Thirty-two trailblazing women claimed their place in English history on March 12th, 1994, when they were ordained as the Church of England’s first ever female priests.
The milestone service took place in Bristol Cathedral and was officiated by Bishop Barry Rogerson. Because the women were ordained in alphabetical order, the nation’s very first female priest was university chaplain Angela Berners-Wilson, shortly followed by her 31 pioneering colleagues.
The youngest of the women was just 30 and the oldest 69, and between them they already had hundreds of years serving the church in various roles, including as parish deacons. While their ordination marked the end of one journey – campaigning for women priests – it was the beginning of another – gaining acceptance within the church and, in a few cases, winning over sceptical congregations.
Some in the Church of England still believed the priesthood should be the preserve of men, but they were increasingly in the minority and most people were ready for the change and even saw it as long overdue. Largely responsible for that was churchwomen themselves, who had proved more than capable in many other roles over many decades.
Women had first been appointed as ‘deaconesses’ in the Church of England more than 130 years earlier, in 1861, and although they couldn’t function fully as deacons they were considered ordained clergy. Women had served as ‘lay readers’ for many years, authorised by their Bishop to lead or help lead certain services. During the First World War some women lay readers became ‘bishop’s messengers’, taking over the running of churches and missions while the men were away serving with the armed forces.
Laws allowing women to be fully ordained as deacons, equal to their male counterparts, were passed in 1986, with the first women deacons ordained the following year. The ordination of women priests was finally agreed by the church’s ruling body, the General Synod, in 1992, leading to the first 32 ordinations 24 years ago today, in March 1994.
Since then the number of women priests has continued to rise steadily. In 2010, for the first time, more women were ordained as priests than men, with 290 women taking up their vocation compared to 273 men. During the first ordination service in 1994, Bishop Rogerson speculated that it would take another 10 years before the first woman was ordained as a bishop in the Church of England, but his prediction was overly optimistic.
In fact, it was slightly more than a decade before the church, in 2005, set in motion the slow-moving process to allow the consecration of women bishops. There remained considerable opposition to the move in some quarters and it couldn’t be seen to be ‘rushed through’, with every step carefully deliberated and debated by the General Synod.
In 2013 it finally voted overwhelmingly in favour of a plan to allow the ordination of women bishops, and formally approved the details of the plan in July the following year. The first female bishop, Libby Lane, was consecrated as the Bishop of Stockport, in the Diocese of Chester, in a service at York Minster on January 26th, 2015.
Since the first women priests were ordained in 1994 they have become indispensable to the Church of England’s ministry, serving in parishes throughout the country. Their cause was given an early boost by a topical TV sitcom, “The Vicar of Dibley”, which first aired in November 1994. Although pure fiction, Dawn French’s sympathetic and heart-warming portrayal of newly-ordained vicar Geraldine Grainger undoubtedly had an impact on the public perception.
Many real-life women vicars said the challenges and prejudices they faced were not that far removed from those in the traditional rural parish of Dibley! Both Dawn French and the sitcom’s writer, Richard Curtis, consulted extensively with one of England’s first female priests, Joy Carroll, before filming the successful series.
In 2004 a celebratory service was held at Bristol Cathedral to mark the 10 anniversary of the first ordination of women priests. By then one of the original 32 had died and 14 had retired, but many more women across England had joined the priesthood.