Celebrating 20 years

There are many things that happened in 1994 that don’t seem very far away – the release of Blur’s Parklife; Friends’ first appearance on TV; the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and Torvill & Dean’s semi-triumphant return; South Africa’s first free elections and Nelson Mandela’s election as President… I could go on.

But the ordination of the first women priests in the Church of England seems like a lot more than two decades ago. A Church of England without women priests seems like something that belongs to the Dark Ages. Where on earth would the church be?!?

In 1994, I was a 12 year old school girl at a church girls’ school in Westminster. The day General Synod voted in favour of the ordination of women, there was widespread rejoicing. I joined in, but at the same time found it slightly odd – why had it taken this long? I was from a Methodist family, knew plenty of ordained women and had never had it suggested to me that being a woman would stop me from doing anything at church (or anywhere else for that matter). To me, it felt as though an anomaly had been righted – and thought little else of it for quite some time…

…until, aged 24, I began worshipping at an Anglican church. Aged 28, I began exploring ordination and all of a sudden the question of women reared its head again. Progress towards women in the episcopacy was happening, but as we know, hasn’t happened smoothly. When asked by Methodist friends about why I was going into leadership in a denomination that didn’t fully support my gender, I responded that I felt part of my calling was to be a woman in that church, fighting for and supporting the cause.

I had no part in the battle that culminated in the 1994 ordinations – but I wouldn’t be where I am today without those that did. Today, I was reminded of all those who fought, all those who suffered, all those who rejoiced heartily twenty years ago. At St Paul’s, the ordinands of two decades ago gathered to celebrate, with their friends, families and representatives from across the dioceses. They processed from Westminster Abbey to St Paul’s [how I wished I’d seen that, but I had church commitments] and then gathered on the cathedral’s steps – a throng of white amongst the colours of the city.

The view from Ludgate HillA glimpse of the 1994 ordinands as I approached St Paul’s.

1994 ordinands on the steps of St Paul's The last of the 1994 ordinands entering the cathedral.

Thanks to some genius planning, those of us without tickets to the packed-out event were able to watch and participate from Paternoster Square – complete with subtitles and Eucharist. It wasn’t a dense crowd, perhaps a couple of hundred, but included families; dog-collars; cassocks; confused tourists and people with folding chairs. I’d been taking the whole thing rather casually (apart from a rush of excitement approaching St Paul’s when I caught sight of the white cassocks) until the Eucharist was celebrated.

Canon Philippa Broadman did an amazing job of presiding over the service, but it was when she lifted the wafer aloft and spoke the Eucharistic prayer, that I noticed people – both women and men – around me dabbing their eyes with hankies. By and large, these people were older, in 1994, they were probably at the height of their career, potentially leading lights in their congregations. I realised that these people had probably longed for the day when a woman would be able to say that prayer in the Church of England, who had rejoiced wholeheartedly in 1994 while I was semi-oblivious to events. For them, seeing a woman perform this rite in St Paul’s Cathedral twenty years later must have brought home to them all that had changed. A sight that, no doubt, even two decades ago, might have seemed impossible.

A glorious end

Canon Philippa Boardman leaves the cathedral, with the Archbishop of Canterbury just behind.
Tourists near me asked what was going on, and when I explained, they commented “Oh, so she’s like the lady Pope??” Explaining the eccentricities of the Church of England’s ecclesiastical orders went slightly over their heads, but they were excited to have witnessed a bit of the event!

Today was a day of looking back, remembering and rejoicing. It was also a day for looking forward. Somehow, my phone autocorrected the day’s hashtag from ‘womenpriests20′ to ’20womenbishops’ – perhaps getting a little ahead of itself! There was much talk of women bishops today. There is much hope that by next year’s anniversary, General Synod will have approved the legislation that will make them possible. If a similar service takes place at St Paul’s on the 30th anniversary, perhaps a female Bishop of London will be present? Alongside numerous other female bishops? There is hope…

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