Frustrated Vocations: Why We Need an Honest Church on Women's Ministry

Twenty years ago I had a strong sense of God calling me to ordained ministry in the Church of England and to become a vicar.  This was nearly ten years since women had been permitted to become priests and, although I genuinely wondered whether I had all the gifts necessary for priestly ministry, I did not expect my gender to be an issue. 

But it was.  And the sad thing is that it still is, for many women exploring vocations in the Church today.

First, although the church where I worshipped called itself ‘open evangelical,’ there were mixed reactions from its members when I started to disclose my calling.  The vicar reminded me that I had four children and said I should consider whether I already had a calling as a mother to them which would preclude me from being a church leader.  The fact that he himself was a father of four and also a vicar did not seem to deter him in making this point.  Today, as someone who was recently an Area Director of Ordinands, I know that women who are also mothers are still made to feel they cannot have a calling both to motherhood and ordained ministry.

Secondly, a friend took me along to an Open Day at a theological training college.  I had a great time, enjoying the sample lecture on Martin Luther and getting to sit next to the Principal over lunch afterwards.  In the car on the way home I chatted cheerfully to my friend, only to be cut short when she told me that the Principal did not believe women should be vicars.  ‘What?’ I asked.  And then she explained to me that there are still those in the Church of England, like this Principal, who do not believe women should be vicars or bishops (they are generally called Conservative Evangelicals or Complementarians) and there are others (generally called Traditionalists or Traditional Anglo-Catholics) who believe the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests. All this is allowed and the Church of England says it wants people with these theological beliefs to continue to flourish.  And all this is exactly the same today. 

Thirdly, a friend at my church told me that the leader of my midweek Bible study group (whom I adored) was a Conservative Evangelical and did not think women should be vicars.  I was shocked and upset when I heard this, and so I went to see her and asked if she really thought I was wrong about my calling.  Given that we had known each other a long time and we both shared a deep faith, I could see how challenged she was about my question and, to her credit, she could not have been more supportive.  She said that, knowing me and knowing my gifts, she had to admit she wasn’t surprised that God was calling me to ordained ministry.  And over a period of time she changed her mind about women’s ministry, she was open-hearted enough to do the work and reconsider the theological position she had been taught and held for decades (after starting her faith journey at the Conservative Evangelical St Helen’s Bishopsgate.)  Hearts and minds of those who don’t fully affirm women’s ministry have been changing like this over the last twenty years, as people have encountered real women with real callings living out those callings.  But this only comes about by us being mixed up together.  Too much today those who don’t fully affirm women’s ministry are in their own separate silos – the Conservative Evangelicals in networks like The Church Society, The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), Co-Mission; the Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics in networks like Forward in Faith and The Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda – not engaging with churches who do fully accept women’s ministry.

In my own case, my calling was probably delayed about five years because that’s how long it took for my vicar to discern it himself and send a letter of recommendation to the Bishop and the Diocesan Director of Ordinands. In the meantime, I got on and trained as a Licensed Lay Minister and did the best I could to serve God in my church. But my callng didn’t go away and I remember the day that my vicar said to me that finally he really did see something of Christ in me and thought that maybe I did have a calling to ordained ministry.

I believe, from what I witnessed as a Director of Ordinands myself and from conversations with many women today, that the vocations of women continue to be frustrated or delayed in many situations. This is one reason why it is so important to know where your church stands in relation to women’s ministry. Not just in case you are a woman with a calling to ministry yourself, but for everyone. We need to know when women’s ministries are being limited, whether those ministries are our own or those of others.

Let’s ask the questions and do the work so that we have an honest church, in which we all know where women truly stand.

Written by Rev Martine Oborne. Martine is Chair of Women and the Church (WATCH), a national campaign group for equality for women in the Church of England. She is also Area Dean of Hounslow in the Diocese of London and the Vicar of St Michael’s in Chiswick. She has five grown-up children.