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Revd Canon Sally Theakston’s speech on the 30th Anniversary of the ordination of women

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Written by the Bishop’s Chaplain, Revd Canon Sally Theakston. Revd Sally was ordained as a priest on Tuesday 21 May 1994 in Southwark Cathedral and will soon be celebrating her own 30th anniversary.

Thirty years ago today, twenty women were ordained to the priesthood here in Norwich Cathedral.  Some of them are present today.

What had begun in Bristol on the 12th March 1994 was replicated in cathedrals throughout the country.  All these women were pioneers. They already represented a combined ministry of thousands of years having served faithfully in parishes and as chaplains – to hospitals and hospices, schools, colleges and prisons

They had been Lay Workers, Deaconesses and Deacons, as these ministries had opened up to them.  But each one, with the laying on of hands, was able, finally to respond to God’s call on their lives –  as priests.

Here in Norwich the candidates came forward in the date order on which they were initially licensed to public ministry. Anne Kerrison was first, having been made deaconess in 1976.

The idea of women priests actually began to be discussed in the 1920s.  The first woman to become a priest within the Anglican Communion, was Florence Lim Ti Oi ordained in Hong Kong  in 1944 during the Second World.  In 1975 the Church of England General Synod passed a motion  stating it had “no fundamental objections,”  But the removal of legal barriers to the ordination of women was defeated in the House of Clergy at a meeting of General Synod on the 8th November 1978 – and the waiting continued.

In 1986, aged 24, I had begun training as a deaconess, alongside male colleagues.  I was made deacon in July 1989 in St Paul’s Cathedral, alongside four women and 16 men. That following July, our paths diverged.  Because I was born female, I was never allowed to say in my curacy church – This is my body given for you – This is my blood shed for you.

In our readings we encounter some extraordinary women, our forebears in faith. First we meet Naomi and Ruth. Naomi had a husband and two sons, and both her sons took wives, from beyond the land of Israel. Tragically her husband and sons all died. The situation was so hopeless, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to leave and return to their own people.  One daughter-in-law Orpah – does leave.  The other Ruth – remained.  Though facing poverty and destitution Ruth declares her loyalty and love for Naomi.  In doing so she was also making a commitment to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. Her story did not end there for she was to marry Boaz and be blessed with a son Obed, father of Jesse, grandfather to David the King and Prophet, and so become among only four women, listed in the genealogy of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene was present with Jesus supporting him in his ministry.  And at the end she did not deny Jesus or betray him or leave when the situation became difficult – but instead stood at the cross with other faithful women.  It was Mary who came to his tomb while it was still dark.  It was she, who played such a significant part in the events of that first Easter morning.  After discovering the empty tomb, the other disciples merely went back to their homes.  But it was to be Mary Magdalene whom Jesus entrusted to be the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene has been described as the patron Saint of turning up – of being present.  I love that idea. I was struck by one commentator who said that the greatest spiritual practice was not spending hours in prayer or meditation or living in intentional poverty although these are all beautiful in their own way.  The greatest spiritual practice is showing up.  Just think how important it can be when someone turns up or chooses to stay alongside us, as Mary Magdalene and Ruth did in their time.

Today we celebrate with joy (as surely we are allowed so to do) all those women who have gone before us and hung on in there.  I look back, as I am sure many women here can, at those times of rejection.  The woman who did not wish me to take the funeral of her father in the church in which I was Rector.  He was a man’s man she proclaimed, whatever that might mean.  He served in the Royal Navy.  Well so did I.  Thus I became a surrogate man for the occasion.  All was well and she had the grace to apologise.

Women have had to remained gracious.  Yes, sometimes through gritted teeth, despite the silencing, the waiting, the dismissals and the hostility they, we, have encountered.  

We give thanks for the men and women, the Maude Roydens, Una Krolls, Monica Furlongs, and our own Margaret Webster who dreamt of, and worked for, the time when a woman would stand at the altar and say Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you, Do this in remembrance of me.

On this day 30 years ago, the ordination of 20 women taking place in this Cathedral was a proclamation that, male and female, we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Let Alleluia be our song!