Learn from the Past and Build for the Future: Preparing Women for the Episcopate
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:
- Do we really believe that men and women are equal in God’s sight?
- How can we as a Church ensure that we encourage the men we employ to take full responsibility for their family life?
- How might the experience women gain from being mothers and carers enrich the priestly and episcopal ministries?
- 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?
- 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