Thirty years of women’s priestly ministry celebrated

First published on: 1st July 2024

There was joy in Rochester Cathedral on Sunday 30 June, as over 150 people came to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The special Evensong brought together some of those first women to be ordained priest in 1994, as well as supporters and well-wishers from across Rochester Diocese, then and now.

The preacher, the Rev Catherine Williams, Christian writer, retreat leader and spiritual director, reflected on some of the historic journey taken towards the ordination of women as priests, as well as some of the pioneers connected to Rochester Diocese.

“From Isabella Gilmore’s initial vision down the years, it had been a very long time for some..

“But now, there are women in all forms of ministerial roles, lay and ordained. The first female archdeacon, Judith Rose, was from this Diocese, and there are now at least three female bishops with Rochester roots.

Read a reflection celebrating women’s ministry by the Rev Pamela Ive, Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Rochester. 

Catherine invited all those present to also, ‘remember all those women down the centuries who knew in their hearts that God was calling them to priestly ministry, but for whom it was never, in this life, a reality.”

Having been present at those first ordinations in Rochester Cathedral in 1994, Catherine recalled her memories of the day.

“There was a frisson in that season thirty years ago. A deep sense of joy and adventure. A new creation and a coming in. But the celebrations were muted, held within us, because we were told we must not in any way celebrate, be triumphant, or joyous, but always sensitive to those for whom the decision to ordain women to the priesthood seemed like a betrayal.

She continued:

“Wonderfully here in Rochester, a group of Roman Catholic women gathered outside this Cathedral, during the ordinations and no one was going to tell them not to celebrate…This was a momentous occasion for their fellow sisters in Christ.

“Their shouts and cheers are etched in my memory.”


Ordination stories shared

The muted celebrations were also recollected by the Rev Canon Jean Kerr, who shared her story as part of a series of written and filmed recollections highlighted on the Diocese of Rochester Facebook page in the lead up to the service.

During, the film, she recalled the moment the then Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Michael Turnbull, ordained her a priest:

“I can remember the hands being laid on and I can remember wondering whether all these things that people had said would happen would actually happen. You know, that the sky would fall in. It would be the end of the world etcetera. 

“I wondered whether there would be protest and so on. But there was absolute silence as the bishop laid hands, and for this I was born. For this I was born. I remember thinking that.”


Jean also said that many women priests continue to experience prejudice today: 

“I would like to say that everything's fine and dandy but it's not.

"I mean culture's moved on, societal understanding of women has moved on, but I still mentor a number of priests in this diocese and in Canterbury, and I have a lot of contact with women priests, and some of their experiences of being bullied by lay people and by priests - male priests - are absolutely appalling."


The Rev Canon Katrina Barnes, one of those ordained in Rochester Diocese in 1994, also shared her recollections of that time.


Giving thanks for all women’s ministry

During the service, Bishop Jonathan Gibbs, the Bishop of Rochester, said that the journey towards the ordination of women to the priesthood had been long and far from smooth, but when it finally came, it marked a very significant watershed in the life of the Church.

‘Since that day, women have contributed a priestly ministry in the life and leadership of the Church in ways that have brought abundant blessing to the people of God and to our wider communities. I rejoice in this ministry and in all who shared in it in so many wonderful ways.’

He went on to acknowledge and give thanks for the diversity of all women’s ministry:

‘We rejoice today also in the ministry of all women in the Church as lay people, licensed and authorised ministers of all kinds, Deacons, Bishops and in many other roles.’

To help support the wide range of women’s ordained ministry in Rochester Diocese, during the service, the Rev Judi Hammill, vicar of St James’, Tunbridge Wells, was commissioned as the Bishop’s Adviser for the Ministry of Ordained Women.

An important role, the Bishop's Advisor for the Ministry of Ordained Women seeks to represent and understand the experience of ordained women in ministry, working with the bishop and his leadership team to ensure that all flourish in the ministries to which they have been called.

Read more about Judi and the role.

 

Original cohort greeted with applause
The low-key celebrations called for thirty years ago were in contrast to the exuberance expressed at Sunday’s event.

After the service, all those women present who had been ordained in Rochester Cathedral in 1994, were met with loud applause and shouts of appreciation as they gathered for a photo on the nave steps.

For the Rev Canon Rachel Knapp, Chaplain at Bennett Memorial Diocesan School (pictured front row, far right), and one of that first cohort of women priests, the service was very moving.

“It’s been wonderful. Very emotional, which surprised me.

"It's been a great privilege to be back here and to remember that occasion and to give thanks for 30 years of women’s priestly ministry, and especially lovely to see some of my peers who were ordained alongside me.”

 

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