Ann Turner offers some personal reflections on remaining a deacon
I sometimes think I must be the only person who does not remember where they were on the day that President Kennedy was shot; but I certainly do remember the exact time and place when the BBC World Service announced that the General Synod of the Church of England had voted to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood. I was with my husband, in a clapped-out Ford Fiesta, negotiating the hair-pin bends on a narrow road up the side of the tallest volcano on a tiny island in the South Atlantic.
To say that we were devastated would be something of an understatement. All the vibes that had been travelling to that remote corner of the world had indicated that, whilst the voting would be close, the outcome would be on the side of the angels. But that was not to be. Was it because my ordaining bishop and ex-diocesan (Robert Williamson) had made the most moving speech of his career and all the waverers were swayed to follow him? We will never know.
Out on a rock
On our rock, we were isolated in our grief. There was no one to share our thoughts, prayers or moans with, but in a peculiar way perhaps we were privileged, as we were able to remain focused and watch the whole scenario unpack before our eyes as and when the RAF brought out letters and newspapers. St Helena Diocese, to which Ascension Island belonged, had remained orthodox and traditional, and to this day has remained so. So for the next few years, my life carried on as before and no one questioned why I had not been priested.
On arriving back in England, though, the whole of my ministry seemed to be called into question. I was and am certain that God has called me to the office of servant of the servants of God, namely the diaconate, but many people do not believe me. My diocesan and suffragan were both honourable men, respected my position and exerted no pressure, but other clergy and laity were not so generous. Value judgements were made before even speaking to me, and I was not invited to the Deanery Chapter for nearly a year in case it upset the women priests (a particular irony as fellowship with other clergy was one of the main reasons for returning from our isolated parish).
A liberal priest blamed my husband as being the cause of my ‘non-ordination’, saying, ‘You’d be better off leaving him and being priested,’ when I refused to administer the chalice at a deanery service at which a woman was officiating. No way would he have it that it could be my own decision.
Five years on, a women’s magazine ran a feature on half a dozen women who had been priested, what they were doing and how they were enjoying it. They gave many reasons why they were glad to be priests, but all their reasons were focused on diaconal work. Not one mentioned the Mass.
Last year, a survey was carried out among a wider group of women priests who were moaning about how their male counterparts were treating them. I can honestly say that it is the liberal priests who are by far the worst in patronizing women’s ministry. Give me an orthodox priest to work with any day. I know then exactly where he stands and there will be no compromising of either of our positions. Liberals and Aff-Caths treat the permanent deacon as though they are in their first year out of college, even if she has been in the ministry longer than them.
To the priests of our own integrity I say a big thank you. Without exception, I have been treated with courtesy and generosity. Many I know have fought my cause, and even those who are against women deacons have been gracious in their dealings with me. I have not been made to feel an outsider or a thorn in the flesh.
I wish the same could be said of our laity. Many I know are with me, but there is a core who feel that by my presence at FiF gatherings the movement is being undermined. I am not ‘a spy from the other camp’ – they would not have me. And I am not still a deacon because I have not been trained: St Stephen’s House only ever claimed to train men (or women) for the diaconate.
I do not expect you to welcome female deacons with open arms, and I am not trying to force my presence on you. But there are still those of us who were deaconesses before the General Synod made us unisex, and who still wish to exercise that ministry for which we were trained and ordained.
The Revd Ann Turner has worked as a deacon in the dioceses of Bradford, St Helena, Southwark, and now Bradford again.