Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Making history

Today I and some sixty other women, throughout Wales and beyond, are marking a very special anniversary. Fifteen years ago today, on January 11th 1997, we became the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Church in Wales. In the six cathedrals of Wales every seat was taken, as our families and congregations packed the pews to witness this solemn, historic, and profoundly joyful occasion.

My ordination took place in Bangor Cathedral, in the north-west corner of Wales, on a grey and wintry Saturday just after Epiphany. My entire family had made immense efforts to be there, with DH and our two children, my four sisters, DH’s two brothers, my mother-in-law, and as many assorted partners and children as could make it, coming from all over the UK to support me and rejoice with me. By my reckoning there were 24 of us around the restaurant table for the celebration lunch after the service! In addition, an entire coach-load of local friends and parishioners had travelled almost 100 miles along slow and winding Welsh roads to be there too.

The Famous Five
That service, and the new ministry which it opened for me and my female colleagues, was the culmination of a long and, at times, very painful process. The Church in Wales had been the pioneer of the ordained ministry of women in the Anglican Church in Great Britain, having ordained women as deacons as early as 1980. Sadly, that pioneer spirit seemed to have been lost over the years, and on April 6th 1994, only weeks after the first women had been ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England, the Bill to ordain women to the priesthood in Wales was defeated in the Church’s Governing Body by a narrow margin in the House of Clergy, having been passed overwhelmingly by the laity and unanimously by the Bishops.

What no-one could have foreseen was the upset this would cause throughout Wales, both inside the church and far beyond. It was headline news for days on Welsh TV and radio and in Welsh newspapers. Letters of protest poured in to the Bishops’ offices. Within a couple of weeks a meeting was held in my own parish in Mid-Wales, at which Anglicans from all over Wales decided to set up a campaigning organisation called Women Priests for Wales, of which I somehow found myself the Secretary! Things moved rapidly after that, and only a couple of weeks later I was being interviewed live by Jenni Murray on the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour.

This was the beginning of two and a half years of very hard work, over and above my full-time work as a librarian and my parish responsibilities. Meetings were held and a petition organised, which garnered thousands of signatures and was presented to the Bishops. People (lay and clergy) joined, wore badges, wrote letters and produced publications, raised funds, held vigils and services and prayed hard, and simply refused to let the issue fade into obscurity.

Supporters of the campaign (including me) stood for election to the Church’s Governing Body and took part in its debates for the next few years. Finally, on September 19th 1996 (the date is engraved on my heart) the reintroduced Bill to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood passed its third and final reading in all three houses and the way was finally open.

By the time I and my eight fellow deacons (our ages ranging from 27 to 68) entered Bangor Cathedral on that historic morning, we had been waiting for that day for between 2 and 14 years. In my case I was 50 and had been a deacon for eight and a half years. Now, at last, the vocation we had all been aware of for so long was to be fulfilled and I cannot find the words to describe just how that felt. Perhaps the expressions on our faces in the photographs taken during and after the service say it all for us, without the need for words.


As if the ordination day itself were not gift enough, the next day found us all back in our home parishes, presiding for the first time at the church’s central service, the Eucharist or Holy Communion. My vicar had cancelled the other morning services, so that my first Eucharist could be a joint celebration for the congregations from both our churches. The church was full and the atmosphere almost electric with excitement and joy. I had been allowed to chose the hymns and songs, and the vicar, vested that day as a deacon to assist me, as I for so long had assisted him, preached for me.

It sounds like the most hackneyed of clich√©s, but I truly can remember just about every detail of that morning, even to the butterflies in my stomach as I sang the priest’s part of the service for the very first time. There were so many communicants that administering communion took much longer than usual, and the music group had time to sing all the songs I had so happily chosen.

After the service came the photographs and then the party in the adjacent church hall. A parishioner who is a gifted cake-maker had made and decorated the most beautiful ordination cake, and cake and wine circulated merrily for some time, amid animated conversation and much laughter.

Then, for me, came the crowning moment when my broadly-smiling vicar presented me with the beautiful silver home-communion set which was the parishes’ gift to me to mark the occasion. It has had much use over the years since then and I treasure it still, both as a reminder of an unforgettable weekend and as a tangible sign of the loving friendship which supported and encouraged me though all the years of my ministry in those parishes. It is the most immense privilege to be a priest, and I thank God for that privilege and the deep and abiding joy it has brought me. 



This post is dedicated to the memory of Alistair (died November 2011) good friend and staunch supporter of the ordination of women, who sat next to me throughout that crucial debate and unprotestingly allowed me to crush his fingers, as we waited on tenterhooks for the result of the vote.

51 comments:

  1. Happy Anniversary Perpetua!

    As a staunch supporter of the ordination of women to the priesthood, I remember with joy when the positive vote took place in the C of E General Synod & the first female ordinations that followed some 18 months later. It therefore did come as a great shock when the similar vote was lost so narrowly in the Church in Wales Governing Body. But congratulations to you & your colleagues who worked so hard to get that vote overturned.

    I've only ever seen one photo of your great day 15 years ago which was the one of you with all your wider family, so it is lovely to see these other photos you've posted here. I'll raise a glass in celebration this evening!

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  2. Thanks very much, Ricky. I too can remember rejoicing when the General Synod voted in favour in November 1992 and naively believing that this would mean that the same thing would soon happen in Wales. Sigh....

    Still, the wonderful acceptance of women's ministry which has happened in Wales since the day I'm writing about has made it all worthwhile.

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  3. I had shivers running down my spine while reading that. My late father was a keen supporter of the ordination of women, and I think he would have liked the fact that one of the first women priests (sorry don't know the jargon ;-) officiated at his funeral. Although some family members were less than keen, I stood firm because I knew it was what Dad would have wanted. Well done for all the hard work. And lovely that you dedicated the post to your friend and supporter.

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  4. Thanks, Sian. I found it very moving to write as I recalled the very varied emotions of that period, both the struggle and the fulfilment.

    Yes, women priests is exactly the right term and well done you for sticking fast to what you know your father would have wanted. The support of ordinary people like your Dad and my friend is what kept us going in the dark days.

    You'd be surprised how many times I experienced people's uncertainty about having a woman officiating at Mum or Dad's funeral, but thankfully they all seemed happy about it afterwards.

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  5. This is such a joyful post that it's made me feel very emotional, indeed -- so much so that I could almost cry. The antipathy toward women priests is still so virulent among some and I've yet to hear a theological argument that is in anyway sound! Women have brought such a wonderful dimension to the Anglican church and I do so thank you and all the others who worked so hard to make the ordination of women a realty. God bless you all!

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  6. A truly wonderful post Perpetua.
    Thanks so much for sharing your story with us.
    Lovely pictures too. Joy simply shines out of them.
    Blessings.
    X

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  7. Broad, you are echoing how we all felt at the time and even today when we think back to those wonderful days. There was such a mix of emotions, joy and relief and a huge sense of anticipation about what the future would hold.

    Sadly there are those who still find the whole idea of women's ordination totally unacceptable and yet surprisingly, one or two of them are very good friends of mine. We just agree to differ :-) I'm so glad, however, that your experience of women's ministry has been so very positive. Support like yours has been such a gift to us ordained women.

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  8. Thank you, Ray. It's a story which it has been very good to reflect on after this lapse of time and I'm glad it spoke so strongly to you.

    Your comment about the photo echoes what my boss at work said when I showed her the originals (all hard-copy in those days of course). We were all simply overflowing with joy and I will never forget how that felt.

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  9. Happy Anniversay!! A lovely post and the joy really radiates out of your photos. Antoinette

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  10. What a wonderfully joyous post!
    Happiness just beams forth from those photographs...a well earned reward for persistence.

    I listened to the C of E General Synod debates on the radio in darkest France and hopped up and down for joy when the vote was announced...and I can remember thinking
    'Couldn't have done that if I had been there!'

    Now for the bishops...

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  11. Thank you, Antoinette. It's lovely to look back and remember. The photos may be rather poor scans of the original prints, but I don't think anything could dim the joy shown in them. :-)

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  12. Thank you, Fly. I very much enjoyed writing it and putting the events of those momentous few years into some kind of perspective. Yes, we were persistent - we had to be, but it's what the great majority of church members wanted and we couldn't let them down. If you think we look happy, you should have seen the faces of our congregations!

    No, you couldn't have danced for joy if you'd been at the Synod meeting. In Wales we were warned not to express any reaction when the vote was announced, but to keep it for after the meeting ended. Not the easiest instruction to follow, as you can imagine.

    As you say, now for the bishops. I hope I live to see female bishops in the UK, though Wales turned down the idea on the first attempt in 2008. Sigh....

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  13. How lovely to hear about your ordination and to see some of the photographs. It was a long hard struggle for many of us to reach the point when we could celebrate with you. For me the turning point was in meeting and receiving ministry from women who were deacons. This ministry convinced me that it was right to support the cause with as much energy as I could. I am so very glad I did as I have been blessed in many ways by the ministry of women priests since. Thank you.

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  14. What a wonderful post.

    Happy Anniversary and Congratulations on being a history maker.

    Fifteen years ago I had no inkling that'd God would call me, crazy, heretic that I am, to be a Baptist minister later that same year... Fifteen years I would have laughed in the face of anyone who said I'd be history maker for women Baptist ministers in Scotland...

    Taking up my virtual timbrel and dancing for joy with you, your friends and all the women whom God has called, is calling and will call to ordained ministry.

    As a catholic I used to know would have said: JUBILATE!

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  15. Hello, fellow pilgrim. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and the photos. I'm very aware how hard it has been for a lot of people to come to the point you describe, as it was true for a couple of very old and dear friends. The journey they went on from instinctive opposition to final acceptance was very painful at times, so I've always known that there has been, and still is, pain on both sides on this often divisive subject. I'm just glad that for you it was a struggle which bore so much fruit.

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  16. Thanks so much,Catriona. As another ordained, female history-maker, you obviously know from the inside just what this anniversary means to me. :-)

    I know just what you mean about laughing in the face.... If anyone had told me when I was confirmed at the age of 30 that 20 years later I would be ordained priest, I'd have thought they were mad! Anglicans in Wales weren't even ordaining women as deacons back then. It's been a life-changing journey for both people and institution.

    PS Hope the haircut went well. It's SO frustrating not being able to comment on your blog. :-(

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  17. Yes, a joyful post and joyful photographs of joyful people! And how wonderful that you remember it all so well. I like how you took a positive approach to telling the story that somehow lets the negatives be known but not the lens through which we see the story unfold. Well done, on all fronts!

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  18. Oh, how I enjoyed reading your victorious and joyous story! I can clearly remember so much of past discrimination and sexist attitudes. I really don't think younger women and men appreciate how much has opened up in the past few decades, even though there is so much that still needs enlightening. Congratulations on this anniversary. What an uplifting read.

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  19. Congratulations and Happy Anniversary. What a wonderful occasion it was - truly historic. Like all your other comments here, I share the sense of joy that shines through the photos - whatever the quality of the paper they were printed on, the emotion was well and truly captured.
    And lovely to share a little more of your life too. Axxx

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  20. Dear Perpetua, what a momentous anniversary - wish I'd known sooner! Your ministry has been so much appreciated (& still is). I'm sure that the Lord has blessed it in proportion to the emotional & spiritual anguish you, and your contemporaries, had to endure before you got to the point of acceptance. I remember being incandescent with fury at some of the (very specious, I thought) arguments that the opposition put up as barriers. Although at the time I wasn't able to be personally involved, I cared very much about what was going on in the Church at the time - and still do. There was a time, when I was much younger, when I thought I had a call to the diaconate, but went a different way (rightly or wrongly I wait to discover when I meet the Lord - if He lets on what might have happened!)

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  21. You sum it up perfectly in one sentence, Penny. :-) I was surprised myself how very well I remembered, especially since my memory certainly isn't what it once was. But I think these events were so special and life-changing that they were branded on my memory.

    I think the positive approach comes pretty naturally to me (my glass is always half-full, particularly here where the hard, negative things were followed by something so wonderfully positive and full of hope.

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  22. Thank you. I'm so glad you enjoyed my story, poetreehugger! It was wonderful to recall it all and appreciate again just what was achieved.

    You are so right about the changes that have happened over the past few decades, changes which moved considerably faster on your side of the Atlantic than mine. We both know that there is still further to go, but I do think we've come a long way in our lifetime.

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  23. Thanks so much, Annie. It was an amazing time and I was so fortunate to experience it all and with such wonderful women as my colleagues.

    I'm sorry the scans were so poor. The original prints were good, but our old scanner was very primitive. We now have a lovely new one, but the photos are packed away and would take some finding to scan again. One day, when I have nothing else to do....

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  24. Hello, J - yes, it's almost frightening to realise that it was fifteen years ago. It seems like yesterday in some ways and in others all a very long time ago, especially the struggle to get the Bill passed.

    Thankfully we've moved on a long way since those days and it's so satisfying to see women's ministry so widely accepted and appreciated - indeed taken for granted, which is as it should be. A real reason for rejoicing today!

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  25. As one of the Famous Five I remember that day so well. It was moving that your new role as priest seemed so right for you, Perpetua - something that had been latent in you since your days as a teenaged Sunday School Teacher at our Moorland Congregational Chapel (celebrating it's 350 year Anniversary this year).

    There is still the issue of Women Bishops to be resolved in England & Wales of course - another obstacle to overcome.As an agnostic feminist I have never heard a convincing argument against either women priests or bishops. No God I could believe in would oppose either!

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  26. Happy anniversary. The more I fly back to read your blog, the impressed I am in your accomplishments. Now I am wondering at what age were you when you realized you wanted to serve God?

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  27. Happy Anniversary Perpetua and congratualation!

    SP

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  28. Thanks, PolkaDot. I imagine that no-one there on that day will ever completely forget it, but I'm glad you remember it so well. It had been a long journey from those Sunday School days, but it did feel absolutely right at the end.

    Now it's a case of onwards and upwards until women can take their full place in all areas of ministry. My own diocese is slowly getting there - our cathedral now has a woman Dean!

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  29. Thank you, Nerima, that's very kind. How old was I? In my middle 30s, I think, having spent all my 20s totally disconnected from the church and only coming back to it with my confirmation at the age of 30. It took a while to work out where my vocation lay, but I was eventually ordained deacon at 42 and priest at 50.

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  30. Many thanks, SP. It's been lovely remembering not only that special weekend, but all the wonderful things that followed, including conducting the marriage services for DD and later my youngest sister and also baptising two of my three grandsons.

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  31. Dear Perpetua,
    This posting touched me at that deep center of myself where divinity, integrity, heartwish, compassion, and peace dwell. Thank you.

    Happy 15th Anniversary of your becoming who you were always called to be--a priest. A true shepherd of us all. Your blog reveals your priestly vocation. It frequently reminds me of what being human means. Your thoughts both in your posts and in your comments here and on my postings make me stop and consider the wonder of being fully human. Or of moving toward the fullness of humanity as we live and breath and have our being within Oneness.

    Peace ever and always.

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  32. Thank you so much, Dee. What a lovely thing to say. Though I'm largely retired from active ministry I love the thought that my blog can still be part of my vocation. I hadn't thought of it in that light, so I'm very grateful to you for that insight.

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  33. Catriona, just in case you pop back and see this, I just want to thank you for the very kind words on your last post and wish F a rich, fulfilling and blessed ministry.

    PS Love the new hairdo but hate the fact I can't comment on your blog.

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  34. I read this wonderful piece the other day, Perpetua, and have finally gotten back to comment on it. This was a joy for me to behold as I read of your journey, and the journey of so many others. The disappointment, then, the final acceptance. Thank you for sharing it here, and thank you for your steadfast determination fifteen years ago.

    Our younger daughter is in the ministry, as is her husband. The persistence of others such as yourself in all walks of life have made her road easier.

    Thank you and happy anniversary.

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  35. What a marvelous, joyous history. Happy anniversary! Thank you for sharing this day with us, and heartfelt congratulations on your part in a momentous development in the Church. Looking at the photographs of the day, a rather over-used word is unavoidable: you look radiant, as radiant as a bride, and indeed I suppose there are parallels.

    A friend of mine, my college chaplain, was amongst the first women to be ordained in the diocese of Oxford in 1994. I was lucky enough to be present in Christ Church cathedral for the ordination of her and her sister ordinands. I remember it as an immensely moving and joyful day: we all had lumps in our throats and smiles from ear to ear. There was a real feeling of fulfillment and of history being made, after all that struggle. I'm so happy to read of your own part in it all.

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  36. Thanks you for making it back, Penny, and leaving such a lovely comment. I hadn't realised your daughter and son-ion-law are in the ministry. No wonder my post has a particular significance for you.

    Yes, we all stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. Whenever I go to vote I think of those women who worked and suffered to win the vote for women in the UK. I feel very glad that my work and that of so many others means that women's calling to ministry is now so much more easily accepted and brought to fulfilment.

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  37. Thank you so much, DB. It was a very special time and I felt the whole story deserved to be told. From the youngest to the oldest I think we were all radiant that day, just overflowing with joy after the long wait with its disappointment and hard work.

    Having attended the ordination of a friend in Christchurch cathedral a few years ago, I can easily imagine the wonderful service at which your friend and her colleagues were ordained back in that momentous year. I think everyone present at these first ordinations must have been aware of being part of history being made and that doesn't happen very often to most of us.

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  38. I do remember reading about all this at the time and even though as you know I'm not religious I do strongly believe in equality and it was such a breakthrough for women...congratulations on your anniversary and I am so happy for you that your work brought you so much joy xxx

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  39. Thanks so much, Ayak, and I'm glad Blogger let you through to comment. One of the interesting things about the failure of the first Bill is how many people like you, not religious but who believe in equality, came forward to express support and outrage at what had happened. Colleagues at work, readers in the library where I worked, even people I just met briefly ion the street were all very vociferous about it and some even wrote letters of protest. They were so pleased when it finally happened and said so then too!

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  40. Happy Anniversary,Perpetua.I admire you and your life's path. You are, no doubt, deserving of the status you have achieved.
    I'm caught in the middle philosophically regarding women in the priesthood. I am totally convinced that more women than men deserve to be in that position. Maybe that is a result of the media attention to the negative. Sorry guys.
    My confusion about religion is boring and redundant. I'm actually tired of talking about it. Yet,the quest for truth continues. In tracing my roots back to England, I discovered that my ancestors were Anglicans. I found an Anglican church in a town close to where I live and attended mass one Sunday. I am too conservative to accept what I witnessed that day. There was a woman priest. I'm sure she was very sincere and dedicated to her work. I felt sorry for her as she had absolutely no authority or respect. The atmoshpere in that building was a carnival. There were gay women being openly affectionate to one another. There was a dog jumping over the pews during the sacrament.It was chaos. I left with a sick feeling in my heart. I think I need to move to Wales. Take care and God bless you.

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  41. Hello, Janet. Thank you for your good wishes and also for your honesty about your own feelings on the subject. I am very aware that this is a development that some cannot accept at all and others are still not sure about.

    Where the experience you describe is concerned, it sounds like you found a very informal congregation and perhaps the gender of the priest was secondary to the way worship was usually conducted there. I’m sure there must be plenty of Anglican churches in the US with much more traditional, formal worship and some of those will have women priests. It would be sad if you were to judge both the Anglican Church and women priests on just one unfortunate experience.

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  42. What a fabulous post. I don't share your faith but I'm in awe of your courage and fortitude. The thing I find bit scary about this post is that it was only 15 years ago that you were ordained - how attitudes have changed (at least in some quarters). But what a privilege in a way to be one of the first.

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  43. This is a wonderful story... congratulations on all of it.... and you look so happy.
    Fondest wishes
    Janice

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  44. Thanks so much, Mark. I’m not sure I felt very brave, but I do know that there is strength in numbers and so many people were united in wanting this to happen. We all worked very hard because we were so sure it was the right thing to do and I think the years since, with the change in attitude you mention, have proved this to be true.

    You’re right, it was a privilege to be one of the first, but also a huge responsibility, as we knew that many people would judge the rightness of what had happened by the way we fulfilled our individual ministries.

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  45. Thank so much, Janice. Reliving it as I wrote has made me realise all over again how wonderful it was, and yes, we were VERY happy.

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  46. I remember that day - congratulations on your anniversary! You were glowing with joy; I remember commenting that you looked like an angel.

    I've enjoyed your other blog posts very much too, by the way.

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  47. Hester, how lovely to see you here! I'm glad you are enjoying the blog and that you remember that day so well. You cam so far to be there and I appreciated that very much. Whenever I look at our group photo taken inside the cathedral I'm taken straight back to that day and the fun we all had. :-)

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  48. Now, all these years after you wrote this, I am reading it. My heart is brimming with many emotions about this time for you. My church denomination, Presbyterian Church of America, will not allow women to hold any office of deacon, or elder in the church. Women can't be ordained. I don't support that, but I like the church for other reasons, so I remain. Bravo for you for standing up for the right for ordination. I'm so happy you had the ones whom supported you along the way.

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    1. Sally, I'm so glad you followed that link in my last post and read this account. Yes, we were very fortunate in the warm support we had and still have from so many people, though I'm very aware that not everyone feels that way. Here in the UK the main Presbyterian churches all ordain women and have women as elders and deacons, though the smaller Free Church of Scotland does not. We have to agree to differ while still remaining friends.

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  49. Well, I said I would read this post and now I have! OH JOY!!!
    In Sweden, we had this chaotic movements in the 1950's. Since I wasn't born I can't tell so much about it but the discussions at the time were severe and personal. Hatred and anger from both political parties and the clergy, almost took over the sensible discussions that actually took place. The decisions and conclusions where far from unanimous and the bible was thrown in every direction. For very long time it was quite okey to follow your conscience and as vicar deny a womenpriest access to your church. After that , came the option of denying any cooperation with a womencollegue and as for now, you have to sign a document that you will accept and cooperate with whoever might be, male or female. You won't be ordained and if you already are, you will find it hard to get any position, especially not vicar, let alone bishop.
    I for one however, have several dear friends in the ministry that can't share communion if I celebrate, it doesn't really bother me, I think , for now,there has to be room for this in our beloved church, as long as there is no foul play. I do regret it though, communion should be a joyous sharing for all!! But the glory of the gospel mustn't be overshadowed by anyones desire to make a fuss and rise the question as being more important than what we are ordained to do. In june, I will write a post on my own anniversary and hope that someone will enjoy it just as much as I have enjoyed this post!!!! How I wish I could have been there with you on that day!!!!!! Next year will be 20 years, just like I celebrate this year!

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    1. Gosh, thank you for this fascinating response to my post. I knew that the Church of Sweden ordains women, but I had no idea the process of getting to that point had been so difficult. I think such a momentous development isn't easily achieved anywhere and certainly here in the UK there are sill priests and parishes that cannot accept the change. Because the development is much more recent here, we are still agreeing to differ while trying to keep close bonds of friendship. Like you I have personal friends who cannot share communion if I celebrate, but we are still friends and know that much more unites us than divides us.
      June isn't very far away now and I look forward to the post which will celebrate your 20th anniversary of ordination. Priesthood is such a privilege and a joy and the passing of the years doesn't diminish that.

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