Sarah Mowbray recounts her journey from ordination as a woman priest through her experience of the tradition to a rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers
On the subject of the ordination of women to the priesthood I think I am unique. I am unique by virtue of the way I came to hold my views. I was ordained a priest in 2001 and I now find myself worshipping in a church which has Alternative Episcopal Care, and I now struggle with the issue of women priests.
I was born and brought up in Wrexham, and was encouraged from an early age to attend church. I found myself exploring a vocation to the priesthood from GCSE age, and at the tender age of twenty-one I attended a selection conference and was put forward for ordination training once I had completed my studies at Aberystwyth. After two years at St John’s College, Nottingham, I returned to North Wales to start a curacy.
My curacy was not a happy time. I found that I had been thrown in at the deep end and expected to survive. I found myself in a difficult situation. I was about to conduct a funeral in the parish church, and one of the relatives collapsed, and subsequently died, in my arms. I dealt with the situation the best way I could, and was amazed at how I was able to carry on and do the job I was there to do, and do it with care, consideration and still maintain the level of professionalism that I had come to expect from myself.
It was not the situation that got to me; it was the way I was treated afterwards by my incumbent. I felt I was given no support or guidance, and what I was given was too little too late. I became ill, I was given time off work, and was told to take anti-depressants and to see a counsellor.
This was the most heart-breaking thing that had ever happened to me. I am quite a spirited woman (well, being a Taff, what would you expect?), but to have to come face to face with this awful demon that had taken over my life, and to say ‘yes, I have failed’ was pretty horrible.
I had met James in my final year of studying at Aberystwyth and we had discussed marriage, and had planned to marry in 2003. With my health as it was, and the reason being my unhappiness in North Wales, we decided to bring the wedding forward and married in 2002.1 moved to Mirfield to be with James, who was now himself training to be a priest.
I was given permission to officiate in a local parish. This was where I found myself questioning my role as a priest. There were three churches in the parish; they had a moderately Catholic background. The people I served were God-loving, faithful people. They knew what they were doing and why. I would stand in front of these people, celebrating Mass, and realized that I didn’t believe in what I was doing myself.
I am a firm believer in transubstantiation, by upbringing and conviction. I struggled with believing that I had the authority, right, or, dare I say it, the power to proclaim that the gifts in my hands were now
Jesus Christ. In my heart I know that when the priest says the dominical words, the simple gifts become something holy. Yet there I was expecting people to believe that this is what I was doing for them, and not believing it myself. I would say the words and do the actions, but knew in my heart that I couldn’t do it.
We moved to Kent to begin James’ curacy. I was given the opportunity to serve in a local parish, and declined the offer. As soon as I did this, I was relieved. I was able to support James and to build my faith back up. During this time, I was able to stand back and re-evaluate and assess all that had happened so far. I was so happy to be back in the congregation. I had no desire to return to any type of ministry. I didn’t miss it one bit.
After a lot of prayer, consideration and discussion, I decided in January, last year, to relinquish my Holy Orders. It was the best decision I have ever made, and not one I took lightly. I was now free, free to be the person God called me to be.
Now that you can see a bit of the journey I have been on, you may well see why I could not, in full conscience, now receive from a woman priest. Part of it is coming from the point of view that, if I got it wrong and put it right, how many have got it wrong and have not?
Part of it comes from my experience of priesthood as a layperson; I could only receive the sacrament from a man. A priest is the representative of Christ; so by virtue of this has to be a man. Also tied into that is the apostolic succession. The orders of a priest are handed down from generation to generation through a succession of men.
I was astounded by how important that was whenever I saw the late Fr Paul Wakelin preside at Mass and also Fr Michael Shields. Fr Michael trained Fr Paul, who in turn trained James, and when I see the line of succession, I can see their similar traits. It is like seeing a grandfather, father and son; you can see the similarities and likeness.
It gives me the confidence in a church that never changes, and never ends. The way that Fr Michael says Mass is just how Fr Paul said Mass, and James says Mass just like Fr Paul. In each case Christ has been passed from one priest to another, through their ordination, which comes from generations long ago, and through training.
When we were talking about the article, James and I got onto the subject of being a priest forever, and what that now means for me. We talked about the rites of ordination and the part that says ‘you are a priest forever like Melchizedek of old’, James suggested that I was returning to a priesthood to which I have always belonged, the priesthood of all believers. I had sort of forgotten about that, as I think so many of us do.
Maybe if the priesthood of all believers had been a role that was made a bit more obvious to me as a twenty-one-year-old, I may not have gone forward for ordination in the first place – who knows? This could have been something that other women have failed to see as a rewarding and as a viable option. I think that this point will stick with me for a long time: I have returned to the priesthood of all believers, a valuable and rewarding position to be in. I am right where God wants me to be and I couldn’t be happier.
My role within the church is now flourishing. I find myself speaking to people in a way that I never would have before. I find that people approach me and trust me, and I can talk to them about issues that matter to them in a way I could not before. I am not sure if that is just a matter of age (and infirmity, since I am only thirty-two) or whether it is because of the experience I have had and the position I was once in. But it does mean that I am fulfilling the role I once thought was avocation.
My ‘vocation came from a deep desire to serve the people of God, and to listen to and care for them in the best way that I could. Even though I am no longer ordained, my return to the priesthood of all believers means that that ‘vocation’ and desire is still fulfilled through the care, love and support that I am now able to show to people in the church where I worship.
Now I am very happy. I am able to sit in the congregation and be as involved, or not, in the church. I am there because
I want to be there, and not because I have to be there. I am happy in my role in supporting James in his ministry, though I do try and rebel from the ‘vicar’s wife’ stereotype. I came to our new church with a very clear idea of how I wanted to do the ‘vicar’s wife’ thing. I was very aware, in the back of my mind, that the people had asked James to be their priest.
Although I support him in his ministry, I didn’t want people thinking that they had bought one and got one free. I’m not that kind of person. He is the one that is in charge and he is the one that they need to turn to if they need someone. I love the fact that people do come to me, and do trust me, but they know and I know that ultimately he is the man in charge.
I am now a full-time mum and love being at home looking after our two-year-old daughter Grace, and we are looking forward to the next addition to the family in May. I love being a mum and relish the time I spend with Grace and look forward to the challenge of having two children under three. I also look forward to the next challenge that God has in store for me, because I really don’t think that this is the end of my adventure, or my story – just the beginning.