This past week has been Faith in the World Week, focussing on Women in Religion. On Pause for the Thought each morning on Radio 2 they had women clergy and rabbis making the contribution and many of them spoke of what it is like to be a woman in ministry. And that got me thinking about how much things have changed just in the last 10 years or so since I was ordained.
When I was going through the selection process, kicking and screaming, there were some in my home parish who struggled with what I was doing. Some said, “Oh we’ll still be your friend but we don’t agree with what you’re doing.” And they did indeed carry on talking to me but never ‘about that’. Others, on the other hand, were initially alarmed but in time said that they had changed their opinion because it was me. And in time they got to know other clergy who happened to be women and discovered that really it wasn’t a problem for them anymore.
When I was a curate in St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth I was told there were some people who didn’t agree with women priests. So a rota was put up in the cloisters which showed when I was presiding at mass and they avoided coming on those days. I never had the courage at the time to visit them and get to know them. That’s a regret. One woman did come when I was on duty but wouldn’t come up for communion. “I love hearing your sermons, Ruth, but I’m too set in my ways. I can’t change now.” However, when her husband died I was the one on duty to go and be with her. Something happened then which made her change her mind. It was a glorious, tear-filled moment.
At the first charge I was told there might be one or two people who ‘weren’t sure about women clergy’ but it never actually appeared to be a problem. Whoever they were, they must have come round. The local Church of Scotland was quite traditional and had never had a woman minister there either, but I was asked to preach there and ‘concelebrate’ one Maundy Thursday. Quite a number of people said that because of me, they had changed their minds. (I don’t think it really was because of me, I think it was because they just hadn’t encountered any women in ministry.)
At my second charge I knew that they had had a woman priest before but that it hadn’t been a great success. So some people who had been prepared to accept women’s ministry had decided that perhaps they were wrong. Strangely this never seems to work the other way round – if you have a bad male priest, it doesn’t seem to put you off all male clergy in future.
Throughout all this time, I have encountered some opposition and prejudice. There have been nasty comments left on my blog and the occasional anonymous letter. But that was in the early days and I really haven’t encountered anything hostile for a long time. On the other hand I have received lots of praise from strangers in supermarkets, at funerals, in queues, in Starbucks, and a host of other places. I’ve been hurt when people wouldn’t come to receive communion (or even the chalice when I was serving) but then I have had so many positive encounters that those have now faded into the distance.
And now we are about to elect a new bishop and it may be that there is a woman on that list. There may be one or two people who will struggle with that, but I suspect the number is a fraction of what it was 10 years ago. So we wait and see.