Pioneering female priests have fought for acceptance since the 1990s but now record numbers of women are being ordained. Chris Burn speaks to some of Yorkshire’s own trailblazers.
Nine months after her brother survived a brain tumour, stockbroker Beverley Mason was on Table Mountain in South Africa when the self-described “good city-dwelling heathen” fell on her knees and gave thanks to God for his recovery. It was a personal Road to Damascus moment that appropriately set her on a dramatic new path in life; battling to become one of the country’s first female priests.
Now Archdeacon of Richmond & Craven, Mason had little idea of how controversial the idea of women priests was when she had her moment of conversion in the 1990s but she was soon to find out.
In 1992, the General Synod of the Church of England had passed a vote to ordain women as priests, but the following year passed further legislation giving individual parishes the option not to accept female ministry. In March 1994, the first 32 women priests were ordained.
And while there are now more than 5,000 women priests serving the Church of England and the first female bishop was appointed in 2015, divisions still remain – earlier this year the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, withdrew from becoming the new Bishop of Sheffield following a major outcry against his opposition to the ordination of women priests.
But with the Church of England revealing last month that women make up more than half the total number of people entering training to become priests this year, after Libby Lane was consecrated as Britain’s first female bishop at York Minster in January 2015, Mason says it is becoming easier to become a female priest than it used to be.
Her own journeys both to faith and then to priesthood as a young woman were not simple ones. “I was committed to my job working for an American stockbroking house and I loved the pace and the environment but there was something missing in my life and I had no idea what it was,” she says.
“My brother became very sick, he had a brain tumour and it looked like he was going to die. I found myself praying for him. I was a good city-dwelling heathen.
“But I watched him all night in hospital and prayed and I had this sense he was to do ok and I was going to go to Africa.”
Six weeks later, with her brother starting to recover, Mason headed off to Africa on a sabbatical from work – and returned a different person. “It was about nine months later and I fell on my knees and gave thanks to God for his recovery. It was on Table Mountain in South Africa and I couldn’t resist anymore. When I came home, nobody got it at all. I wanted to hear people talk about Jesus. I was like a child asking questions.”
But she says friends initially struggled to accept it. “My dad and I were in a car crash shortly after I got back and people just thought she has had a bump on the head and she will get over it. But it was a real conversion.”
After starting to work for a Christian charity, she found herself called towards ordination – little realising at first that in the Diocese of Chichester where she was living, the bishop was against the idea of female priests.
But despite the obstacles, it did not put her off a career in the service of the Church. It took five years but she was finally allowed to train for ordination.
She says it has been a personal struggle with the idea of becoming a priest. “I really respected the bishop. Of all the people I have worked with over the years, he is probably the person who had influenced my understanding more than anybody and yet he didn’t agree with the ordination of women. It was very stressful because it was so confusing.”
She eventually became vicar of a parish in London and moved to Yorkshire in 2012 when she was made vicar of All Saints Church in Bingley. Three years later, she was promoted to the position of Archdeacon of Richmond & Craven.
But it has not all been plain sailing. She says there had been times where she was “ready to throw the dog collar in” but she persevered thanks in part to moments which reminded her of her calling. She says on one occasion early in her career when she had been going through a particularly difficult time, a man approached her in Sainsbury’s and explained that he and his terminally-ill wife had attended one of her services.
“He said, ‘I was at your Mothering Day service and my wife was really taken by the things you said and you as a person’. Here is a man with two little kids and he said ‘Would you have time to go and see in hospital? She is dying. Can you make it in the next couple of days?’ I went, I prayed with this woman and you see the power of the ministry you are called to do. This woman went on to make enough of a recovery so that she and the family were able to go to EuroDisney and it was the holiday of a lifetime for them.”
Another woman whose career in the church has followed a similar path to Archdeacon Mason is the Rev Canon Julie Upton, who is team rector in the Sheffield Manor parish. Upton, born in Bradford, was ordained as a deacon in 1988 and became one of the country’s first women priests in 1994. Having worked in London, Leeds and Bradford, she started working in Sheffield seven years ago.
She was encouraged to train as a priest – but says despite the official backing, it was not always easy to convince everyone. “Those women who were deacons in the 1980s and 1990s really believed times had changed and it would come eventually. We all of us came across people who weren’t ready to accept women into the priesthood. The journey was not smooth and our experience was not always positive. But I was in a place where it was encouraged,” she explains.
She says some elder people in congregations struggled with the idea of women priests but individuals were eventually won round over time.
“There have been women priests for 23 years – in the history of the Church that is not very long and we have got to recognise that. There is still a section of the Church that doesn’t want women as priests and we have to live with that. We are still on that journey.”
One of Upton’s colleagues is former postwoman Rev Karen Colley, from Handsworth in Sheffield. She says her personal path has been simpler – thanks greatly to those who came before her.
“Like Julie, I come from a non-Church family. When I left home in my early 20s, I saw the church at the top of the street and felt this pull to go. It felt like I had come home,” she says. “When I was in church, I liked to take part and I was soon asked to help out with the service. I didn’t have a Damascus moment. All through my life and up to my being ordained, it has always been a gradual thing.”
After working for the Royal Mail in a variety of roles for 26 years, she took voluntary redundancy in 2011 and was ordained as a priest in 2014.
She receives no salary in her role as an associate priest but also works at the diocese’s head office in Rotherham.
Colley says she hopes more women, as well as more disabled people and those from ethnic minorities, now feel freer to become priests. “People like Julie have paved the way. I would just like to see more people realise, ‘Maybe I could do that’.”
Significant work ‘still needs to be done’
The number of people entering training to become priests in the Church of England is at its highest level for a decade.
A total of 544 men and women are starting training this autumn, up 14 per cent on last year and the highest figure for 10 years. A total of 274 women are involved.
Director of the Church of England’s Ministry Division Julian Hubbard said: “The increase in numbers of those called to serve as clergy reflects a great deal of hard work, especially in the dioceses and local churches.
“However, significant work still remains to be done to improve the age profile, gender and ethnicity of our clergy to better reflect the makeup of our congregations and the wider population.”