On the afternoon of Sunday June 16 Ripon Cathedral will hold a Eucharist to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women priests – with the Rt Rev Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, presiding and the Rt Rev Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon, preaching.
Ahead of this special service we’ve been chatting to two of our female members of clergy; Canon Wendy Wilby who was one of the first women to be ordained priest and Rev Caitlin Carmichael-Davies, who is ‘relatively’ new to the priesthood.
We began by asking them what challenges they have faced and whether any of these related to being a woman…
“Sometimes people have pre-conceived ideas of what a priest will look like and what sort of priest you are going to be based on your age and gender – but it’s more about that initial encounter rather than any lasting attitude. Sometimes you have to assure people about your abilities and your competence, whereas you may not have to do that if you are older – or a man.
“The people that have led the way, the first generation that campaigned for the ordination of women and then campaigned for women bishops – which came through during my training – have done a lot of the ground work, because I’ve not had to fight for anything but have benefitted from it.”
“In many small parishes the church is often run by women, especially in the villages; so there I was coming in, at about 10 years younger than the main body of women and I really wasn’t that different to them and therefore they couldn’t put me on a pedestal! A male priest coming into a similar situation had a chance of being treated differently – but I had a husband and children and it was a challenge that I was just like them! All that is so much better now!
“In a recent conference I attended, it was an absolute eye opener to hear about the plight of women in many developing countries who suffer violence and discrimination at a huge level. You realise once more that we are sitting on the peak of an enormous progression in the perception of women as an equal part of humanity. We have women priests, which has been a major development within the Church of England but it’s so enmeshed with social equality that it’s difficult to separate them. It has taken a while for people to come to terms with true justice and equality for the other half of humanity.”
Do you still come across bias?
“When you have power structures that are dominated by men you run the risk of not hearing the voices of women and of forgetting their equal dignity before God and the Church has colluded with that because of its traditional structure.”
“We need to be aware of unconscious bias; centuries of overt bias, I think, make us more determined to succeed.”
What do you hope you have brought to the priesthood?
“My mother was always in the home and as a young woman that was my place. As a pianist I could practice at home but I had to have dinner on the table when my husband came home. As the years have passed we have learnt more about fulfilling what we are – for instance Phil loves cooking! We’ve been allowed the freedom to explore a different way and the church too has allowed us to be what we are and what we are called to be.
“I think probably coming in a little late to it (I was 40 when I was ordained deacon) I bring all that life experience to a full time ministry because I think all that has helped; being a wife, bringing up children and having a secular career.
“But I feel myself loved by God and that – above all else, I hope, has been apparent in my ministry and how I am with people.”
“I think as Wendy said that there is a great blessing in doing something that you feel you are meant to be doing and in which your competencies are reflected; you hope that people see that and have a level of trust in you as a priest.
“More specifically as a younger female priest, I hope that this context helps me to find a voice that speaks to different people using different language, different words.”
What are your hopes for the future?
“We both would hope that in the future women’s voices would be heard and respected just as much as men’s voices in positions of power and that’s not just dependant on others but on women themselves taking responsibility. I think that women know how to work well together to get the right results.”
“I would like the liberation, rebellion and transformation of Christianity to be more fully heard both within the church and within society.
“A lot of the historical problems of the Church have been to do with us listening more to one characteristic of the bible than another – the voice of tradition – rather than looking to the voices that are liberating. There is a huge amount of liberation in the bible that we don’t hear that well.”