Women of the cloth

25 years of women’s or­di­na­tion

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

It may not draw the bums on pews it used to, but the church is still many peo­ple’s go-to for ma­jor life events – birth, mar­riage and death – as well as Christ­mas and Easter. In the old days, be­ing the lo­cal priest was a pow­er­ful po­si­tion. It’s quite the op­po­site to­day, which may be why the num­ber of men be­ing or­dained is fall­ing, just as the num­ber of women is in­creas­ing, rapidly. In 2017, over half those or­dained were women. Last year it was re­ported that more women than ever are en­ter­ing the church as a se­cond ca­reer later in life, while the num­ber of young peo­ple be­ing or­dained is also on the rise, al­beit in­cre­men­tally.

The church must be aware that there are ad­van­tages to hav­ing fe­male priests. They are tra­di­tion­ally good com­mu­ni­ca­tors, em­pathic, and, most im­por­tantly, they cost a lot less. In Novem­ber last year, the Church of Eng­land ad­mit­ted it paid women, on av­er­age, £10,000 a year less than men. Two of the fe­male priests I spoke to were un­paid full-time vol­un­teers, run­ning parishes as well as ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar work, never mind rais­ing chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. As young Reverend Char­lotte Cooke said to me: “You don’t do this work for the ku­dos or money. It has to be for the love of God.”

I won­dered what mo­ti­vates any­one to en­ter a pro­fes­sion that of­fers very lit­tle, some­times noth­ing, in the way of pay, sta­tus or job se­cu­rity. I met three fe­male priests and was in­spired by their courage, com­pas­sion and pas­sion for the work they do. They’re a pos­i­tive force for sure.


On March 12, 1994, the first 32 women were or­dained as Church of Eng­land priests. In 2017, sta­tis­tics from the min­istry di­vi­sion showed that more women than men are go­ing for­ward for or­di­na­tion, 28 per cent are un­der the age of 32. How­ever, women still make up less than a third of the to­tal num­ber of ac­tive cler­ics, and there re­main more men in higher po­si­tions. In 2017, there were 10 fe­male bish­ops out of a to­tal of 112 (the first fe­male bishop was con­se­crated in 2014). Eth­nic di­ver­sity is shock­ingly low al­though ris­ing, with 92.8 per cent white Bri­tish clergy.


As­sis­tant cu­rate of the Benefice of Wal­ton and Trim­ley.

Char­lotte, who grew up in South West Nor­folk, got her call­ing when she was 14. “I was tak­ing part in com­mu­nion when I felt God say­ing, ‘This is what I want you to do,’” she says. “I thought, ‘I don’t think so! There are lots of peo­ple bet­ter qual­i­fied than me!’ Also, I didn’t know any fe­male clergy, es­pe­cially not young fe­male clergy.”

At first, she told no-one, mostly be­cause she was afraid of their re­ac­tions. But the feel­ing per­sisted, and she fi­nally plucked up the courage when she was 17. “They weren’t at all sur­prised – to my dis­may!” she laughs. “I was hop­ing they’d put up ob­sta­cles. I was most wor­ried about telling my mum, she’s the per­son I ad­mire most, but she was great, re­ally sup­port­ive and not sur­prised ei­ther.”

She was aware that en­ter­ing the church was a big com­mit­ment and would re­quire mov­ing around. But she got to know Jan MacFarlane, then Archdea­con of Nor­wich, now Bishop of Rep­ton in Der­byshire, and was in­spired by her. “Once I knew for sure, I did what any young per­son would do – I Googled ‘What do you do if you are called to be or­dained?’”

Char­lotte was fi­nally or­dained in 2017. Her first role was work­ing for cu­rate Caro­line Allen, who re­tired in Oc­to­ber, a valu­able men­tor. Char­lotte now leads bap­tisms, wed­dings and funer­als, as well as pop-up shops and groups.

“On the whole, ev­ery­one has been won­der­ful, but I still get re­ac­tions, es­pe­cially those who don’t of­ten come to church but may have booked a ser­vice,” she says. “They ex­pect the typ­i­cal old gen­tle­man vicar, and then I turn up. I look a lot younger than I am and I can see they’re a lit­tle bit shocked! But as soon as we start talk­ing, and they know I can do my job, it’s fine. Even now, walk­ing down the street in my col­lar, some peo­ple say, ‘Hang on! I didn’t know women could be or­dained.’” To re­lax she heads to Felixs­towe and sketches the sea or some­times joins the nuns in the con­vent for ves­pers. “I’m not Ro­man Catholic, but they know what it’s like to be a woman in the church. I am sin­gle and live alone, so any kind of sup­port is re­ally im­por­tant,” she says. “In one day, I can be lead­ing a tod­dler group and a fu­neral and then help­ing with a pop-up shop for peo­ple who are strug­gling fi­nan­cially. You go through a whole range of emo­tions. But that’s what I love about it. It’s such a priv­i­lege to be with peo­ple at these times. It’s won­der­ful.”

THE REVD SANDIE BAR­TON, 60 Parish priest, canon and en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cer for the Dio­cese of St Ed­munds­bury and Ip­swich

Sandie was at the­o­log­i­cal col­lege in 1994 when the vote went through and the first women were or­dained. A year later, she be­came one if the first fe­male priests and was sta­tioned in Der­byshire in the North East. “The num­ber of times peo­ple said, ‘We never ex­pected the Vicar of Di­b­ley!’” Some re­ac­tions were more hos­tile, es­pe­cially from other clergy op­posed to the vote. “It was a strug­gle, but heart­en­ing to see how far we’ve come,” she says. “Now nearly half the priests or­dained are women.”

Sandie was orig­i­nally an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and had been raised an athe­ist. She came to faith when she was at home with her chil­dren and had a visit from mem­bers of a lo­cal church. “I thought I’d give it a go,” she laughs. “I said, I’ve spent 23 years not believ­ing, so I’ll spend the next 23 years believ­ing, and then make up my mind.”

Al­most straight away, she felt dif­fer­ent. “It was like be­ing in a glider, the mo­ment the rope falls away and you re­alise you are fly­ing,” she says. So how did her par­ents re­act?

“I was preg­nant at the time, so they tried to blame my hor­mones, but came around to the idea. My dad was grudg­ingly proud - sadly he died be­fore I was or­dained - while my mum went around tak­ing credit for it.” Amaz­ingly, her sis­ter was also or­dained and is now a vicar in Bed­ford­shire.

‘Some peo­ple say, ‘Hang on! I didn’t know women could be or­dained’’

The move to the North East was hard on her chil­dren and fam­ily, so Sandie even­tu­ally made the de­ci­sion to take an un­paid po­si­tion as parish priest in Suf­folk, ne­go­ti­at­ing with the church so her fam­ily would no longer be moved around. She looks af­ter four churches in the Milden­hall parish, but her great­est pas­sion is her role as the dio­cese en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cer.

At St An­drew’s in Freck­en­ham, rain is saved in wa­ter-buck­ets to tend to the flow­ers on the graves. An­other of Sandie’s churches, Wor­ling­ton, is well known for its 42 swift boxes, which helped 70 chicks fledge. “It re­ally ex­cites me,” she says. “If we can get other churches to in­stall boxes, we could re­verse the de­cline of the swift pop­u­la­tion in our county.”

Al­though many schemes were in place be­fore A Roche cre­ated the Eco Church scheme, it has since taken off, with churches ex­plor­ing LED light­ing, sus­tain­able en­ergy and re­cy­cling. Sandie’s mis­sion is to make Suf­folk’s churches en­vi­ron­men­tally aware, and to help the county be­come an Eco Dio­cese. “It’s such a great op­por­tu­nity,” she says. “We have 478 churches across county. Nearly all of them have church­yards un­touched for 800 years by agri­cul­ture and pes­ti­cides, and we of­ten find they’re lit­tle oases of bio­di­ver­sity. If you put them all to­gether, they’re the size of a na­tional park. If we all man­age with a view to en­hanc­ing and pre­serv­ing, they be­come wildlife cor­ri­dors.

“The build­ings, too, are po­ten­tial habi­tats. We don’t want to get rid of bats – we want to

learn to live with them, en­able them to stay with­out ru­in­ing the fab­ric of churches.”

In her spare time, Sandie is busy trans­form­ing her own gar­den into a wildlife meadow in hon­our of her daugh­ter Jenny who died trag­i­cally aged 30. “She stud­ied ecol­ogy, so in a way it’s com­fort­ing to know I’m do­ing some­thing for the en­vi­ron­ment and that she would be root­ing for me.”


Cu­rate at Felixs­towe John The Bap­tist with St Ed­mund, and Hon­orary Chap­lain for the Deaf

Penny moved to Felixs­towe from Hayes in Mid­dle­sex when she was 17. It was 1974, and she’d just mar­ried Robert Brink­ley who was away for months at a time work­ing as a skip­per on ships. Their house was op­po­site a church and Penny found her­self go­ing there for com­pany be­cause, hav­ing moved far away from her fam­ily, she was lonely. Al­though she had only been to church once when she was 11, for her con­fir­ma­tion, she found her­self get­ting more and more in­volved in church du­ties, run­ning Sun­day school and be­com­ing church war­den. She also had a va­ri­ety of jobs, in­clud­ing work­ing for the RNIB.

“I started sign­ing for a deaf aware­ness badge for the Brown­ies,” she says. “I was Tawny Owl, and Brown Owl, and I ended up do­ing a course and got a cer­tifi­cate purely be­cause we en­joyed it.” Part of her work for the RNIB was to work in the com­mu­nity, which led her to the church for the deaf. The con­gre­ga­tion asked her to step in when their chap­lain left. “They wanted me to keep their ser­vices go­ing un­til they got a new chap­lain but de­cided to keep me.”

At this point, she says, God spoke to her and told her this was what he wanted for her. She now runs ser­vices for the deaf in Felixs­towe and Bury, and in Ip­swich where they have a sign­ing choir. “I hope once my cu­racy has fin­ished, I might be able to do more for the deaf,” she says. “There’s so much that can be done. To help them feel more en­gaged, not on the edges feel­ing iso­lated.”

Penny was or­dained along with Char­lotte in 2017. She is a self-sup­port­ing cu­rate, which means she is un­paid but means she has been able to stay in the same parish for 40 years. As a woman she says she hasn’t faced any hos­til­ity and has had lots of sup­port from her fam­ily and con­gre­ga­tion.

“We did have one Sun­day when a cou­ple walked out,” she says. “Older peo­ple were brought up think­ing only men were priests. They need to un­learn some of the things they have learned. It’s a case of walk­ing with them, see­ing what hap­pens. We have to treat them with re­spect, they’re still our broth­ers and sis­ters and we have to love them whether we like what they do or not.”

ABOVE: Pene­lope Brink­ley (se­cond right) with Bishop Martin See­ley and or­dained priests, from left, Si­mon White, Karen Bur­ton, Char­lotte Cook, Su­san Fos­ter and Max­i­m­il­ian Drinkwa­ter.

RIGHT: Reverend Char­lotte Cook

BE­LOW: Canon Sandie Bar­ton loves her work as en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cer for the dio­cese of St Ed­munds­bury and Ip­swich

RIGHT: Bishop Martin See­ley, with or­dained priests, from left, Su­san Fos­ter, Karen Bur­ton, Pene­lope Brink­ley, Si­mon White, Char­lotte Cook and Max­i­m­il­ian Drinkwa­ter.

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