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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 13:01 GMT
Women priests: The first 10 years
By Paul Stevens
News Online, Bristol

A good deal of water has passed through Bristol Cathedral's font since the first women priests were ordained there 10 years ago on 12 March.

Rt Hon John Gummer MP
John Gummer remembers it as a time of decision
The ceremony, which saw some 32 women elevated to the priesthood, was the culmination of an often bitterly fought campaign.

Congregations switched allegiances to the Roman Catholic church and worshippers refused to speak to one another in some instances. It was a bitter battle.

The then Bishop of Bristol, Barry Rogerson, supported the controversial move and 1,200 women were ordained subsequently.

The groundwork was done earlier however, and from 1987 women were allowed to become deacons - a step toward full priesthood.

They could conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals, but certain priestly functions were forbidden.

Most significantly, they were not permitted to consecrate the communion bread and wine.

Was the Church of England prepared to do what it had not been prepared to do in the 16th Century - to put unity before its own opinion?
John Gummer MP
Their ordination had been opposed on two counts. Firstly, Anglo-Catholics said women's ordination wrecked a chance of reconciliation with Rome and secondly, radical Evangelicals said the Bible forbade women from becoming leaders.

But at the November 1992 General Synod, advocates of women's ordination found a strong supporter in George Carey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, and a motion promoting their ordination was approved with a two-thirds majority.

At the time, Bishop Barry Rogerson said: "It was a feeling of liberation, of release."

Conversely, the parish priest of Bath's Holy Trinity left the Church of England to join the Roman Catholic Church and took half his congregation with him.

'Small section'

For former cabinet minister John Gummer it was time of personal decision.

The Suffolk Coastal MP did not leave the Church of England, he stresses, directly as a result of the move to ordain women as priests, but because the unilateral decision to proceed had led to a schism, rendering the Church of England a sect.

"It's a question of authority and who has that authority. If you're going to change something, it should be changed by the whole church, not just a small section of that church," he said.

Prior to the ordination issue it had been hoped by some - particularly High Church Anglo-Catholics - that there could be some compromise, possibly even reconciliation, with Rome.

The Church of England's decision to ordain women unilaterally rendered that hope increasingly forlorn.
Canon Malcolm Widdecombe
Canon Malcolm Widdecombe remains stoically opposed

"The subsidiary thing is of course: Was the Church of England prepared to do what it had not been prepared to do in the 16th Century - to put unity before its own opinion, wholly contrary to the words of Jesus when he said we should be one worldwide belief," Mr Gummer said.

For the Reverend Jean Thorn of St Augustine's Whitchurch, in Bristol, it remains a question of tolerance. "In any church or close-knit organisation, of course people have different beliefs, she said.

"And that's still an issue. I still encounter reserve, disagreement and hostility as well as people who are supportive and encouraging and who accept my ministry.

"It's an ongoing debate and I think the church needs to look at, not just women's ordination, but how it views the different sexes generally in life - it's still an issue and we're still working on it," she said.

Spiritual needs

The Reverend Canon Brenda Dowie of St Peter's Hospice in Bristol, was made an honorary canon of Bristol Cathedral in 2002. She encountered difficulties and prejudice initially.

"There were people that, if I was taking communion, would choose to go to another service.

"That's hard because there's also a compassion for that person and you wonder where they are going to get their spiritual needs met.

"As a society we've become less able to live with difference.

"We tend to speak as if we're more able to live with it.

"The church could show it's possible to be in one organisation, but still have enormous difference of understanding and interpretation of scripture.

The Reverend Canon Brenda Dowie
Canon Brenda Dowie encountered prejudice and difficulties
"I think women priests have brought a different way of thinking and feeling.

"The idea that it would be all soft fluffy women has been fairly dramatically dispelled."

But some remain convinced the ordination was a mere concession to rising feminist trends.

Malcolm Widdecombe is Canon of St Philip's and St Jacob's in Bristol, a church where men exclusively hold positions of leadership.

He said: "I think it is abundantly clear in the scripture that God has created us with different roles.

"We were promised a revival 10 years ago and yet there are less and less people in the churches - the decline continues.

"We take scripture as the final authority - we are not cultural we are counter-cultural. The whole thing was a mere cave in to feminism," he said.

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