Celebrating 25 Years of Women's Ministry
18 March 2019 by Philippa Barker

Celebrating 25 Years of Women's Ministry

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Church of England, a milestone that is being celebrated across the Diocese. The first ordinations in England took place in March 1994, the first in Birmingham soon after in May, and since then the landscape has changed considerably.

Becky StephensToday, 25% of paid incumbents in the Diocese are women, and of those self-supporting, 52% are women. Revd Becky Stephens, Bishop’s Advisor for Women’s Ministry (pictured), says: ‘As women who are ordained now, we stand on the shoulders of those who were ordained in 1994, who had been standing in the wings waiting to be priested. Many of them had been deacons for years, knowing that they were called to be priests… We are hugely grateful for all they did and achieved, and celebrate with them, their 25 years of being faithful to God in their calling.’

So just how different do things look in the Diocese in 2019? ‘There’s a huge change in that women are much more visible. A woman in a collar isn’t necessarily as strange as it was before,’ says Becky. ‘I think another huge change is the number of ordinands we’re seeing. This year we have more women training for ordination than men. Obviously, we’re incredibly blessed here to have Bishop Anne, and I think that’s made a difference.’

25 years on and the focus is now on women and men working together. Whilst the Church of England continues to embrace the minority who have not been able to accept the ministry of ordained women, and is committed to the mutual flourishing of all, men and women are now equally able to follow their calling as deacon, priest or bishop. On 12th March, the date of the first ordinations in 1994, clergy across the Diocese shared #JustAPriest25 on Twitter, ‘trying to move society away from calling us ‘lady vicars’ and ‘women priests’ to just ‘priests’’, says Becky. ‘Lots of women around the Diocese were tweeting about their own ordination and about what they’re doing in their day job, which is just the same as our male colleagues are doing.’

But there’s still work to be done. ‘We’re 25 years forward and still only a quarter of our incumbents are women,’ says Becky. ‘Currently only 2.5 of our 13 area deans are women and very few of our trainee incumbents are women…. I believe that’s because we’re still underrepresented.’

Women priests are playing an essential role in pastoral work and mission in parishes, but this isn’t the only significant factor in why it’s important to have women in ministry. ‘The image of God is fully represented as soon as every single person is represented,’ says Becky. ‘By ordaining women, the church is increasing its image of God that’s outward facing to all people... So theologically, there is a necessity for women to be a part of that.’

Sharon Prentis and Bp AnneIn addition, it’s crucial that women see other women in leadership positions so they can recognise and feel able to fulfil their calling, ‘whether that be to lay ministry, to leading intercessions, to reading scripture or leading a homegroup.’ What’s key is that women of all backgrounds, races and abilities see themselves represented, yet ‘I’m very aware of how few women of colour we’ve got,’ says Becky. Birmingham is a beautifully diverse city and ‘it’s about supporting the priests in those [diverse] churches to encourage vocations, and to listen and hear and to actually ask themselves: who is God calling?’ She’s also working with Revd Dr Sharon Prentis (pictured, with Bishop Anne), Intercultural Mission Enabler & Dean of BAME Affairs, in the hopes of making training more accessible for those who may have found it difficult to access in the past. ‘Sharon is running an event for lay women and the leadership of that will be women of colour… The hope is that women of colour will see other women of colour leading, and they might discern their own vocations.’

Becky would also like to see better representation of women from working class backgrounds, women with disabilities, women with mental health conditions, LGBT women, and women who are mothers. ‘Because the parish priest is deemed to be an all-encompassing role, it’s difficult for women to see how that matches up with motherhood. That’s something else we’re looking at. Ministry fits in really well with motherhood. However, part-time incumbencies, which don’t happen in all Dioceses, are something we can celebrate in Birmingham.’

Going forward, Becky says ‘my hopes for the future are definitely that I would see equality in all areas… Moving from 13 deaneries into 6, my hope is that at least 3 of those full-time area deans will be women. That I will see 50% of our incumbents being women, and that will therefore increase the number of trainee incumbents that can offer themselves as women. I want to see more women of colour ordained. And really I want to see that a priest is seen as ordinary, whether they’re a woman or a man.’

A service celebrating the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination is taking place at Birmingham Cathedral on Saturday 23rd March. Anybody is welcome to attend, and special invites have gone out to the women who were ordained in 1994, women in ministry in the Diocese, as well as those currently training for ordination. Bishop Anne will preside, with Bishop David as deacon, and Becky will be preaching. ‘My sermon will have an emphasis on women’s calling, women leaders, women being called and heard and chosen by God. But also an element of how we do that together, as women and men.’