George Austin on the media coverage of ten years of women priests

It is the 11th November 2002 as I write this. Ten years ago, in the evening, Archbishop Habgood asked me how I was feeling after the vote. ‘That the Church has been taken away from me, that it is no longer the Catholic Church of this land,’ I replied. He began to explain why this was not so, but I interrupted. ‘I am not saying that that is how it is. But it is certainly how I feel.’ Ten years have passed and the feeling remains. Moreover, in those ten years I now feel it with the head as well as with the heart.

The voice of Jezebel

The Church Times this week was at its most triumphalist, living up to its pre-1992 nickname of Jezebel’s Trumpet. To be fair, there were articles by Geoffrey Rowell and Mark Burkill on the traditionalist view from the Catholic and Evangelical wings of the Church, and interviews with opponents who stayed and those who left – a page and a half out of six – plus an irenic piece by John Habgood justifying the Act of Synod.

But most of it rubbed our noses in the dirt, not least in the joyful recollections of those who sang and cheered in Dean’s Yard as we left, depressed and dejected by what had been done. It was so unpleasant and unchristian that some of the women on Synod who had enthusiastically supported the legislation were so embarrassed by it that they begged opponents to leave by other exits as so avoid the taunts and jeers. My own feeling was that by their actions these particular women had shown they were totally unsuitable for a caring pastoral ministry, whatever the arguments for and against women priests.

The Liberal Agenda

The Church Times also recorded an event I had forgotten. When Jean Mayland, one of the most extreme of the supporters, returned to York, a reporter from the York Evening Press asked her to respond to a comment of mine that the issue of women’s ordination was only a ‘part of a wider liberal agenda’. The next day, she was ‘mortified’ by the headline: ‘Minster Deacon calls for Ordination of Gays and Calling God Mother’.

I do now remember that she was so ‘mortified’ that she persuaded the Archbishop’s press officer to issue a denial. Perhaps she was right to deny she had said anything of the sort; but the words in the body of the article were hardly ones that a reporter could have made up.

Monica Furlong’s contribution was, not unexpectedly, vitriolic about the Act of Synod, and her comments will give joy to those feminists who wish to drive us out of the Church of England. But surprisingly I did find myself in agreement with her on one issue – the manner in which some church leaders, having supported the Measure with enthusiasm, still treat women as if nothing had changed.


It was on this that the Church of England Newspaper homed in, with familiar voices in full flow – Christina Rees on the need to get rid of the Act of Synod and Nerissa Jones talking of how she ‘camped outside Lambeth Palace for three days before the vote’ and how Dr Carey was ‘driven in and out with his face averted.’ ‘Women’, she claimed, ‘remain an embarrassment which was hustled to one side by the infamous Act of Synod.’

Hysterically she went on to assert that the Church, in ‘discriminating’ against women, was ‘sitting quite comfortably alongside the Taliban’ – an unfortunate comparison in that it is the feminist fundamentalists and their episcopal supporters who are quite unprepared to allow traditionalists to enjoy that which allows them to remain within the Church of England. By contrast, opponents who did not leave the Church after 11/11/92 have for the most part attempted to live in peace with those whose priestly orders they cannot accept.

After all, if women have not been given the preferment to which experience entitles them (and no-one can deny that they haven’t), those who occupy the seats of power in this – suffragan and diocesan bishops – are now almost wholly taken from the ranks of supporters.

In his opening speech in the 1992 debate, Bishop Michael Adie assured the Synod that bishops would ‘work strenuously to keep space and room in every ministry’ and again and again since that time promises have been made that both viewpoints have an honoured place within the Church, and that there would be no discrimination in appointments.

Parochial attrition

While we rightly condemn the abandonment of episcopal integrity in the manner in which such promises have been broken or totally ignored in the past ten years, we need to be aware that our position in this is also shared by many of the women, at least in regard to senior appointments, diocesan as well as parochial.

But the effect on traditionalist laity has perhaps been greater. More than once I would complain as yet another parish was ‘picked off’, with an orthodox priest replaced by a liberal, only to be assured that ‘there are many in the parish who are happy with the ordination of women.’ Well of course there were, but that same argument was never employed in the opposite direction. In the archdeaconry of York alone in the period from the first ordinations of women in 1994 to my retirement in 1999, appointments were made in 19 parishes where the departing priest was against women’s ordination. In 17 he was replaced by a supporter.

It does create an unease among the faithful, a feeling that our time is short, that eventually (perhaps soon) we shall be forced out. For us who worship in parishes within the city of York, the anxiety is palpable. The Shreeve Commission has spent about a year looking at church provision in the city and, quite correctly, has concluded there are too many churches.

I do share their unease. We are personally well settled at St Luke’s Church, with many friends in a congregation that contains all viewpoints on women priests. But it has always been a woman-priest-free zone and the Report recognizes it as a place with many Forward in Faith members within its congregation. In view of that, it is surprising that it should recommend that St Luke’s should be put under St Olave’s parish, where there is a woman curate and a vicar who is chair of Affirming Catholicism. It may not happen, but we are not holding our breath, and in my mind I have begun to prepare a farewell sermon: ‘I have been excommunicated. Well, not really, but that is how it feels.’

What was it I said to John Habgood ten years ago today?

George Austin is a former Archdeacon of York