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26 June 2006updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

It’s a woman’s job now

The opponents of female ordination have lost the war: 50 per cent of those entering training for the

By Charlie Lee-Potter

If you would rather remove your own appendix than worship at a church with a female priest, I have some bad news for you. You have lost the war. A report by the think-tank Demos, published on 22 June, confirms the startling news that 50 per cent of those entering training for the priesthood are women. Bear in mind that the Church of England gave permission for women to be ordained only in 1992. Within 14 years, and at a pace worthy of Paula Radcliffe, women have manoeuvred themselves into a position where they make up more than 20 per cent of the clergy.

They have done this with grace and resilience in the face of some hard-core opposition. Women are still not allowed into the bishops’ club, of course. Bishops continue to operate a closed shop and will do so for a little while longer. But if you are one of those who would like to see a “Men Only” sign on the door of Lambeth Palace, there is something else you should know. According to my own (admittedly unscientific) research, the figures are even more startling than they at first appear.

Carolyn Oley is gentle-mannered and soft-spoken, with an equally kind-hearted husband and grown-up daughter. She is the kind of woman people confide in. But beneath the warm smile and self-effacing manner she has a fierce intellect and an unshakeable faith in her calling to become a priest. She has already completed a year of her training in the Diocese of Oxford and has two more to go before she can be ordained. There are 12 ordinands in her year, and the balance between men and women is enough to give opponents of women priests a funny turn: there are ten women and just two men. The Oxford diocese supplies more priests to the Church of England than any other area of the country, so the fact that more than 80 per cent of Oley’s fellow students are women will inevitably give the anti-female-priest brigade some sleepless nights. If women make up 20 per cent of qualified clergy already, how much longer before they are in the majority? Three years? Four?

Shift in power

There is more anecdotal evidence to prove that a gentle revolution is taking place. In a fortnight’s time a rural benefice – or group of churches – in Northamptonshire will be deciding who to appoint as its new vicar. I happen to know that only six people have applied for the job and every one of them is a woman. So, for the first time in the history of these villages, it is 100 per cent certain that a woman will get the job. It is an all-woman shortlist, achieved not through political manipulation or clumsy positive discrimination, but through genuine natural selection.

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The shift in power is as dramatic as anything the Church of England has ever experienced. And as with any revolution, the counter-insurgents are prepared to talk dirty. Father Geoffrey Kirk, of the anti-female-priest association Forward in Faith, specialises in implacable rhetoric. “Very soon the priesthood will be seen as a ‘hobby for grannies’,” is his verdict.

So what is it that panics men so much that they would rather break away from the Church of England than accept women in their midst? Could it be that they feel as much threatened by women’s aptitude for the job as governed by any biblical objection that “Jesus chose men to be his disciples, and what is good enough for him is good enough for me”? Let’s face it, even men admit that women are more able to do several things at once. Women are usually better at listening, too, and showing sympathy and consideration – all the while juggling a few plates, doing a tap dance, making a packed lunch and remembering to wash the games kit for school. As the Reverend Charlotte Bannister-Parker will tell you, the job of a priest is “24/7. It’s all-consuming. As women in the Church we don’t want to be dumped in a pile as ‘just the kind and caring people’, but on the other hand women are supremely good at juggling family, home and work.” She should know. She has four young children, one of whom is not even of school age. And yet, like Carolyn Oley, Bannister-Parker is calm, considerate, endlessly patient and, as far as I can judge, never has a cross word for anyone.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Demos report is the way in which women operate within different professions. Female politicians are apparently among the most radical. Almost three-quarters of Labour’s new female MPs elected in 1997 identified themselves as feminists. Most worked on the understanding that women in the House of Commons must act more like men in order to change the political agenda. In other words, “acting for women might be dependent upon acting like men”. Female priests, however, do not necessarily enter the Church with a specific agenda for change. They are less likely than other professionals to identify themselves as feminists. But they are staging a far more effective takeover of their profession than female surgeons, lawyers and architects have managed in many more years of trying. Only 22 per cent of partners in solicitors’ firms in the UK are women. In medicine, 70 per cent of those graduating from medical school are women, but they account for only 7 per cent of consultant surgeons. Men make up only 45.3 per cent of secondary-school teachers but they have cornered 65 per cent of the headteachers’ posts. Female priests are banned by law from taking on the top jobs. But once the law is changed, what will happen? Could it be that the co-operative and collaborative approach that women have adopted in the Church will equip them to take the House of Bishops by storm?

There is one other aspect of this which should have the likes of Kirk reaching for his telephone directory and looking up “R” for Roman Catholic – otherwise known as a safe house for the gender-threatened. In many professions, journalism not least among them, there is an inbuilt hierarchy designed to intimidate and subjugate the most junior members. Those who aspire to senior posts are fearful of their rivals around them and their bosses above them. It is a classic example of divide and rule, dominate and intimidate. This simply does not seem to happen to women in the Church of England. As Oley says: “I just feel so lucky to be training with so many other women. We’re less competitive and I know that if I’m finding it tough someone else will be finding it tougher.” But even more tellingly, she is not driven by ambition or intimidated by Church hierarchy. “I don’t see the bishops as having the top jobs. There are no top jobs because we’re all equal. I used to be a pastoral assistant and you could say it was at the bottom, but not to me. There’s only one person in charge and he’s Jesus Christ.”

Is it possible that this doctrine of humble indifference to hierarchy is the key to unlock the House of Bishops? If women are not interested in the power structure, they are far less likely to be intimidated by it – and so, ultimately, they are far more likely to overthrow it. After all, as Mahatma Gandhi could have told you, you cannot be crushed by something you do not fear.

The Demos report “Production Values: futures for professionalism” is available free online at www.demos.co.uk

A long time coming . . .

1935 A commission appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York finds “no compelling theological reasons for or against the ordination of women”, but insists upon maintaining the male priesthood

1988 The C of E ordains 15 women to be deaconesses. They can perform baptisms, marriages and burials, but not give communion or other sacraments

1989 First female bishops ordained by the Anglican Church of New Zealand and by the Episcopal Church in the United States

1994 Ordination of women in the C of E begins

2000 A report reveals that nearly half of all male clergy refuse to take communion from women priests

2003 The Scottish Episcopal Church allows female bishops

2006 The first woman is elected to archbishop status in the Episcopal Church in the US

Rattling the stained-glass ceiling
Sohani Crockett

The Rt Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, 52, Bishop of Nevada, has made history by becoming the first woman to achieve the status of archbishop.

The American Episcopal Church has permitted female bishops since 1989, but the same move in Britain would require a change in the law. In July, a General Synod meeting will discuss the issue. If it is considered theologically justified, a group of bishops and laity will draft legislation to be considered by the House of Bishops and the Synod. If approved, it will need to be passed by a two-thirds majority in parliament. Parliament is not permitted to make any changes to the bill. There is a Church of England rule, called Canon A4, which states that, to become a bishop, nominees must be “not only lawfully so ordained but ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops”.

On the Church’s website there is already a warning from the Archbishop of Canterbury that “legislation to admit women . . . will not commend itself to the majority of the House of Bishops if it involves any amendment to Canon A4.”

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