Busy Women

November 17th 2014 is a date that will be recorded in the history of the Church of England. It was the day when, after years of wrangling and discussion, the legislation enabling women to become bishops was finally signed and sealed.

I will remember the day, not because I whooped for joy and drank champagne (I’d done that in July when Synod passed the legislation), but because that evening I went to see Made in Dagenham the musical – a recent addition to the West End, and a story that has unnerving similarities with the women bishops campaign.

It was a free ticket courtesy of a friend who occasionally passes such things my way. Her greeting, as she joined me in our amazing, middle of the second row seats, was along the lines of: “isn’t this a good day!!” – and I, in my idiotic way, thought she was just talking about the imminent musical watching! But no, she was celebrating the demise of the stained glass ceiling!

Made in Dagenham backdrop

The musical is excellent – let’s get that out of the way first of all. I highly recommend it to all those of a feminist, musical loving persuasion. I’m often dubious about great films making the progression to the stage, but this one is up there with Billy Elliot – just replace tutu wearing Geordies, with overall wearing Essex girls. It’s the only musical I’ve ever come across to include a number on the subject of quantitive easing. A number featuring a toe-tapping Harold Wilson no less! It does the politics brilliantly – poking a lot of fun at the PM, but letting Barbara Castle be effortlessly wonderful.

Its final number probably would have had me standing up and cheering (appropriately, it’s called ‘Stand Up’) on any day, but on this day when the women of the Church of England had secured their own gender-based victory, it was all I could to stay in my seat and in control of my faculties! I wanted to shout to the entire theatre that I knew how these women represented on stage felt – we’d done it!! Nearly all my decorum vanished in that moment.

Made in Dagenham tweet

Even the star of the show appreciated the occasion! 

The events of Made in Dagenham occurred in 1968. Here I was FORTY-FOUR years later celebrating a victory of similar proportions! How did it take so long?? What on earth has the Church of England been doing all this time?? And, most importantly, when will this struggle get its own musical?!?

Of course, many of us know what the church has been doing over the decades. It’s been making progress – but slowly, so as not to cause alienation, division or schism. It’s been pondering theologically the question of whether women could hold this position. Its bureaucratic cogs have been turning slowly, first approving women priests twenty years ago, then battling over the episcopacy. Then, this week…

This week we’re celebrating again. On Wednesday, it was announced that Libby Lane will be the very first female bishop in the Church of England. When I started writing this post last week, speculation was rife as to who and where this would happen. [I’d hoped for Gloucester – purely because of my bias towards its cathedral!] The story isn’t over with the signing of the legislation or the first appointment – in fact, a new one is just beginning…

Permission granted to wear purple (should I aspire to)

I will never forget the evening of November 20th 2012. As I reflected on the morning of the 21st, I hadn’t expected the failure of the women bishops’ legislation at General Synod to hit me quite so hard, but it did. For me and for many within (and outside) the Church of England, that very public, very painful moment had a huge impact.

18 months ago, we didn’t quite realise that new legislation would get through quite so quickly – originally, it was believed it would have to wait until a new Synod was elected in 2015. But wisely, those in charge thought differently and enabled the revised measures to go through the system in (realistically) the shortest time possible for the government of the Church of England.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I had a great story of where I was when I heard the vote had gone through, but I don’t. I was in my bathroom, cleaning – or rather, I’d interrupted my cleaning to watch the live stream of Synod. A live stream that was too over-burdened by demand and didn’t finish loading until the results had been announced. The thunderous applause gave me a clue as to which way it had gone, as did the text I immediately received from my mother containing two words: “Deo Gratis!” [Yes, that is the way in which Clutterbucks like to rejoice.]

Yet again, I was surprised by my reaction – the hands holding my phone were shaking and when a good chum rang me minutes later (entirely unaware of what had just happened, she just usually rings me at 4.30pm on a Monday), I could barely hold a conversation together. Partly thanks to my excitement and partly because of social media’s explosion of joy. Finally, on paper, women are on an equal footing with men in the Church of England.

Episcopal PedicureIn 2012 I had an intentional episcopal purple manicure. Monday’s pedicure was entirely accidental, but welcomed!

Looking back, what has also surprised me is how much we needed that 18 months of delay. I know that I wouldn’t have said this at the time – and some may disagree – but I think its done the church an awful lot of good.

    • The revised legislation is better. That was clear from many of the speakers on Monday – hearts and minds had been changed and that was a very large step forward.
    • While many felt the issue would divide the church, I actually believe that if anything, post-no vote, church unity was more evident. On the one hand, different church denominations have come together in their condemnation of the No vote. But within the CofE itself, groups and traditions that would usually be miles apart from each other, came together in solidarity for women in the church. Personally, I’ve benefitted hugely from the Gathering of Women Leaders, an ecumenical group of women in leadership who have been hugely supportive of women across the board (not just us Anglican ones!).
    • Was the extra 18 months also required in order to fan the flame of flame of passion for the cause of women within the Church of England? Yes, there was already a fervent campaign for women bishops, but with many assuming Synod would pass the legislation in 2012, was complacency a problem? Have we now realised that we cannot afford to be complacent (on this or any other issue) and that there is actually a fight that needs to be fought? It may feel like a broken record, but as far as women in the church are concerned, numbers still need to be counted; inequalities noticed, reported and resolved; and voices shouted. There’s still a long way to go.

Yesterday, a new chapter in the Church of England’s history began. It’s an exciting one, but it doesn’t mean an end to the discussion of gender in the church. There are many who are not rejoicing today, and we should remember them. Just because women will soon join the episcopate does not mean there will now be equal representation of women throughout the church.

Yesterday, a good start was made, but it will need a lot of effort, co-operation and courage for things to change.

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…

“A new generation of vicars…”

One of the more random moments of this week took place yesterday morning, at my friend’s flat in Hemel, barely an hour into a day off with some of my favourite friends. My phone rang, and having already seen an email that had suggested this call was imminent, I went off into the next room to take it.

As suspected, the withheld number turned out to be a journalist from The Independent, who wanted to interview me about being a ‘young’ trainee vicar. Recent statistics released by the Church of England had shown that the number of under-30’s entering ministry is at a 20 year high (23%),  [I count as ‘young’ because I was under 30 when I was selected – no rude comments please!] and The Independent had been keen to write an article featuring the experiences of a few of the people who made up this statistic. When preparing the press release on this news, the Church of England media team had collated a few case studies, so I was already prepped for such an eventuality.

The journalist and I had a pleasant conversation, but all the while I could hear raucous noise from the next room where my friends were getting stuck into some seriously good brunch. Occassionally, I heard snatches of conversation about me –
“It’s Wednesday, this is normally a working day for her, maybe something’s come up…”
“You don’t think it’s that interview with The Independent she mentioned? I thought she was joking! No, I’m sure it’s not…” *More raucous laughter*

Miraculously, I got through the call without too much distraction and rejoined the throng keen to make up for lost time (and lost pastries). Upon hearing what the call was about, the girls collapsed into even more laughter – of excitement, rather than derision – and asked questions about photos and the like.

So now it’s online (and will be in print tomorrow) and it seems to have turned out ok – I hope the other youthful ordinands and clergy feel it has too.

A new generation of vicars Personally, I’m very glad that the chosen photo is of the curate from Call the Midwife. An interesting choice, as it also harks back to the last era in which those in their 20’s were regularly selected for ordination. 

However, I do have a few clarifications. (Always the way, when talking to journalists, especially on the phone while there’s noise in the background!):

1. Not ‘all’ my lecturers are on Twitter. The vast majority are, and there is theological banter (looking at you Lincoln Harvey, in particular!), but there are also Twitter refuseniks. [It’s my own fault, I probably forgot to say ‘most of…’]
2. I did not help to run a young women’s vocations day – I helped out at it. An important distinction that I think the true organisers of the day would appreciate. There is a huge difference between months of planning, and simply creating a few prayer stations; pouring tea; and talking to a lot of people!

Such are the joys of journalism, I suppose!

Also, anyone else baffled by the reference to ‘wing tips’ in the headline? My brief Google suggests that it’s a footwear reference, but it’s definitely not one I’ve come across in my forays into clerical wear catalogues…

Young vicars??

“Do you ever feel as though doctors and police officers are getting younger all the time? Well, soon, your local vicar could be a young person too, thanks to a new Church of England initiative…” 

So began most of the 9 interviews I gave to local BBC radio stations yesterday morning. The first time I heard it, I had to restrain a giggle. Seriously? Were young vicars something to be feared? Were they seen to be a new thing? Where did BBC listeners think all the Bishops who’d been ordained in their 20’s some 30 years ago had been for the first part of their ministry?

Last week, the media team at Church House Westminster sent out a press release about a new internship programme for those aged 18-30 who are thinking about whether God is calling them into ministry. The BBC got interested in this – particular the ‘young’ element of it (and the fact that it was ‘unpaid’). They thought it would be a good idea to speak to someone training for ordination who had explored their calling while in their 20’s. This is where I fitted in – despite being the grand old age of 32, I was in my 20’s while I went through the selection process – and thus I found myself in a tiny studio at 6.30am on a Sunday morning, waiting to speak to 9 different radio presenters across the country.

It was fascinating. There really does seem to be a public perception that youth is a barrier to being an effective church leader. How can you be a vicar without plenty of life experience? Well, quite frankly, no two people of the same age have had the same amount of life experience. It’s much more important that those contemplating ordination are seen to have a level of maturity that enables them to understand where their life experience is lacking; seek opportunities to widen their experience; and to empathise with those they meet facing situations that they have no experience of. As a caveat though, that maturity is essential. If a 21 year old doesn’t seem to have it, they need to!

They wanted to know how congregations reacted to the sight of me, a ‘young’ person, at the front of the church leading a service or preaching a sermon. No one’s ever made a negative comment about my age, or suggested that I can’t possibly teach them anything in my sermon because they are 40 years older than me. Yes, my current church has a lot of young people in it, but it has plenty of older members too and I know they would say something if they felt there was an issue! In fact, the best thing about being young and being actively involved in services is that it inspires other people my age and younger to go and do likewise. To ask me about my own journey to ordination and seek advice about their own vocations. I did some calculations and realised that at my church, only three of our regular preachers are over the age of 40 (we have a group of around 11 or 12 that preach).

Are there even enough of this age group in the church to choose new vicars from? Despite what a former Archbishop said recently, yes!! [This is when my Missing Generation research becomes useful again.] Admittedly, the vast majority of 20s & 30s worship in the capital, but across the country, there are a lot of young people worshipping in Anglican churches and possibly contemplating ministry. Just last June, 80 young women exploring their call gathered in London for a vocations day – there is plenty of hope!

Young women gather at St Jude'sYoung women at St Jude’s in June, all exploring ordination.

Ultimately, having spent some time talking to those involved in the creation of the internship scheme and reading about it, I think it’s a good idea. Many people who feel called into ministry don’t have an opportunity to test it out in a really practical way. Yes, some will work as lay people for churches, but few churches can afford to have such employees. Some might have grown up in clergy families and have a very good idea about the practicalities of life as a vicar. (That was my own experience.) Perhaps they will have the chance to preach the occasional sermon, but will they have time alongside a full-time job?

So the scheme enables people who want to, to take a year out from secular employment and spend a year engaged in practical ministry. They don’t receive a salary, but they are provided with accommodation, food, travel and a small allowance. Plus, they receive some theological education and mentoring, ensuring that their personal development is monitored and that they have people with whom to discuss their vocational thoughts. Currently, the scheme (officially known as the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme – CEMES)  is being piloted in four dioceses, with another 14 looking to take it up next year.

For the next week, if you’re so inclined, you can listen to me being questioned by a few of the BBC’s finest Sunday morning radio presenters. I’ve not provided links to all nine (partly because it would be tedious and repetitive; partly because some were very short), but it’ll give you a flavour…

BBC Cambridgeshire (2hrs 10mins) – I liked Cambridgeshire!

BBC Wiltshire (2hrs 54mins) – Wiltshire was also lovely. They also interviewed someone local after me, which thankfully backed up what I’d talked about & even mentioned pioneering things.

BBC Lancashire (2hrs 47mins) The toughest interview of the lot!

BBC Newcastle (1hr 40mins) – Where they seemed to think I was actually on the scheme, which was awkward – as was being disconnected right at the start of the interview! I was also asked if I was a good singer (!) and in typical British fashion, stumbled over my response in fear of sounding big-headed if I simply answered ‘yes’!

BBC Sussex & Surrey (2hrs 16mins) – where they surprised me an in-studio priest who disagreed the scheme. How nice of them!