It was 30 years ago today…

It seems extraordinary to me that it is thirty years since I stood with others in Deans Yard in London outside the meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England waiting for news.

It was a long day and one that many had worked towards tirelessly, for many years.

It was the day that the Church of England finally decided that women should be ordained to the priesthood.

Well, I say that people had worked tirelessly towards that day but the reality was that many were extremely tired. Women had been ordained deacons some years before and were waiting to find out whether their vocations to priesthood would be affirmed or rejected simply on the basis of their gender. There were cruelties along the way. There was a great deal of abuse along the way and some people were just plain exhausted by the time the vote came.

Thias was the only period of my life when I ever was connected with the Church of England for any time. I was working in the chaplaincy of the University of London at Mile End, whilst pursuing ordination in the Scottish Episcopal Church. I was in the Church of England but not of it and the Scottish Episcopal Church was engaged in the very same conversation.

In England, the Movement for the Ordination of Women was the organisation which was pushing for change. In Scotland it was the Movement for Whole Ministry that was rallying the troops. In theory at least, the Movement for Whole Ministry did not see its purpose as being solely about the ordination of women. The idea at the time was that once it had got that priority out of the way, then attention turn to other matters. In the event, once women were ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church and the focus moved to issues surrounding same-sex couples, the Movement for Whole Ministry shut itself down rather than take up that cause – the first time that I realised that not all ordained women were going to be helpful on LGBT issues, something that remains strikingly clear in the Church of England even today.

That’s worth coming back to on another day but today isn’t the day to linger on it, for my mind keeps going back to Dean’s Yard. In any case, progress for LGBT causes would be unimaginable without the fundamental assertion of feminism that people should be treated equally.

From that day in November in Westminister, I can remember the agony of so many women whom I knew as they were waiting for news. The result when it came was not a foregone conclusion.
For me, today is a day of rejoicing in the gifts of so many astonishing priests that the churches would not have had if those decisions had not been made in those years. I think of the weddings blessed, the mourners comforted, the hundreds of thousands of communicants who have been fed and nourished by the ministry of women who have been ordained in the years since. These things are impossible to quantify; love and grace in ministry, so wide and broad and deep that it cannot be measured.

I remember with thanksgiving those who were pioneers. And I remember today that only so many battles have been won. Ordained women often get abuse in the streets when in clerical wear even now, younger women being particularly targetted. And women still don’t have parity of opportunity either in secular environments or in ecclesiastical ones.

There are battles still to be won. But thank God for progress when it comes. And thank God for the decision made 30 years ago today.


  1. Meg Rosenfeld says

    Alas, I can’t remember exactly when it became possible for women to be come priests in the
    Episcopal Church of the United States of America, but I remember very well the first ones in our parish church in Los Gatos, California and, later, in Santa Rosa. It was a very triumphant time!

    • Sr Alison Joy Whybrow says

      The Canon in the American Episcopal Church passed in 1976 and went into effect on January 1st 1977.
      Sr Alison Joy OSB

    • Tim Chesterton says

      In Canada women began to be ordained as deacons in 1969 and as priests in 1976.

  2. Peggy Brewer says

    Heartfelt testament concerning the importance/necessity of inclusion as our Lord Jesus Christ commanded!

  3. Bob King says

    I remember the day so
    well !
    I was at Salisbury and Wells Theological College, preparing to leave to be Ordained in Hereford Cathedral, preparing for the closure of the College and praying with passion and fear that the vote in Synod would be YES 🙏🙏
    All three things happened as we know, joy and sadness mingled down.

  4. Helen King says

    Yes, all of this, especially “There were cruelties along the way. There was a great deal of abuse along the way”

  5. The first women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church were the “Philadelphia Eleven,” ordained on July 29, 1974, by three bishops who claimed that “obedience to the Spirit” justified their action. After a second ordination of women, all their ordinations were deemed by the national church to be “irregular but valid.” As a previous correspondent noted, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church officially authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood, a decision that went into effect on the first of January in 1977.

    Back to Glossary

  6. Keith Battarbee says

    On the opposite side to the still continuing antipathies in some (diminishing) quarters to women priests : my wife, who is a priest, was driving today when we got stuck waiting our turn to join the main flow of cars. A driver in the main queue – eastern European, almost certainly – spotted my wife’s collar, crossed himself; and when we didn’t get the message, grinned broadly, crossed himself again, and waved us energetically into the traffic flow in front of him.

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