Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Women Priests

It was twenty years ago today that the first women were ordained priests - the first service being in Bristol. A few weeks later during 1994, I had the privilege of sharing in that 'first batch' of ordinations both at Southwell Minster and especially at Debbie's in Coventry Diocese. For many of the women in that first cohort it was the end of a long wait. Some had been deacons since 1987, most had been deacons for more than a year (generally male deacons are ordained priest after a year). A significant number had been deaconesses for quite a period before that (deaconess was an authorised and licensed lay ministry for women before ordination was open to them.)

Despite having been a strong proponent of the change (I was a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women at theological college) the prospect of celebrating it brings mixed feelings. First of all, the logical consequence of women priests was women bishops. We have yet to get there, although the indications from General Synod are that the new fast-tracked legislation should go through to permit women to be ordained and appointed as bishops in the Church of England from sometime in 2015. 

Second, the settlement that came out of the key vote in 1992 left the church with an mess. In order to get the vote through and keep everyone on board, it allowed parishes to refuse to accept the ministry of a woman as their incumbent or to preside at holy communion. In effect that made their ordination as priests a matter of opinion. Yet at the same time the Church of England was saying that they were legally and canonically ordained. We even have the strange scenario of traditionalist bishops licensing women priests to serve in parishes and administer sacraments that they [the bishop] themselves would not receive. The unavoidable conclusion is that institutionally the church failed to make ordained women truly equal to their male counterparts. 

So you can see it's a mess. Whatever side of the debate you sit, I think we can all agree on that, and I'm not sure I feel ready to celebrate when there seems to be so much unfinished business around.

The awkward question now is whether this mess will be further complicated when women become bishops. The wording of motions and legislation is tedious, but if a [woman] Diocesan bishop is not genuinely the bishop of a Diocese, then that immediately undermines her office. However, if some arrangements are not made for those who object, the legislation may fail, and there will certainly be an almighty row. 

I don't have an answer. I'm just not ready for a party.

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