Some months ago, I had a phone message from our adviser for women in ministry. Would I mind my name being put forward to speak briefly at a service in London, for the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood? I agreed, without thinking too much about it, and heard nothing further. After a few months, one of the organisers got in touch and apologised for the gap (perhaps wilfully, I’d almost forgotten, and presumed they’d got someone else). I had a very brief brief, and forgot about it again.

The size and scale of the gig only began to hit home last week, as the internet warmed up. But only travelling down to London and heading in for the mic check didn’t really ready me for the remembrance of the breath-taking beauty of the inside of St Paul’s. Not in nerves for speaking, per se, I’ve done plenty of big gigs in my time.

We went out to see the end of the procession arriving from Westminster Abbey. Seeing that trail of people snaking back as far as you could see was suddenly emotional. When I’d taken my alb to the robing room there were so many others already on the rail – I’d still not realised each of those women ordained in ’94 would be robed.

The sun shone, and the sheer number of collars looked amazing. I’ve never seen so many women priests in one place either. The tourists looked on as they arrived at St Paul’s with some wonderment. Applause broke out. It was indeed, strangely emotional.

We had to robe. We knew the queue for the loos would be ridiculous. It was. The queue to robe was pretty big too. The 700 women set off to be photographed with ++Justin on the steps, and we huddled as the main liturgical procession in St Dunstan’s chapel for briefing. We were still corralled in there when the women began to process in, three batches. 700 people. As the stream of white began, the congregation rose. Applause began. The acoustic of St Paul’s is something else, and even stuck in our little chapel, it was thunderous. And it went on. And on. And on. And on. And still they came. A glorious line of white. The applause didn’t diminish. It went on for over 10 minutes. And these were just the women ordained in ’94.

I would be privileged to be able to see them, from the platform, arrayed before me. I would be privileged to distribute communion to these faithful women, so many of whom stepped up to me full of tears, but full of joy and recognition.

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I will, God willing, be privileged soon to see inspiring and wonderful women be consecrated bishop, and I will be grateful for having met some of them on Saturday. Joining that procession was the most humbling experience. Standing on the platform of St Paul’s as a once in a lifetime opportunity, surrounded by such amazing priestly witness, looking out. Recognising each person’s journey up to ’94 reflected in their faces as they came to receive. Seeing so many faces I knew from numerous generations, across the dioceses, across traditions – quite incredible.

Seeing a bundle of bishops, each with their adviser for women in ministry or equivalent, that was pretty impressive too. No pointy hats. No sticks, except with +London, which is fair enough, it is his church, and who was jolly gracious, given that he doesn’t ordain women and so St Paul’s does not turn out priests onto those steps in the sunshine each summer.

The archbishop, acting as deacon. Beautiful gesture. For some of those bishops, the eucharist being celebrated by a woman must have been difficult. But they were there, even if they didn’t receive. For those women who were told not to rejoice 20 years ago, there was a tangible sense of spirit in the cathedral as they were enabled to do so this weekend. For many, there were memories of friends who passed away in those 20 years, for some, memories of those who passed away as deaconesses and never received the church’s blessing on their priestly calls.

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Some among the congregation were husbands and families, other male clergy who have supported throughout. Some among the congregation were my peers, from Westcott and Ridley, from other dioceses. Some among the congregation were ordinands, and even a few in discernment – seems dioceses applied their own judgement to the allocation of tickets. Given the emotions that eventually overwhelmed me, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be an evangelical candidate, in the body of the church as those women pioneers filed past.

The cathedral was full. Live streaming the service to the adjoining square meant that others could participate too, and what a beautiful day for it. As you see in ordination photographs, people lingered on the steps and in the square afterwards, drinking in the full sense of joy.

I thought what I was a part of hit home when the final hymn began, and from standing on the platform of St Paul’s, behind the gold-bedecked altar, under that stunning dome, looking out at those row after row after row of women to whom the church and today’s female priests owe so much, and behind them, the hundreds who showed their gratitude to them, looking out and seeing the great west doors begin to swing open, the sun stream in and the people of God stream out, rejoicing, to get back to living and proclaiming the gospel.

But no, reality only began to hit when I saw all those women arrayed on the steps in the photographs across the global news. It hasn’t been a totally smooth run for me as a woman in ministry, and the sight of so many reinforced that God calls women too and that women should rejoice in that call, and the church rejoice in them.

class of '94 (photo Church Times)

And it only really hit last night, when Bishop Paul came to confirm in our deanery. People starting out on their walk to find out what God calls them to. We rejoiced with them too. And as the accompanist began that same hymn – I, the Lord of sea and sky – I found myself in tears.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be there with the class of 94 and all the others called into servant leadership since. I am so humbled to join an incredible inheritance. I rejoice in the ministry of my sisters recognised this weekend, as I rejoice in the shared ministry of my brothers (some of whom I’m sorry felt left out on Saturday). There is, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his sermon, much work left to be done, but as the final hymn rejoiced with us, ‘Here, I am, Lord’, I pray that there are many out there who watched Saturday’s rejoicing and felt their hearts warmed, that the quiet callings they have not yet given voice to might grow to the thundering echo of a St Paul’s Alleluia.

from my text:

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When I was an undergraduate, my local church noticeboard displayed a poster declaiming: This parish plays no part in the apostasy of women.
Truthfully, I had never questioned why I’d never seen a female vicar.
Truthfully, I knew nothing of the debates that raged.
Truthfully, I had to look up ‘apostasy’.
Truthfully, I would have laughed at the idea of my being a priest.

Fifteen years in academia, leadership and change management didn’t erase that poster from memory.

When people asked ‘why?’ to my going into ministry, I usually said: ‘I can’t see any greater privilege, than to be able to spend your life loving people.’

Today, I could laugh at the idea of doing or being anything else.

Today I give thanks for those men and women who prayed, dreamt, strove and believed, that today I may encourage men and women to pray, dream, strive and believe. That I might bless and absolve them, and call them to God’s table.

Today I give thanks that I may bring my gifts, my passion, my life & work experience, to love and serve those whom God loves, inside and outside the church.

Every day I am grateful for the opportunity to be who God calls me to be, full of hope and expectation. There is much work still to be done, the fields are white. But we are willing labourers, so come holy Ghost, continue to inspire us.

 

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2 Responses
  1. Rosemary Tucker says:

    Thank you so much for what you said at St Paul’s and for this blog. I was one of the laypeople who clapped as the women priests processed in it was wonderful to be there. All those years of campaigning and then all these 20 years of women priests transforming the church for men and for women. Praise God.

  2. Jean Burgess says:

    Thank you so much for your words last Sat I was moved to tears.
    I was one of the dean of women there with one of our Bishops
    And it was such a joyful and deeply moving service.
    Jean Dean Of Women’s Ministry Derby.