'Send down your Holy Spirit upon your servant Angela': History is made as the Church of England ordains its first women priests

IT WAS a very Anglican way to make history. There was no great excitement, little drama and a truly appalling sermon. But history was made all the same when 32 women were ordained as priests in Bristol Cathedral last night.

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Rev Barry Rogerson, laid his hand on the head of Angela Berners-Wilson at 5.47pm and prayed: 'Send down your Holy Spirit upon your servant Angela for the office and work of a priest in the church.'

Although at least seven other women priests from within the Anglican communion were there, all had been ordained abroad. For the Church in Britain, it was the culmination of 20 years of struggle, and an act that will drive a sizeable minority into a sort of inner exile. Yet, 18 priests later, when Bishop Rogerson said: 'Send down your Holy Spirit upon your servant Glenys' it seemed he had been doing it for ever.

Only when all the ordinations were complete and the new priests mingled with a delighted throng of wellwishers during the Peace was there a sense of newness and rejoicing.

Everything possible, it seemed until then, had been done to turn this into simply another service. The music was very traditional. The cathedral authorities had turned down an offer from dissident Roman Catholic priests to take part. The bishop fell to the occasion with a sermon which, in the language of equal opportunities recruitment advertising, exhorted the women to work for a church 'which does not discriminate against people on the grounds of colour, status, age, gender, ability'.

'There have been times when defending the cause of the ordination of women to the priesthood has been tiresome,' he said. 'At a meeting which was nearly all male recently . . . I steeled myself for the inevitable argument during the main course or the sweet, only to find a number of men saying that in their recent experience they had been ministered to by women deacons and that God had spoken through them. The journey of these women has not been a journey of the mind nor in the head but has been seen by those they have touched and who know that the spirit of God is at work in them. By their fruits you will know them, and we do.'

The cathedral was full almost to overflowing. About 50 people unable to get tickets watched the service through a window at the end of the nave, huddled in wind and drizzle.

A lonely hoarding on a roundabout in Bristol declared that the ordination had 'murdered' the Church of England. A mile away, the bells of St Philip and Jacob sounded a dirge, tolled by order of the vicar, the Rev Malcolm Widdecombe, as ardent an opponent of women priests as his sister Ann, the social security minister who converted to Roman Catholicism.

In London 200 traditionalists gathered to hear the Roman Catholic Bishop of North London, the Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, tell them to follow their conscience. For an hour, he was bombarded him with questions about conversion.

But in Bristol cathedral there was joy for the 32 women. Jane Hayward, 41, who was parish deacon at St Mary Redcliffe church, said: 'I'm so thrilled. I just think heaven and earth moved a little bit closer today.'

Few male bastions have taken so long to fall. The Church admitted women priests 125 years after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as the first woman doctor, 96 years after the first British woman stockbroker and 80 years after the recruitment of the first policewomen. The first British woman judge, Rose Heilbron, was appointed in 1956; the first woman professor in 1910; the first ambassador in 1976.

And newspapers? Anna Maria Smart became editor of the Reading Mercury in 1767.

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