Rev Lucy Win­kett is thank­ful for twenty-five years of Angli­can women priests

Twenty-five years ago, the Church of Eng­land voted to al­low women priests. Lucy Win­kett, one of the early in­take, looks back in won­der

The Oldie - - NEWS - The Rev Lucy Win­kett is Rec­tor of St James’s Church, Pic­cadilly

For women clergy, it was like the moon land­ings or the death of Elvis. We know where we were when we heard the news. Twenty-five years ago, on 11th Novem­ber 1992, in the mid­dle of a grey af­ter­noon, my life, and the lives of many other women, turned on a six­pence. The Gen­eral Synod of the Church of Eng­land voted that women could be or­dained as priests.

As the vot­ing num­bers were an­nounced, fran­tic cal­cu­la­tions were be­ing made in the tea par­lours and sit­ting rooms of faith­ful Angli­cans. In the bal­cony of the Synod cham­ber, three blonde, dog-col­lared women – women could be dea­cons since 1987 – sat to­gether, hold­ing hands. One of them, dis­obe­di­ent to the Arch­bishop’s in­struc­tion that the vote would be heard in si­lence, squeaked un­con­trol­lably at the re­sult. We knew things would never be the same again.

I was watching it all on TV at the Birm­ing­ham the­o­log­i­cal col­lege where I was train­ing to be a dea­con. The vote had been ex­pected to go the other way and so my gen­er­a­tion were half-re­signed to do­ing what we could un­til we were al­lowed to do more. Al­lowed to be more.

None of us who wit­nessed the vote could have imag­ined how things would un­fold over the next twenty-five years. But here we are in 2017, with two women dioce­san bish­ops sit­ting in the House of Lords, a brace of suf­fra­gan bish­ops and a whole host of archdea­cons, deans, canons and in­cum­bents, all get­ting on with it in sit­u­a­tions as var­ied as Saxon churches in Northum­ber­land, in­ner-city projects in Manch­ester, hos­pices, prisons, hous­ing es­tates and palaces. Just get­ting on with the day-to-day life of be­ing a pri­est along­side men. The in­ter­ven­ing years have been ex­hil­a­rat­ing, bruis­ing, con­fus­ing and ful­fill­ing.

I have been or­dained for twenty-two years. I learned, es­pe­cially in the early days, that the very sight of a women in a dog col­lar could send some peo­ple into a bit of a spin.

Once, as a new pri­est, I was cel­e­brat­ing early morn­ing Prayer Book com­mu­nion in an East End Nor­man church for our beloved ‘eight o’clock­ers’. Joan – long-time sac­ristan of the par­ish, not to­tally sure about women priests, but giv­ing me a go any­way – ap­proached me with the wine and water, to lay the al­tar. She mis­tak­enly poured red wine over my hands, as I washed them in prepa­ra­tion for the Eucharis­tic prayer. The Sun­day morn­ing peace was pierced as she screamed, ‘IT’S TURNED TO BLOOD!’, be­fore set­ting off down the aisle, leav­ing me to my be­mused con­gre­ga­tion.

For those who were un­happy about the vote, life in the church they’d grown up in sud­denly felt per­ilous. For a while in the late 1990s, I my­self be­came a bit of a totem fig­ure for the ac­cep­tance, or not, of women as priests in the church. Af­ter I was ap­pointed to be the first woman pri­est at St Paul’s Cathe­dral, it seemed that, to coin a phrase, all hell broke loose. It was prob­a­bly just the right mo­ment for there to be a con­tro­ver­sial story about women and the church, and so I dis­cov­ered what it was like to be at the cen­tre of a storm.

A press con­fer­ence was hastily ar­ranged at St Paul’s, and given that re­tired mil­i­tary gen­tle­men lead lo­gis­tics at cathe­drals, I was al­lo­cated a co­de­name for my ar­rival, to make sure I didn’t un­sus­pect­ingly trip over the wait­ing press. For this female first, for this breach­ing of the bar­ri­cades, was I given a suit­able code-name such as Boudicca, Joan of Arc or Amy John­son? No. I was ‘Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood’.

Twelve years at St Paul’s Cathe­dral pro­voked some un­for­get­table en­coun­ters.

‘Has the Pope said that Eng­land can have women priests?’ asked south­ern Euro­pean and South Amer­i­can tourists, not know­ing any churches ex­isted other than Ro­man Catholic. I du­ti­fully ex­plained, time af­ter time. A front row of Mex­i­can women wept through­out a ser­vice I was tak­ing. I learned they were over­come and over­joyed to see a crea­ture they had never imag­ined; a pri­est cel­e­brat­ing mass, who was a woman like them. An Amer­i­can vis­i­tor stood un­der the fa­mous dome, watching me at the al­tar. When asked by a verger if he needed any help, he sim­ply said, ut­terly be­wil­dered, ‘Why is that pri­est speak­ing with a woman’s voice?’

I am now rec­tor of a lively Wren church in cen­tral London. In such an in­ter­na­tional con­text, of course there are still lots of vis­i­tors who say, ‘You’re the first one I’ve seen.’ But I hope that now, for most of us, it’s the new nor­mal.

Al­though it’s half a life­time, twen­ty­five years is but the blink of an eye in church his­tory and, of course, there are still plenty of ways in which the slow-to­e­volve cul­ture of the church needs chal­leng­ing: all-male vestries can still feel like locker rooms some­times.

The Bri­tish are ret­i­cent about talk­ing about re­li­gion. They re­gard their church­go­ing in a sim­i­lar way as their vis­its to the bath­room – that it’s good man­ners not to tell any­one they’re go­ing, not say where they’ve been, and never men­tion what hap­pened there.

But in chapels and cathe­drals in ev­ery county in the land, now, when they go, they are just as likely, thank God, to find a woman there as a man. Who’d have thought it? We might as well have tried to fly to the moon.

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