom they have given permission to officiate? To  what extent have Bishops recognised that to ordain women means to learn to  respond and adapt to the gendered life experience of women?

I was asked to write an article  reflecting on my own experience of ministry in the ten years since women were  ordained to the priesthood and to indicate what I think this might say about  the desirability and possibility of women being ordained to the episcopate.  Thus, I begin to answer these questions by noting my own experience. I was  ordained to the priesthood while I was working at the Church in Wales’ Board of Mission as Parish  Development and Renewal Officer. I had been a deacon for just over 10 years and  a deaconess for three years before that. While I had trained for the full-time  stipendiary ministry, I opted for non-stipendiary ministry on the birth of my  first child despite being offered a full-time stipendiary curacy alongside my  husband in the Durham diocese. At the time, I was unaware of how  revolutionary and imaginative the diocese of Durham was in its attitude to clergy couples,  seeing them as a resource and not a problem. I did not know that my non-stipendiary  ministry would continue for 11 years. It became clear, once I had returned to  the Church in Wales and was seeking, when my youngest  child was approaching school age, to enter the stipendiary ministry for which I  had been selected and trained, that I would not find it easy to find a post. So  clear had it been made that the diocese would find it impossible to place me,  that when I saw the Board of Mission post advertised, I had already had a  careers interview and was preparing to train as a social worker. Once priested,  I continued to act as my husband’s non-stipendiary curate alongside my Board of  Mission job until two of the neighbouring benefices in the deanery became  vacant, and with no-one else applying, I was appointed priest-in-charge of  three small parishes in North Carmarthenshire and then made incumbent two years  later. Sector ministry at the Board of Mission and parish ministry whether as a  stipendiary or non-stipendiary has been a joy and a privilege but I cannot  pretend that my own exercise of stipendiary ministry has not come about more by  accident than design and had I slipped out of ministry before the Board of  Mission job had been advertised, I cannot imagine that anyone within the  structure would have done anything more than breathe a huge sigh of relief that  the problem that I seemed to represent by applying for jobs or asking to work  had gone away.

What about other women in my diocese?  There are currently 153 women licensed to ministry in the Church in Wales,  19 of them in the diocese of St Davids. The St Davids’ figure does not include  those women in the diocese who have permission to officiate, some of whom would  like the chance to exercise a licensed ministry. Of the 19 licensed, 12 are  stipendiary (out of a total of 95 for the Church in Wales as a whole), 11 are full-time and 1  part-time. Only 4 have of these been ordained since 1997; of the 7  non-stipendiary women, 5 were ordained deacon after 1997. Half of the  stipendiary women and 3 of the non-stipendiaries are under 50 but only 3 of  these women are under 40, one of whom is a stipendiary curate who may or may  not be found a full-time stipendiary job after December 31st. She is  the female half of a clergy couple. Another of these women under 40 is a  non-stipendiary curate despite being trained for full time ministry, and she  too is the female half of a clergy couple. One of the deacons to be ordained to  the stipendiary ministry in the Petertide ordinations in 2006 is a woman under  40 so from January 2007, St Davids will have one non-stipendiary and  two stipendiary women clerics under 40, not a  terribly good base from which to build towards women exercising episcopacy.

Recently,  some of the women in ministry in the St  Davids diocese got together with the Bishop and a facilitator to begin talking  about their experiences since ordination and what the issues were for women in  the diocese. To a woman, every one was grateful for the opportunity they had  been given to minister and had found ministry at parish level, with all its ups  and downs, something they would not have missed but it was salutary to listen  to one another, ten years after the ordination of women to the priesthood had  occurred and to hear the problems that women are still having with the  institutional church.  A few said they  had encountered no discrimination since their ordination as priests but they  were in the minority.  Many of the  problems the more recently ordained related may very well have been echoed by  their recently ordained male colleagues but some of the issues were considered  to be specific to women. The Bishop assured us that both at diocesan and  provincial level, no discrimination was intended but the good intentions of the  system and the good experiences of the few cannot gainsay the negative  experiences of women clerics. Unless we take seriously the actual experience of  women in the priesthood in Wales, we are unlikely to be able to  contemplate the exercising of the episcopate by women. If no discrimination is  intended but discrimination is being encountered by some, then it might be the  case, that along with many other institutions, the Church in Wales exhibits institutionalised sexism.  This is perhaps not surprising in an institution that has only been ordaining  women to the priesthood for 10 years but it is something that nevertheless  requires further investigation.

The problems that women relate fall  into three categories. There are those from the curates and priests in charge  which could be echoed by male colleagues and concern the all too familiar problems  that the Church in Wales often exhibits in its immediate post ordination and  post first curacy placements. These problems are exacerbated for women by the  difficulty which some male clerics experience when having to work alongside  women as colleagues. Women who have come from other fields of employment and  are used to working alongside men can find the way they are treated within the  church rather a rude awakening. The fact that as we discussed these problems,  the women in the room could not begin to imagine how our male colleagues might  react to the suggestion of gender equality awareness training points perhaps to  the scale of the problem that the Church in Wales faces in normalizing the role  of women within the ordained ministry.

The second group of problems concerns  married women, women with children and women married to clergy. Women’s lives  seem to be more complicated than men. Some of them get married, get pregnant  and have children. In reality of course, some male clergy also marry, have children  and take responsibility for elderly relatives as women do but historically the  church has assumed that this aspect of a male cleric’s life will be taken care  of by his wife allowing the ministry of celibate and non-celibate to proceed  along the same lines. It was the hard work and ministry of clergy wives which  allowed the patterns of ministry established since the Reformation when the  ordained were allowed to marry, to develop on similar lines for celibate and  married alike. Where would the church have been without them?  The ordination of women, especially of  married women and mothers, clashes to some extent with this division of male  and female into public and private spheres but it is particularly acute in the cases  where ordained women are married to other clerics, hence the current  problematization of clergy couples. This form of discrimination is more likely  to be encountered by younger women making the building of a pool of senior,  experienced women clergy from which potential candidates for the episcopacy  might be drawn even more difficult.

The third problem area for women is the  complete lack of senior women in the Church in Wales. Of the 25 members of the  Representative Body, one is a woman. Ten years on, where are the women canons,  team rectors, incumbents of large parishes, deans and archdeacons? Unless  attention is given to this issue, putting forward legislation for women to be  consecrated as Bishops could too easily be seen as an empty gesture. Women  cannot be consecrated as Bishops from nowhere. After the ordinations in 1997,  the ministry of those women who had been deacons moved seamlessly into  priesthood because of the amount of ministerial experience they had been  allowed to have. Of course, allowing women to be stipendiary and non-stipendiary  curates or deacons in charge of small parishes, as women were before 1997, did  not change the male monopoly of power and was therefore not as threatening as  taking positive steps towards preparing women for episcopacy might be, which is  perhaps why so little has happened in the 10 years since the first ordinations. As the Church in Wales took the step of  ordaining its women deacons to the priesthood on that one weekend, I was aware  that our ordination was the culmination of many life times of brave and patient  witness that women before us had borne, symbolised for me in the person of an  elderly retired deaconess who came to receive communion from me in 1984 in  Chester-le-Street, Co Durham during the service at which, I in my turn, had  been made deaconess. In that moment of giving and receiving, neither of us knew  whether I would live to see the ordination of women to the priesthood or  whether I too would pass my life in bearing witness. Just as Bp David Jenkins,  the man, had laid his hands on me and made me part of a physical public chain  of prayer that stretched back through the centuries so she by her presence and  our standing together at the chalice conveyed to me the welcome, the blessings  and commissioning of my foremothers as I came to follow in their footsteps for  the sake of my sisters and my daughters. It was therefore with such a rush of  joy, that when attending the ordination of a friend of mine at St Asaph  Cathedral a few years later, I saw a young woman come to be made deacon knowing  that because of the long struggle of which I had become a part toward the end,  all being well she would be able to return a year later to be ordained priest,  just like her male colleagues, without fuss and without comment. Listening to  the other women from St Davids the other day, recounting their experiences, I  wondered whether my joy at the hoped for normality of that young women’s  journey of vocation had been premature? Listening to the experiences of the  women who had been ordained after 1997, I was left with the  impression that it is perhaps more difficult for women coming into ministry now  than it was before the ordination to women of the priesthood.

Prior to 1997, there was an open debate  in which people on both sides could freely express their opinions. It was  difficult for people to move from one camp to the other but at least it was  possible to talk openly about the issues. Furthermore, the debate on the issue  over the previous twenty or thirty years had been informed by a wider feminist  debate in which issues of justice and equality had been well aired but in an  age when feminism has become a dirty word and when the height to which young  women are often deemed to aspire by the media is to be free to have as many  sexual partners as men and to get as drunk as their male compatriots, there is  less and less public space in which to have a constructive and sensible debate  about how women and men can work alongside one another equitably within the  ministry of the Church. This is heightened by the  Blairite ethos of the age, where there is an  unacknowledged pressure for people “to sing from the same hymn sheet” and be  “on message” constricting even further the possibility for open and honest  debate.

Before the ordination of women to the  priesthood, the fact that women were discriminated against, was clear.  The event of ordination had been the focus of  the campaign; once it had happened, those in favour breathed a collective sigh  of relief. It could be argued that many of us became complicit in agreeing that  discrimination was over, and perhaps over the last ten years, we haven’t tried  too hard to see what we haven’t wanted to see. Those ordained in ‘97 were tired  and grateful to have been ordained at all; witnessing to our vocations had made  us campaigners for ourselves, a role which, as women and as Christians, we were  not necessarily comfortable taking.  With  our ordination to the priesthood, something very specific had been achieved and  we were glad to have the excuse to put down the campaigning mantle, glad to  throw ourselves as individuals into our ministries. Perhaps we did not keep  account of what was happening sufficiently rigorously and have not supported  the women coming after us as we should have done.

Listening to the women from my own  diocese has highlighted these issues for me but the age at which women are  coming forward to the provincial Selection Board may be a non-anecdotal  indication that problems do indeed still remain and that women are simply  voting with their feet. The average age at which men present themselves for  provincial selection is 44, worryingly late in itself but for women the age is  53. Another sign that a lot remains to be done if we are to develop  a strong, deep and replenishing pool of experienced women from which the Electoral  College can choose alongside their male counterparts. One of the things that  was being talked about during the debate on whether or not to ordain women as  priests was the reception of this measure: the need, after the ordinations, to  see how and whether the Church, received this new move. The bald statistic of  the age at which women are now presenting themselves to the provincial board  for selection makes me fear that young women have themselves looked  at the church and the opportunities for  ministry and service in the wider world that it offers and have found it  wanting. Alongside the debate in Governing Body on the specific matter of women  being admitted or not into the episcopacy, it would be helpful for the church  to take a good hard look, both quantitatively and qualitatively at the  experience of the first ten years of women’s priestly ministry to see how far  this has achieved equality of treatment and opportunity for women within the  Church in Wales.

The point of the ordained ministry of  the church is to nurture and support the ministry of the church in the world.  It is the earth that is the Lord’s and it is the face of the earth that the  Spirit calls us into partnership to renew. The Church is called to be salt and  light. We are called to be a community that honestly attempts to live the  message it proclaims. I was asked to reflect on the possibility and  desirability of consecrating women as Bishops. Most of this article has been  reflecting on the possibility and how that can be made stronger. My assessment  of the desirability of the Church in Wales consecrating and enthroning women as  Bishops can be taken for granted but despite being in favour of women bishops,  I have no intentions of expounding on those qualities that make women as well  or better suited to the episcopate as men. I know men who are sensitive, wise  and compassionate and women who are hard-nosed, ambitious and thrusting. Being  a man doesn’t mean a person will necessarily act oppressively and ride  roughshod over the feelings and sensitivities of others and women are as  capable as men are of reproducing patterns of oppression of women and junior  clergy.  I am in favour of women being  bishops alongside men because I have yet to hear an theological argument that  convincingly exempts the Church from living by the equitable and just standards  that we expect of other institutions but I am not naively assuming that simply  enthroning women would bring  the church  nearer to exemplifying the kingdom of God. There are no short cuts from the  hard work of patient listening to God and to the experiences of those around  and to discern what Jesus’ gospel of love, forgiveness and life calls us to in  any given situation. An individual woman by virtue of her womanhood is not  automatically going to do that either better or worse than a man and her  womanhood will not protect her from the temptations of office. But “male and  female he created them” for a purpose. A key theme for the church over the last  twenty-five years has been collaborative ministry: our ability to find ways of  working that allow male and female to collaborate within the ordained ministry  of the Church could be considered a test case for our ability to collaborate  more widely. Just as the Church after the Reformation can be said to have side  stepped the challenge to change presented by the allowing of clergy to marry,  so the church will be said to have side stepped the challenge to change  presented by the ordination of women if it only finds itself able to encourage  the ministries of women post child-bearing age.   If those who wish to see a woman consecrated to one of the Welsh sees  have to look further than simply the passing of the measure, those who wish to  see a woman exercise episcope in a transformative way, in such a way that the  gendered experience of women is enfolded in the reality of Christian ministry  for the Bishop herself, any female priests she may have, and women in Wales  more widely, have a huge task on their hands.


Questions for discussion:

  1. Do we really  believe that men and women are equal in God’s sight?
  2. How can we  as a Church ensure that we encourage the men we employ to take full  responsibility for their family life?
  3. How might  the experience women gain from being mothers and carers enrich the priestly and  episcopal ministries?
  4. How can we  as a Church ensure that women who are   mothers and carers are not in practice disqualified from having the  experience necessary to see them considered for election as Bishops alongside  their male colleagues, should the Governing Body pass this Measure?
  5. In what  ways might the Church’s encouragement of the ministry of all women in many  different ways fulfil the Lord’s command to his people to be salt and light?



1. The Church of England took this so seriously that they passed legislation to say that women in priestly orders could not be admitted to Episcopal orders within the Church of England thus making the passing of specific permissive legislation necessary.

2. It is important to remember the pain of this time and to pay tribute to those who were broken by it and who therefore did not make it to Epiphany 1997 but whose witness to their vocation is nevertheless part of the story.

3. I press the point of women from the Church in Wales because I can foresee that should this legislation be passed unless other action is taken to develop and support the ministry of women within Wales, the only women with the necessary experience to exercise episcope will come from outside the province.

4. My thanks to the staff from the RB, who supplied me with the provincial figures.

5. The amount of time between the commissioning and submitting of this article has not allowed me to speak to women from dioceses other than my own. It may be that the experience of women in the St Davids diocese is particular.

6. My thanks to Canon Mary Stallard for these figures