Jim Thompson. our lovable bishop who ordained me deacon in London's East End, used to say that not a week went by without him wondering why he was still in the Church, and yet not a day or two without experiencing something of the amazing gifts which come with being a priest. I thought of this when I was reminded this week of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ordination of women measure in the Church of England's General Synod. Writing in the Church of England Newsletter this week, Emma Percy, Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) in the UK, commented pertinently about the joys then, and the achievements and frustrations since. As she reflects:
It is now 25 years later, almost half of my life, and the young people I work with have never known a Church of England without women priests... (now) part of culture appearing in TV, adverts, novels; both fictional and real examples. Yet, tensions over the role of women still continue in the church... The debates around women bishops meant that the church’s continuing uncertainty about really welcoming women into all orders of ministry was played out for the wider world to see. Sadly, this means that many younger people think the church is out of step with gender equality.
25 years on I rejoice that the church has benefited, and continues to benefit, from the priestly ministry of so many women. I rejoice in the ministry I have been able to have. I hope that we can continue to encourage women to serve in this way and that the Church of England will find ways to truly celebrate the momentous decision made 25 years ago.
Those are memories and reflections with which I concur. It is a mixed bag. Indeed, as my first grandchild comes to be baptised (in Christ Church Gosford) tomorrow, and in the wake of the Australian postal vote on marriage equality, it leaves me pondering: what will be the shape of the Church in another 25 years?...
Reading Emma's article, I also recall how so many of us were on tenterhooks that day. A negative vote would have caused such pain and dismay. In my case, I, and another priest in my area, had already prayerfully determined that, in that sad event, we would step back from any priestly duties. For it was simply unconscionable to continue to exercise such roles when the vocation of our sisters would have been frustrated yet again, and with it a clear sign given of the Church of England's inability fully to honour and affirm that which was divinely female. So the positive vote gave such fresh life to us and so many others, as well as to the women waiting for recognition. It also seemed like a last chance for the Church of England to develop its spiritual contribution to the wider world. I remember writing an article 'two cheers for the Church of England' in that regard. It celebrated the move forward and the, sometimes astonishing, positive response by the wider society. It also however pondered the challenges ahead for the Church in realising the opportunities it had now, belatedly, opened up. Sadly, at the very next General Synod, discriminatory provisions were created (and later passed into law), allowing for 'flying bishops', pay-outs and opt-outs for objecting clergy and parishes. It seemed like appalling bad faith and a loss of nerve. Of course adequate pastoral care was needed. To tie the Church up in that way however, when trying even to move forward, meant that an uncertain crawl was always likely to be the outcome. So it has often proved.
It is my profound hope that the welcome result of the (otherwise so cruel and unnecessary) Australian postal survey will be much more creative. If Australian MPs avoid tying us up in discriminatory measures, never mind rolling anti-discrimination back (as some vocally desire), then Australia will become much more of the vibrant, positive, inclusive, forward-looking nation it is at its best. In doing so, it will thereby challenge the churches also to follow suit, in a manner so long delayed. This is part of my prayer for my grandchild and generation: that they will grow up into a Church, and a society, in which, as St Paul put it. 'there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave or free'. nor 'straight' or 'gay', cis or trans-gender, or anything else, 'for we are all one in Christ Jesus'. This is what so many of us struggled for 25 years ago, and for so many years before. This is what we struggled for this year in Australia in the face of renewed homophobia and transphobia. This is what we will continue to struggle for, on other scores (not least for just Reconciliation, for refugees, for social justice and healing of our planet). Like Jim Thompson, this will continue to involve doubt, and, at times I guess, almost despair, at the state of parts of the Church, and our wider world. Yet the events of this week, 25 years ago and this year, give us strength to go on. For there is always something much much bigger than the Church which calls and empowers us on. May that love surround, support and sanctify my grandchild this weekend, and all those who are baptised into the extraordinary and inexhaustible power of eternal love. I have no doubt that Bishop Jim, who also baptised my daughters, will also be in powerful agreement and celebrating with us at this time. God bless us all.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.