Church pays millions to clergy who walked out over women priests

Ten years on, the soaring cost of compensation for those who couldn't accept female ordination is disturbing reformers
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The Independent Online

A decade after the first women were ordained, clergymen who left the church in protest are still receiving more than a million pounds a year in compensation.

The Church of England is settling claims with priests who have recently resigned after working with women for several years. Other claimants include men who left the church in protest and then returned, but kept their pay-outs.

This has outraged reformers who argue that the money should be used to help parishioners rather than priests, many of whom have now joined the Catholic church.

"Why has it taken some people nine years to decide their consciences have been compromised? How many playgroups and youth workers could we have helped instead?" said the Rev Judith Maltby, fellow and chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who campaigned for the ordination of women.

After the General Synod voted for women priests in November 1992, the Church of England agreed to honour any claims for loss of earnings from priests leaving the church as long as they were submitted by 2004. The church estimated the total cost at £23m, paid to no more than 400 disaffected priests.

But in a recent parliamentary answer, the Church Commissioners revealed the original budget has now been increased to more than £24m and that £15.8m has already been paid to 412 priests.

The issue of women priests once bitterly divided the church. Over the years, opposition has officially dwindled but the 1,400 women who joined as a result of the reform still encounter hostility.

Ordained in 1998, the Rev Guli Francis-Dehqani, 35, works in the parish of Mortlake and East Sheen, in Surrey. She has experienced prejudice both from parishioners and within the church.

"I do have positive experiences of going into hospitals and people saying it's wonderful to see a woman," said Ms Francis-Dehqani.

"But there has been a lot of trauma and pain. I have a love-hate relationship with the church. Like any other institution, it's broken and fallible."

She believes the situation is made worse by the fact the church is exempt from sex discrimination laws. This means parishes can place job ads which ask for male priests only to apply.

"The arguments I've experienced are couched in theology," she added. "Some people would argue it's prejudice and fear of women which is justified by theology."

Father Peter Geldard, who led the fight in the General Synod against women priests and is now the Catholic chaplain at the University of Kent, said he is no misogynist.

"I was open to the possibility of women priests – the point I was making was that the Church of England did not have the authority to make this decision," he said.

"It was a very painful move for me. I'm glad the church did offer compensation – I was not penniless but for two years I waited for the phone to ring. In a secular situation it would be called constructive dismissal. Three or four thousand pounds a year is not generous in these times."

His views are shared by Stephen Parkinson of Forward in Faith, an international pressure group opposed to women priests. "If you have been a priest for 20 years and are going to lose your house, job, income and relocate your family, it's only proper that people should be given time to decide at a time which does not screw up their lives," he said.

On women priests, Mr Parkinson said the Bible is clear. "Jesus chose 12 men, he did not choose women.

"He cocked a snook at every convention. If he'd wanted women priests he'd have had them. If He is God incarnate, then He should know."

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