Silver Jubilee, Silver Lining:
Celebrating 25 Years of Women in the Ordained Ministry
Hinsley Hall, Leeds
Key Note Address
The Ven. Janet Henderson

There it was in the local newspaper, 'First Deacon for Fenland.' And right next to the article about me was a photo of a woman in skin tight leathers on a motorbike. A crafty bit of journalism! I'm sure some of the parishioners were quite disappointed when they met me, but they hid it well! It was 1988.

We've all been there, I guess. All of us have been the first in some respect. Some of us have almost always been the first and often the only woman for long periods of our ministry. Out of 24 years in ministry, I think I have not been the first for 4 of them.

But we're experiencing a new phenomenon now. There are a growing number of occasions when there are lots of us. Undertakers tell me that in many places you now have a 1:3 chance of having a women minister if you book a funeral. We are beginnig to outnumber men at times. At a recent induction, the vicar, curate, associate priest and I were all women. At the end of the service a man almost literally grabbed me and said 'I've only got one thing to say to you,  'The monstrous regiment of women is taking over.' Our bishop's staff in Ripon and Leeds now has 4 men and 4 women; that has changed the dynamics somewhat. When we discuss the AB parishes, it seems odd for 4 women to be taking seriously the concept of keeping women out of ministry...

So we've swung fairly quickly from 'first and only' to 'one of a number.' And that's great!

Did you celebrate in 1987 and 1994? Certainly secular society wanted to celebrate. I guess many of us have stories of walking into pubs and the whole place cheering. I was walking through a hospital wearing my dog collar one day in 1994 when a young woman came up, threw her arms around me and said, 'It's so good to see a woman in that collar.' Just by being ordained women, something was added to the message that all women are acceptable, valuable, living images of God. I don't expect the blokes in the pub would have put it like that, but they got it, didn't they? Somehow they sensed it and understood.

And then there was the church. There was great rejoicing among some, but it did feel a bit of a bronze celebration! The reception of women priests and deacons was often muted and sometimes felt more like tempered rejection.We were warned not to celebrate too much or too openly so as not to upset those of tender conscience who could not accept our ordination. Bishops paniced when newly ordained women priests turned up to help ordain others. I vivdly recall (I was teaching liturgy in 1994) running an impromptu tutorial on how to preside at the eucharist using a vase and a bowl during our ordination retreat. After years of arguing whether we were fit to do it, no one had thought to teach some of us how to preside. Our 10th anniversary of the ordination of women priests service did feel more celebrational although we were quite constrained in what we were allowed to do and somehow also criticized for not being radical enough!

That's been a common dynamic over the past 25 years - on the one hand constrained by the institution and, on the other, criticized for not being radical and 'new' enough. A twin dynamic of control and disappointment.

But...discovering the delights of parish ministry as a deacon or priest and, in particular, that wonderful sense of a parish, benefice or chaplaincy coming alive, is something none of us would have missed for the world! We are so privileged to be the first generation that has been able to do this. I often reflect that if I'd been born 100 years earlier I'd be virtually blind because there were no contact lenses. I have an overflowing sense of gratitude to God for contact lenses and ordination; both vital, life-giving things I could so easily have missed!

What of senior posts? I've been bowled over by the way parishes have taken me to their hearts as archdeacon. I never feel lonely - wherever I travel in my geographically enormous archdeaconry I know there are clergy, church wardens and community leaders who are willing and keen to share ministry with me. Some parishes (perhaps we should call them the 'EF' parishes) are as concerned to work with women as the AB parishes are to avoid them. One of the benefices on my patch, when asked to transfer into another diocese by the Dioceses Commission, refused on the grounds that they would not willingly place themselves in the hands of a bishop who would not ordain women.. I've worked with no less than 8 good women Area Deans and I think that that particular oversight role (which is largely pastoral and structural) is one that women are often very suited to. The evidence suggests there is massive appreciation of and support for women in leadership in the church - I believe the diocesan synods have demonstrated this admirably in the recent vote on the Women Bishops Measure. Will the bishops listen?

Here we are, then 25 years after the first ordinations of Deacons and 18 years after the first ordinations of priests. And this has been called our silver celebration. I'm going to come to silver in a moment, but first I want to stay with celebration.

Celebration is at the heart of priesthood, at the heart of the Christian community and at the heart of God herself. In Jewish liturgy, you bless God over everything - land, children, food, ancestors, the future. Even if you don't feel like it, you celebrate by blessing. Celebration has to be relational and reciprocal - me to you, you to God, God to you... There's a deep psychological truth at the heart of this dynamic of celebration. You cannot genuinely bless or thank God (or another person) for something, yet still hold in your heart bitterness. Thankfulness, blessing, celebration cast out resentment and distrust. Celebration creates health. Is that why, although we celebrate, we still struggle as women priests? Because the church has never wholeheartedly blessed its daughters or received our blessing? Never quite celebrated our presence without restriction? And, of course, if you don't celebrate, if you don't bless a person, you with hold from them the psychological freedeom to be themselves. That, I think is one of the key reasons why women priests, especially, struggle. Lay women and women deacons do have a greater measure of the church's blessing.

The church has witheld and is witholding the celebration that would allow its women priests the psychological freedom to be themselves. That's been another common dynamic over the past 18 years - on the one hand, feeling welcomed, cherished, loved, invited...and yet, on the other hand, having to be careful, to defend other women, to tread on eggshells, never quite knowing when a put-down will come; determined not to apologize for one's gender but sometimes apparently being asked to - or at least to keep quiet. We have disciplined ourselves to be very vigilant and cautious.

So, yes, a silver celebration today. If the clouds are to part and reveal behind their silver lining golden sunshine, what needs to happen? What are the challenges to face during the next 25 years?
First, let's look at what has already been achieved.

For the first time in 2012, the church ordained more women than men. We have 4 deans, 18+archdeacons, a good number of residentiary canons and area deans. Not many women incumbents of large churches yet. We have several very senior chaplains and many SSMs (whom we often overlook) with really significant skills. The number of women present at meetings has grown and, with that, the tone of meetings has changed. The culture within the church is transforming. The likelihood of a parish priest or chaplain being female has grown - children now expect vicars to be women as well as men. I think there is research to suggest that some women preach differently. I can think of two examples of women incumbents who involve the whole congregation in their sermons - the level of theological awareness in their churches is higher than normal. Women certainly view church growth differently (fewer strategies with 4 points all beginging with Z!) I was listening to a lecture given by George Lings recently and his reserach into church growth suggests that, here, we may have had an impact. Organic growth and the imagery of birth is apparently very much part of the new thinking in church growth circles.Women and men working together bring more wholistic agendas and better behaviour to senior staff meetings, boards and committees from which women were previously excluded. This has yet to permeate the House of Bishops. In response to Judith Maltby's question at General Synod, Archbishop Sentamu defended the House of Bishops' decision to have only men on the group working on Human Sexuality.

So, much has been achieved. But there is a great deal left to do. At this point, I want to remind us that sometimes it is better to move slowly especially if you want to work at depth and embed things that will last. In 25 years we have made a remarkable breakthrough which I believe is the work of the Holy Spirit. But, as yet, we have hardly begun to scratch the surface. There are three things I am concerned we do in the next 25 years.

I want us to ask, 'Has our presence changed thinking about God much?' I was recently invited to be a Trustee of an organisation that has a statement of faith. I really wanted to take up the role but the statement of faith included reference to the Holy Spirit as specifically male. How ever did the gloriously feminine ruach and the neutral pneuma become solely and exclusively male? This is the hidden part of the iceberg, isn't it? The organisation in question has happy, smiling women busy doing ministry all over it website but their presence doesn't seem to have changed thinking or language about God. It hasn't altered the use of imagery and metaphor at all which suggests to me that it hasn't challenged patriarchal understandings of God. We have scarcely begun to explore the femaleness of God, have we? People still wince if you talk about God as 'her'. This is the big no-go area and the area of deepest fear where we need to get to work.

Secondly, I want us to go on trying to change the church's agenda to include women's perceptions, interests and concerns. Why do we allow our archbishop to talk about Sharia law in ways that do not acknowledge women's experience of it? Women still do most of the childcare and care of the elderly so why isn't the church making a real national contribution in areas of low opportunity for children and in the growing debate about how we will care for the very elderly? Why, when women earn less than men in the UK and (more damagingly) in developing countries, do we sit back and allow the House of Bishops, the synods, councils and conferences of the Anglican Communion to spend so much time focusing on largely male-driven anxieties about gender and sexuality? We ought to be working much harder to alter the balance of the church's agenda.

Lastly, I believe, we need to redirect our energy. What do I mean? I calculate that, over the last 25 years, I have spent somewhere in the region of an average of 6 hours a week going to meetings that are needed to defend the place of ordained women, meetings to deal with the consequences of the Act of Synod and meetings to support women clergy who have been undermined. I've resigned from one job where women ordinands were being forced to submit to discussions about the validity of their own ordination on gender grounds. All this saps your energy, doesn't it? It's costly and there's little time left for creativity. What I most pray for for the coming years, whatever the outcome of the Women Bishops Measure vote, is that we can be more ourselves and move into a less constrained, more creative space. A place where crea. tive energies will bubble up. I want to see social justice and mission projects that will have lasting national impact. I want to see more energy for communication - thinking, writing, broadcasting, blogging by women who set the agenda I want to see more energy for teaching that challenges patriarchy, uncovers the contribution of women to Christianity and makes all this mainstream.

Think of our recent Church of England forbears. Florence Nightingale - as well as being a brilliant statistician, did you know that she wrote an 800 page theological treatise? Mary Sumers - set up the Mothers Union, which, despite changing times has become and remained an organisation with global reach. Evelyn Underhill - influenced the spiritual direction of a generation. Dorothy Kerrin - set up Burrswood, the Church of England healing centre in Kent. Dorothy L. Sayers - had a big impact on religious broadcasting. Women like these were true pioneers. They were very much of their own times and it is easy, now, to question or mock some of their ways of working. But they had impact. What impact are we having in our own times?  They weren't afraid to support their church but also to criticize and challenge it and to speak out, where they saw fit. I think the Act of Synod and all the sheer energy that has gone into legal and synodical nit-picking has dumbed us down by comparisn. We need to rediscover creativity!

So, in summary here is a suggested agenda for 2012- 2037;

Mainstream female imagery, language and thinking about God. Unless the female is as widely acknowledged as part of God as the male is, we will continue to have problems. It will continue to be OK to regard women as second class.

Get the synods, councils and House of Bishops off the human sexuality agenda and onto a social justice agenda - take seriously the gospel of transformation in a hurting world. Balance male interests with female ones.

Invest more energy in creative, life giving enterprises.
And celebrate more often.

Yes, today is a silver celebration with work to do to prepare for gold!

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