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Equal rites

Mary Wakefield attends a service to mark the tenth anniversary of the ordination of women, and has a sudden attack of Doubt

14 February 2004

12:00 AM

14 February 2004

12:00 AM

Last Saturday must have been a difficult day for St Paul. His cathedral, still covered in patches of scaffolding like pins supporting badly broken legs, was teeming, inside and out, with women in dog collars. In the crypt, an hour before the grand celebration of the tenth anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood, there were women priests of every description: fifty-something tiggywinkles with thick NHS spectacles; red-cheeked 30-year-olds, their clerical collars just visible above green fleeces; Laura Ashley skirts and sensible slip-ons mixed with smart black trouser suits and high heels. Exciting rarities included a very tall woman in black breeches waving a walking stick decorated with feathers; one with bright red hair and piercings; an octogenarian with a pink-rinse wig, and a pregnant priest in a brown velvet trouser suit. In the ladies loo, surrounded by an alarming gridlock of gossiping clerics, a black woman sang hymns as she combed her hair in the gust of hot air from the hand-dryer. Inside the cathedral, under the vast central dome, there was the usual Anglican mix. In front of me sat a female vicar, her bossy bust pointed altar-wards, beside me a retired army officer preened his moustache. As female clergy from all over England processed in from the Dean’s Aisle, one crop-haired woman pulled off a pair of round, pink sunglasses and hooked them on to the front of her surplice.

Initially, this reinforced my antipathy towards women priests. I rehearsed the traditional arguments: Christ, although generally in favour of women, ordained only men. It was the 12 Apostles who were charged with the founding of the Church, not His mother, not Mary Magdalene, not Martha nor His other female followers, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and Susanna. ‘The priest truly acts in place of Christ,’ wrote St Cyprian in the third century, and Christ’s maleness was as essential to him as it is for the priests and bishops in persona Christi. ‘Sacramental signs,’ says St Thomas Aquinas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ I recalled a sermon given by a female priest at my grandmother’s church in the country. God, she concluded, after a long and glutinous story, was the shy smile on the face of a little boy as he offers his last Smartie to a homeless old woman.

Halfway through the service, I lost my confidence. What if the women priests were right after all? A ten-year-old entry from the diary of the Revd Prebendary Philippa Boardman, printed at the back of the service book, sowed the seed of doubt: ‘I looked up and saw those huge, seemingly impenetrable wooden cathedral doors swing open,’ she wrote. ‘And in that moment it was as if those doors symbolised the Church of England, doors that had for centuries been firmly (and seemingly unassailably) closed to the ordained ministry of women, now opening, opening for us, opening for me.’ I had my first ever attack of female solidarity. How can I cite St Thomas Aquinas on the importance of male priests, when he also held that: ‘The male sex is more noble than the female, and for this reason He [Jesus] took human nature in the male sex.’ Why should I be persuaded by theological arguments over and above the continuing conviction of 2,000 devout ordained women? Surely they know, better than anyone else, whether they’ve been called by God?


The Vatican urges us not to attach too much significance to vocational feelings: ‘A vocation cannot be reduced to a mere personal attraction, which can remain purely subjective. The priesthood does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church.’ But it has been a decade now since these women became priests and their attraction to the Church does seem genuine — not short-lived nor dog-in-the-manger. Jobs for the Boys, a book just published about the experiences of women clergy, demonstrates their dedication: Sheila McLachan, who works in housing estates in Leeds, has chosen to be celibate: ‘I couldn’t do the job if I were married. There’s a price to be paid.’

I talked to the 34-year-old Revd Lucy Winkett, the Precentor and Canon Residentiary of St Paul’s, underneath the statue of Admiral Nelson in the south transept. ‘I decided to be ordained quite suddenly,’ she said, bright-eyed and direct. ‘I was at a low-key Evensong service at my parents’ church in Devon and it was then immediately blindingly obvious to me that I was going to be a priest. I can’t explain it any better than that,’ she grinned. ‘There’s a small section of the clergy who are still opposed but the congregations are much, much better,’ she said. ‘They feel about women priests like they used to feel about lady doctors. Once they see that you can do the job, once they engage with you as a human being, they come round.’ So are there any jobs in the Church that she feels women should not do? ‘No! Absolutely not.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘At the moment women can’t become bishops, so there is a glass ceiling, a stained glass ceiling, but that will change. Women bishops, women archbishops — I’m sure it will happen.’

As the Revd Lucy bounced off, an elderly nun hobbled past, her foot in plaster. ‘Are you all right, dear?’ she asked. Confusion was making me queasy. Everywhere, women were tucking surplices into knapsacks, greeting and congratulating each other.

What eventually brought me back to my original position, opposed to the ordination of women, was not the Scriptures or even the fun of sneering, but looking at what has happened to the C of E over the last ten years. In 1992, the Bishop of Sheffield made a public statement explaining his opposition to women priests, ‘The reforms before us this week find their momentum not from Scripture, but from the generally held beliefs of everyone today,’ he said, ‘and once this replaces Scripture and tradition as the authority for the Church’s doctrine, almost anything becomes possible. What will be next? The parity of homosexual and heterosexual marriage?’ The Bishop has, of course, been proved right. The more the Anglican Church has tried to keep up with the times, to placate and include minorities, the more schismatic it has become. More than 500 priests defected to Rome after the Synod approved female ordination, and there is still a hard core of traditionalist bishops who exclude women priests from their dioceses.

The question of homosexual clergy is having much the same effect as the ordination of women. This Friday the General Synod begins its debate on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ to try to resolve the conflict: right-wing evangelicals side with the Anglo-Catholic aesthetes against the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Church in Africa is not talking to the Church in England, which in turn, is on non-speakers with the North American Church. Nor, once you’ve started the process of modernising, does there seem to be any end to the process: on Tuesday, for instance, the General Synod decided that the three wise men who visited Christ in Bethlehem could no longer be described as men. ‘While it seems very unlikely that these Persian court officials were female,’ said the Synod, ‘the possibility that one or more of the Magi were women cannot be excluded completely.’ A few days after the service, I came across a saying of a former dean of St Paul’s, the writer and preacher William Ralph Inge: ‘He who marries the spirit of the age will soon become a widower.’


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