Women of the cloth
25 years of women’s ordination
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.
THE REVD CHARLOTTE COOKE, 28
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.”
THE REVD PENNY BRINKLEY, 57
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.