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Called to Priesthood:Interpreting Women's Experience

Called to Priesthood:
Interpreting Women's Experience

By Mary Tanner

From Feminine in the Church
Edited by Monica Furlong, Published by SPCK, London, 1984, pp.150-162.

Contemporary puzzles of Church order and morals cannot be solved simply by referring to words or customs of the past Neither the hallowed words of Scnpture nor the treasured words of the Church’s tradition can, on their own, determine the hard question of the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Religion, like everything else under the moon, continually changes continually requires to be adjusted, re-examined, reformed interpreted anew ‘as it is by change and nature’s changing course untrimmed’. In periods of sIow change, this necessity is felt more gradually; in periods of rapid change like ours, the necessity is more obvious and pressing. But religion never stands still. (1)

The Holy Spirit in the midst of us and ahead of us is always challenging us to take a fresh look at what God has entrusted to his Church in Scripture and tradition. It is in an interplay of Scripture and tradition, reason and experience, that we renegotiate inherited doctrines and beliefs. This is what makes the Christian way very exciting, unexpected and always re creative. In the dance between what we have inherited and what we experience, we as individuals and the Church as the Body of Christ are led to new insights. Scripture sometimes marvellously confirms lived experience, says ‘yes’ to what is new and radical. Equally we may not deny its power to judge and condemn our experience; it can and does sometimes say ‘no’ to change.

This double dynamic process is being affirmed by more and more theologians who acknowledge that the experience of indivicluals and communities is a valid subject for refIection in theological endeavour. Careful attention to the way things function and the way things are is an essential part of doing theology’. They claim, with Bonhoeffer, the importance of never understanding the reality of God apart from the reality of the world’. God’s word is heard, his demands perceived in a disturbing and creative interaction between what is going on in the world and what has so far been understood, believed and practised in the Christian tradition. This way of ‘doing theology’ is not new. It is the pattern described in contemporary biblical scholarship as the dynamic behind the canonical revelation. Prophets, wisdom writers, psalmists, gospel writers pondered on the traditions they had inherited in the light of their contemporary experience, both personal and national. With astonishing openness to the life-giving tradition, carried in their Scriptures and encountered in their worship, with openness to social and religious life and to personal relationships, and above all with an openness to the power of the Spirit, they were led to see new truths about the nature and being of God. to perceive new things about their relationship to God and to each other and were able to proclaim a vision for the present and the immediate future. The tradition passed on both within Scripture and outside is thus dynamic and not static. Development is part of the biblical and Christian way.

Nowhere is this theological process, with its emphasis on experience, welcomed and more eagerly explored today than among women. For so long the silent ones in forming the tradition, in passing it down, in interpreting it officially, women are discovering a new confidence in ‘doing theology’. They are beginning to tell their stories and share their experience, and they are examining Scripture and tradition in the light of this newly found confidence in their experience. ‘Women’s experience’ is for some an ambiguous and impenetrable phrase. As Nicola Slee points out in a fascinating article, ‘Parables and Women’s Experience’, the term ‘women’s experience, does raise questions about gender differentiation and its relation to biological and social factors, the cultural and historical context of experience and so on. Nevertheless the term is, as she suggests, a convenient shorthand device for pointing to those aspects of women’s lives which are unique to them by virtue of being women and which have been silenced for so long. Without denying the radically different manifestations of women’s experience, according to their different circumstances, cultural and economic and social, Nicola Slee argues that

there remains an underlying unity of experience forged by women’s common physiological nature and by a shared history and present experience of oppression and powerIessness. Within the terms of such analysis’ to speak of ‘women’s expenence’ serves the dual function of both affirming that common reality of expenence and attempting to redress the imbalance perpetuated by a system in which the dominant forms of thought and expression are determined by and reflect the needs of the socially powerful gender group and where, consequently, the needs and experiences of women are forgotten, ignored, or, at best, subsumed under categories created by and appropriate to men.(2)

It is this experience of women which is being written about and shared more confidently that must be brought into the debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood. Many women as well as men see this emphasis on experience as a threat. They interpret the offering of ‘women’s experience’ as part of the theological task as an emotional attempt to overturn the old, to substitute something different and to make an unacceptable break in continuity with the past. But in bringing their experience into dialogue with Scripture and tradition, in attempting to make sense of their experience in the light of what they have inherited, women are not seeking to destroy the tradition but rather to discover a fuller, richer truth cradled in what the Church has safeguarded. Those richer things are there to be set free by the key of experience.

It is on the basis of this theological methodology, with its dynamic holistic approach, that the Church of England needs to set about discovering the truth about women and priesthood. The case for or against cannot be decided by balancing two sets of arguments from Scripture and tradition, one for, the other against, and watching to see which way the scales tip. The task of theology, under the guidance of the Spirit, is more fascinating, more exciting than this. There is new evidence in the 1980s which we have to make room for. We need to listen to what women and men are claiming the Spirit is saying in and through contemporary experience. The stories of women, particularly of women in ministry, are the ‘aIgebraic signs’ for the community, gifts to be used and interpreted as we wrestIe vith the puzzle of women and priesthood and seek to form the mind of the Church. There is a great deal in the stories women are telling that deserves to be considered. But one feature in particular that demands careful attention is what women, and not only women but whole communities, are claiming about God’s call to priesthood. This is so often brushed aside as irrelevant, subjective evidence. Women who claim a call to priesthood are dismissed as misguided, deluded, arrogant, status-seeking. How can women receive a call to priesthood when the Church does not provide for the testing of such a call? It is implied that no call can be received as long as the institutional Church makes no provision for testing it

But surely to dismiss the testimony from a growing number of women to be called by God to a priestly ministry is to do less than justice to the Church tradition itself. The God whom Christians claim to have faith in is a creator God who does not remain remote from that which he has created but moves always towards his creations in love. He is a God who from the earliest time, from the patriarch Abraham, takes the initiative and calls men and women into relation with himself. He calls them to serve him and to serve one another in him. Indeed, every Christian baptized into the death of Christ rises through the waters of baptism and is called to a life of service. We acknowledge and say ‘yes’ to that call in confirmation, and reaffirm our response at every Eucharist. Christian discipleship is one of responding to a call from God. To be a Christian is to know that it belongs to the nature of God that he calls us out of the world to serve him.

We know too that God calls to special ministries and functions and gives special grace to men and women to respond. Even if we have not experienced this as individuals, it is so much a part of the Christian story that we encounter in Scripture and in the testimony of Christians through the ages. Within the Bible we see this confirmed again and again in the stories of the prophets. One after another they testify to an overwhelming sense of the call of Yahweh. No two calls are experienced in the same way, and yet the realization of a power outside themselves, beckoning and calling for a special task, is common to each of the prophets. Amos feels called by God from following the sheep and directed to a ministry in the northern kingdom; Isaiah hears, through the words of the liturgy of the Temple, the voice of God saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’; Ezekiel is overpowered by the Spirit of God, feels the ‘hand of God’ grasping him and is aware of God calling; and Jeremiah, more than any of the prophets, witnesses again and again to the power of God’s call and, although he is called to a ministry of isolation and suffering, he cannot shut out the voice of the Lord. For women, the call of Mary, the most incredible and astonishing call of all, shows that God is a God who calls to the unthinkable, to that which is beyond belief. As the Old Testament prophets responded to their calls, and as Mary responded in obedience to her call, the response meant becoming vulnerable and facing rejection and humiliation.

Why is it, that born within such a tradition, women who claim to have been called by God to a vocation of priesthood, are regarded with so much suspicion? Surely they deserve at least a sympathetic hearing from those who believe in a God who calls. After all it is hard to admit publicly a belief to be called by God to a vocation which is denied by the institutional Church. Only a woman who is very convinced of her call will find the strength to confess that publicly. One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in America, the Reverend Carter Heyward, describes that particular expenence of pain at going against the Church in her book, A Priest Forever.

In a society and in a Church in which woman has been put into a place out of which she cannot move, any effort on her part to burst out of this place will be considered strange or abnormal. Those invested with institutional authority are likely to get their backs up and balk defensively at her efforts. For such a woman is a threat both to men and woman who have heavy investment in maintaining the present order.(3)

Elizabeth Canham, an English woman, who in 1981 was Ordained a priest in America, echoes Carter Hayward’s words in the telling of her story, her ‘pilgrimage to priesthood’. Of the time when, after ordination as a deaconess in Southwark Cathedral, she became convinced of a vocation to priesthood, she writes:

I knew that I was going to have to live with tension whatever the outcome, for though the diaconate was a step towards my vocation, I would be suspended for years at least in this interim state, and I did not feel it was my ultimate goal. Moreover, I knew that the more articulate I became, the more of a threat I would pose to those who were not ready to consider that women might become priests.(4)

No woman without an overwhelming sense of a call from outside herself would willingly embrace the isolation and pain that comes with confessing she believes she is called to priesthood. Many women tell of trying to shut out such a call, to turn their backs on it, as Jeremiah tried to turn his back on his call to be a prophet. Many, like him, find they can do no other than be faithful to their call whatever that brings. To deny the call would be to deny the voice of God; to respond to the call is to be divided sometimes from colleagues and close friends and to be rejected by the Church.

As we listen to the stones women are telling, we find that hardly ever is the call received in a blinding flash. It is not like Paul’s sudden and dramatic experience on the Damascus road. Rather, it is a sense of awareness which grows slowly and painfully, often against all that is expected or hoped for. The following story is a very typical one of how women grow in an awareness that God is calling them to a ministry they can only recognize as a priestly ministry.

Already as a young teenager, I began to wonder if God was calling me to some form of Christian ministry. The idea certainly did not attract me. Nevertheless, a year or so later, I can remember preaching imaginary sermons. I never shared any of this with anyone at the time. Women didn’t preach sermons in those days and I certainly didn’t want to be thought odd! As I grew up this unwelcome sense of call stayed with me I trained as a secretary and worked for a major publishing company where I soon had opportunities to do editing and to write. I attended a large evangelical Church and was confirmed. This church laid great stress on Christian vocation. I knew littIe of the full-time ministry open to women in the Church of England at that time. It seemed to me that the only course of action open to me as a woman would be in missionary work. The picture would, I believe, have looked far different if women could have been priests. After five and a half years in publishing and another two at the BBC, I went to Germany to work as a secretary for two years. The sense of God’s call had become far less unwelcome by this time and I think I already knew when I left for Germany that I would return to prepare for some form of full-time Christian service. I did not know what this would be.

Gill Cooke continues to tell how she returned to England, read theology and planned to work for a missionary society, but found in the routine office work they directed her towards she could not use her theological training or linguistic expertise, and so, disappointed, she returned to the BBC. She continues:

I went back to work as a secretary at the BBC, but I felt completely shattered. My faith was central to my life, and I had followed where I felt God was calling me, and! now . . . On the secular side I received every encouragement. I was offered very good jobs. But I still felt God’s call to me was to ministry. I gradually began to wonder if I was mistaken. I discussed my feelings about ministry with the Rector at the Church I attended. I said something about preaching and was told very firmly God did not intend women to preach. He told me instead how much God had blessed his secretary in her vocation.

Gill’s story tells how with little encouragement and certainly no fostering of her vocation by the clergy and with no role-models of women in ministry to follow, two years later she went to theological college and entered parochial work and undertook a part-time chaplaincy post in a polytechnic. After a period of three years the bishop asked her to become minister-in-charge of a parish while continuing in the chaplaincy. She carries on her story:

As minister-in-charge I had the same responsibilities as any vicar, but had always to make sure what I did was legal! I could baptise, preach, take funerals, but could not celebrate the Eucharist nor marry couples. As president of this worshipping community most regular communicants preferred to have me preside and give communion from the reserved sacrament, than to have a priest come in from outside, who they did not know, to celebrate . . .

After five and a half years of professional lay ministry in the Church of England I find my views have changed considerably. When I began, I refused to answer when anyone asked whether I felt called to the priesthood; the opportunity was not there and so I cIaimed the question was a non-question. But throughout my ministry I have become aware that my ministry is hampered because I cannot be ordained. Because I cannot celebrate, I must always invite someone in to do so, and that person may have no understanding of the needs of the group or the church. Many times I have prepared couples for marriage, but could not take the ceremony although in some cases it was particularly important to them that I did so. I have, in the course of counselling, heard many confessions, but although I can pray with and reassure people of God’s forgiveness, I am not able to give formal absolution.

Gill’s account is one that is echoed! again and again in the stories women tell. It is of a growing, often unwelcome conviction: that of God’s call to ministry and, more than that, to a specifically priestly ministry. It is usually quite unexpected, against all the patterns of ministry with which the women were familiar. With no role-models to stimulate the desire for such a ministry, this awareness and conviction of a growing number of women is not easy to explain away. What is more, the lack of enthusiasm and encouragement given to women, particularly from male priests, in contrast to the fostering of vocations in men, makes the determination to respond to God’s call even more impressive.

Frances Briscoe, now a deaconess, previously a school teacher, begins her story like this:

‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’

This was the reaction which met my first tentative inquiries regarding full-time ministry in the Church of England.

‘You’ll die of frustration,’ said one.

‘Your gifts will be stifled,’ commented another.

‘Stay in teaching,’ advised a third.

At the time I was responsible for the teaching of Religious Education in a large, mixed secondary modern school. It was a challenging and stimulating job, which I enjoyed. When I told my vicar I thought God was calling me to the Church he did his utmost to dissuade me - on the grounds of the valuable job I was doing in the local school. Subsequently I discussed my ‘call’ with a former parish worker, and a deaconess who visited the parish. These were the only two women in ministry I had met. Both gravely warned me I might regret leaving teaching for the Church.

No role-models again, no encouragement, indeed positive discouragement, from the church leaders; and yet, convinced of her call, Frances responded’ becoming first a lay minister, and later a deaconess.

Like any other candidate for the diaconate - deacon or deaconess I was asked by the bishop:

‘Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit to take upon you the office andministration . . .?’

I was able to reply, ‘I trust so,’ with confidence because of my own inner conviction. But more than this my inner conviction of a call had been ratified by the way my ministry had been accepted in the parish. For me this indicated a divine seal of approval, which was visibly demonstrated in the Cathedral that day by the presence of over 200 people from the parish. Never have I been so conscious of such love and prayerful support.

God calIs; the Spirit equips. This is true for both men and women. As it is so, ought not the threefold ministry of the church to be open to both men and women who feel called and are manifestly so equipped?

This last thought in Frances’s story adds another fact which recurs in the stories women are telling about their journey owards the priestly ministry. It is not often that the call comes in an experience of God speaking directly to them. Rather it is a call which comes through others. The community calls forth gifts of women, gifts they themselves were not aware they had to offer. So often the community confirms what women themselves are too hesitant, too fearful to acknowledge. This way of God’s call confirms God’s way in history. God works both in calling individuals but also through communities which ask and draw out gifts in individuals.

One of the most impressive stories of a call coming from a community is written by Peggy Hartley about her experience of being called. It came late in life as she neared retirement:

A telephone call from a churchwarden of a parish in which I used to live led me to consider, for the first time, the possibility of full-time ministry in a parish. Having spent twenty-five years in church social work, ten of them in teaching pastoralia in a theological college, I had come to the decision that it was time I returned to social work of some kind, for my last few years of work before retirement.

Then came the question: ‘A few of us have been discussing whether it would be possible for you to come here as our minister. What do you think?’ My response was that such things did not happen in the Church of England, to a laywoman. I almost dismissed the telephone call, but not quite, a seed had been sown. The question came again, this time from the vicar who was leaving. We both knew that it could not be thought about further until the bishop had been approached.

Meanwhile I applied for a social work post that I felt drawn to, only to meet the bishop the next day and to be told that he had received a letter from some members of the Parish Church Council with a request that they would like the possibility of my being their minister to be considered. The bishop made inquiries, first of al1 by seeing representatives from the parish, and then by meeting al1 the PCC. He was satisfied that the PCC would welcome the appointment, and that they felt it would be acceptable to other parishioners. It was then that I felt able to consider it seriously, and as I talked with the bishop, my whole being assented to such a ministry. As I look back over my life I am so conscious that all I

have done before and all that has happened to me in happiness and in pain, has prepared me for this ministry. It was no thought of mine I believe it has to come from the heart of love, at the centre of life that we name God and it has brought me a task and a fulfilment for which I continually give thanks.

After a description of her work in the parish, which differs little from that of any parish priest, Peggy writes:

I sincerely believe that women should be ordained, but I cannot believe that I would feel any different or more open as a channel for the Holy Spirit if I could say certain prayers andl perform certain actions. I fee! ordained now - as one of the parishioners wrote to me last Christmas: ‘While the Church argues whether women should or shouId not be ordained, it has already happened in this parish.’ It is felt by others, I feel it too. The ordination of women has much opposition which hides a lot of anger and aggression, I believe, having its roots deep in our expenence of sexuality, and our belief in God. We must not fight with anger or prejudice other people’s deep feelings. We take the hurt that comes through the denial of our recognition by the Church of England and go on ministering in love, speaking and working for the truth as we see it, in love. In these ways we may be instruments in bringing new life into our Church and in our Christian communities.

These stories contain their own power. They are not about militant, strident women claiming their rights, equal rights with men in the public institution of the Church. They are stories of women, who against all the odds, have experienced slowly, and often painfully and fearfully, a growing sense that God is calling them to ministry. Often the call is interpreted in the only way the Church makes possible, as a call to lay ministry. Often it is only after responding to that, after ministering to communities as lay women, that the call comes to be understood as a call to a full sacramental priestly ministry. This is never talked of with pride, hardly ever with anger that the call cannot be answered. Rather it is told with amazement that God should, through others, be asking of them a priestly ministry.

There is another side to these stories which reflects and confirms the experience of the women. This is echoed in the stories told by those who receive the ministry of women. We heard it in the comment of a parishioner: ‘While the Church argues whether women should or should not be ordained, it has already happened in this parish.’I am reminded of the occasion when a parish priest of Catholic persuasion spoke of his expenence of working with a parish worker When she joined his staff he was opposed to the opening of the priesthood to women. The woman herself felt no call to priesthood. Her lay ministry and his priestly ministry were to complement each other and to satisfy both and form the basis of their partnership. But after three years of working closely together, he bowed to what he saw God doing in and through her ministry. The only judgement he found himself able to make, in spite of his earlier firmly held convictions, was ‘she is already a priest’. And so it is not only the women who grow in understanding their call to priesthood, but others who, changed by the experience of women in ministry, are led to affirm that God is indeed calling women to something new.

It is stories such as these that have to be told and listened to in the search for an answer, God’s answer, to this hard question of the ordination of women to the priesthood. This expenence must be brought into dialogue with Scripture and tradition. What can we make of such experience in the light of the Church’s tradition, and how does this experience in its turn help us to interpret Scripture and tradition? We must ask what it means that women fee! called to a full sacramental ministry, that communities are calling forth priestly gifts from more and more women, and what it means that a growing number of people from all wings of the Church are recognizing that it is so. We have to consider what such signs of new life mean in the context of a religion that believes in a God who is tihere ahead of us, leading us into new understandings; what it means that women feel called to priesthood in the context of a religion that believes in a God who calls individuals to astonishingly new ministries, a God who often calls through the needs of communities.

It is in the interaction of what we make of these contemporary stories and what we make of the Christian story, that we shall be led to truth. God’s word is heard, his guidance found in the creative interaction between what is going on in the Church and the world and what has so far been understood, believed and practised in the Church tradition.


1. Richard Hanson, ‘Sweet Illusion of the Good Old Faith’, The Times, 25 February 1984.

2. Nicola Slee, ‘Parables and Women’s Experience’, The Modern Churchman, xxv’, 2, 1984.

3. Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever (New York, Harper and Row, 1976), p. 32.

4. Elizabeth Canham, Pilgrimage to Priesthood, SPCK, 1983.

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