Twenty years ago I was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. It was a wonderful and terrifying day as I stepped into a new ministry feeling all too conscious of my failings and frailty and also of the honour that was being entrusted to me.
I served my curacy in a rural parish in Herefordshire, a county on the border of Wales famous for hops and apples and half-timbered houses. I was the first ordained woman in a church of which the oldest parts dates from the 13th century and there were some members of the congregation who were none too thrilled with this innovation. A number were honest about the fact that, while they welcomed me as a deacon, they were not sure whether they could receive my ministry if I was ever to be priested.
It was while I was in this rural parish that the vote on women priests took place in London about 6 months after I’d been deaconed. I went and stood outside the debating chamber with hundreds of others, all holding our breath to see whether our vocation would be recognized. The relief and joy when the vote went through were tremendous. I arrived home that night to find more messages than ever before on my answer phone (oh, those far off days before email) and my untidy garden transformed with beautiful autumn flowers – the work of parishioners who thought that vote would go the wrong way and wanted to let me know that I was loved and cherished.
All this is in my heart and mind today as I watch the Church of England fail yet again to move forward on women bishops. I think of the gifts of the women I was ordained with, of the need to connect with a secular society for whom women’s equality is a done deal, of my great affection for a Church which nurtured my faith and called me to ministry – and I am brought to tears but not to despair.
The day of my priesting in Hereford Cathedral in 1994, the first ordination of women to the priesthood in that diocese, was the Eve of St Julian’s Day. The cathedral was packed. The bishops had given us roses to carry down the aisle and our friends and families and worshiping communities were all celebrating with us. At the end of the service, as the procession was leaving, hundreds of balloons were let down by the great west door, all bearing Julian’s message ‘All shall be well’.
The movement of the Spirit may be delayed but it will not be denied. I firmly believe we will find a way through this, that the gifts of my sister priests in England will not be denied to the episcopate indefinitely. It has to be so if the Church of England is to survive. It has to be so if the hearts that rejoiced in 1994 and are broken today are to be mended.