How the role of women has changed

York Press: Women priests at the General Synod at the University of York this week Women priests at the General Synod at the University of York this week

Women can now be bishops - and following a cabinet reshuffle, there are now also more women at the top level in government. Is the glass ceiling now a thing of the past - or is there more still to do? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

ON Monday - a truly historic day for the Church of England - the church Synod voted, right here in York, to allow women to become bishops.

That was followed a day later by a Cabinet reshuffle which saw more women promoted to the top level of government.

What do these two developments mean for the Church, and for the role of women in modern Britain?

We asked around...


The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu

Monday was a momentous day for the Church of England, says Dr Sentamu. "Generations of women have served the Lord faithfully in the Church of England for centuries. It is a moment of joy today: the office of bishop is open to them."

It has taken a long time, he admits.

"We move slowly because we move together. But as the African Proverb says: 'Whoever would walk fast, travels alone. Whoever would walk far, walks in the company of others.'

“I have been at this since 1985, working as a humble parish priest in Brixton, serving as a Synod member. Back then there was a motion put to Synod. This measure was for women to serve as priests in the Church of England. This was eventually passed in 1993. So I have been walking this road for a very long time.

"I want to be in a Church where everyone who is consecrated as a Bishop, is a Bishop – there are no second class citizens. When you are in a family, you want to walk together, and the Church will be wise to do just that.

"We are all part of the same family even if we differ sometimes in our understanding of theology.”


Rev Jackie Doyle-Brett, curate at St Mary's, Tadcaster and other churches 

Jackie Doyle-Brett can't keep the gladness out of her voice. What happened in York on Monday was an "historic moment for the Church - not just nationally but internationally as well," she says. Her gladness is tinged with sadness, however: because for some people it was a difficult decision to accept. "That has to be respected, that has to be handled sensitively."

The 52-year-old mother of two grown-up daughters entered the church as a deacon last year, after a career in teaching. She was ordained priest at York Minster by the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu only last month.

She entered the church knowing that at that point in time, it was not possible for her to become a bishop - and she accepted that. She has never felt called to be a bishop herself, and still doesn't. But there are some women in the church who do. "You are called to serve God and to serve the Church, and for some people that call is to a role of leadership as a bishop."

Monday's vote means that "those who have the gifts and the skills and the call will now have the opportunity to fulfil that potential," she says.

It has been a long time coming, she says - but it does mean that the Church of England is now more relevant o a younger generation.

Her two daughters, who are in their 20s, have both chosen professional careers outside the church. "And the idea of not being able to progress in their chosen career is just alien to them. They cannot understand it."

The vote means that the Church is no longer out of date, she says. "We have caught up with the rest of society."


Rev Jane Nattrass, priest in charge of York City Centre Churches

Jane was a divorced single parent when she was called to the church 14 years ago. She had been working in accountancy - and at first resisted the call. "The biggest thing for me was whether I could keep my sense of humour and be a priest!"

Jane, who hails from Carlisle, eventually decided she could. She became a deacon 14 years ago, was ordained a priest in Carlisle 13 years ago, and moved to York five years ago.

She is thrilled that the Church of England Synod has voted to allow women to become bishops. "For me it is about the fact that there are choices open to men and women to fulfil the role that they are called to."

The next big challenge for the Church will be the question of gay marriage, she accepts.

For now, however, she's just delighted with the outcome of Monday;s vote - and the fact that it was taken here in York. "This is a great thinking city, with colleges and two universities, and I think it has been very special that it happened in York, and it will go down in history that this decision was made in York."


Rev Sue Sheriff, Vicar of St Mary's, Tadcaster 

When she was first ordained a deacon at the age of 23, it seemed ridiculous that she couldn't become a priest, says Sue Sheriff.

"When at the age of 30 I was ordained priest it was so amazing that I didn’t really even dare think about a day when there would be a woman bishop. For young women coming into the church in recent years it has obviously seemed ridiculous that women couldn’t be bishops.

"Now that women can be bishops it feels we are fully recognised, accepted, appreciated and respected within the church. It means that we now have a whole range of gifted and talented women and men to choose from when we want to appoint a bishop."

She accepts that there are those within the Church of England who are still uneasy with the decision. "To them I would say don’t worry. With a bit of respect for each other and a lot of understanding we can make this work."

Monday's vote has wider implications for British society too, she says.

"The Church of England plays a massive part in the day to day life of modern Britain – especially in these hard economic times. Now that we will be headed up by the best possible leaders with both men and women in the role of Bishops I expect things to be even more dynamic."


Mark Troughton, pastor of York Evangelical Church

Those who oppose women in positions of leadership in the Church are often misrepresented as being misogynist and against equality, says Mr Troughton. Not so. "But this is God's Church, and God sets the rules. We only have one bar of authority, and that is the scripture, the Bible. And it is crystal clear that leadership in the church, as in the home, is male." That is not to suggest that women are inferior or less capable, he says: simply that their role, in the Church and family, is different to men.

And what about women in politics?He has no problem with women reaching the very highest level in Government, he says. "I just want to see people of integrity, people of talent."


Jane, Lady Gibson, chair of Visit York

There are some who have accused Prime Minister David Cameron of 'tokenism' in his Cabinet reshuffle - of promoting women only so that he can say his party believes in equality of opportunity, says the chair of York's tourism organisation. "But I would never say that putting a woman in a position of responsibility is tokenism. I would think he has decided on the best person for the job, and of course some of those people are going to be women."

The workplace is often not very woman-friendly. "But there are women whom manage it extremely well. About half the population are men, but about half are women - and they should be represented."

She was delighted with the vote to allow women to become bishops, she says. "It is an outward and visible sign of equality - and I'm really pleased that that decision was made here in York."


Sue Lister, feminist and co-ordinator of the York 50+ Festival

"As a feminist, working towards equality and recognition and respect for everybody, I feel that it is important to have role models, people of every gender, race, ability or disability and sexual preference, in leading roles in society, so that everybody feels they are included."

Parliament should have done more long ago to increase representation of different groups in society, she says. And the Church? "It has overcome its own traditions and huge hierarchical obstacles to reach this point, and I'm delighted that it has done so."


Dianne Willcocks, former Vice Chancellor of York St John University

"I think it is a case of two cheers at the moment, rather than three. Mr Cameron has doubled the number of women who are in his Cabinet from three to six, but this is still not a substantial proportion."

More needs to be done to ensure proper equality in life and work, Prof Willcocks says. Too often women are still expected to shoulder the majority of childcare and household work, as well as responsibility for elder care - and the workplace needs to be much more flexible if it is to be attractive and accessible to more women, particularly in leadership roles.

But the Synod vote is something that should be genuinely celebrated - particularly as it happened here in York, a city with a great record of having women in positions of responsibility. "We have the chief executive of the council, the Dean of York Minster, the chief executives of the Museums Trust and the Theatre Royal - these are all evidence that women can hold roles of leadership, and they help make York one of the most successful cities in Yorkshire."

Comments (2)

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11:24pm Thu 17 Jul 14

ColdAsChristmas says...

I think it's more about numbers rather than quality. Such a shame, we need the best people, especially in politics, not a quota system.
As for the Church, it has historic principles and this latest move will bring about the break up even earlier.
I think it's more about numbers rather than quality. Such a shame, we need the best people, especially in politics, not a quota system. As for the Church, it has historic principles and this latest move will bring about the break up even earlier. ColdAsChristmas
  • Score: 0

1:06am Fri 18 Jul 14

Pinza-C55 says...

It's wonderful that women can now wear silly hats and spout interminable nonsense about an Invisible Man In The Sky. I suppose the next step is to exhume the Invisible Man's wife Asherah who was written out of the story a long time ago , in the style of a soap opera.
It's wonderful that women can now wear silly hats and spout interminable nonsense about an Invisible Man In The Sky. I suppose the next step is to exhume the Invisible Man's wife Asherah who was written out of the story a long time ago , in the style of a soap opera. Pinza-C55
  • Score: 0
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