Women take difficult journey into priesthood: Andrew Brown talks to two of the female ministers in the first group to be ordained this week

THIRTY-TWO women will be ordained priests in Bristol cathedral next Saturday, the first in Britain. They range in age from 30 to 69 and all but the eldest are already working in the church.

The two youngest, Karen McKinnon and Jean Kings, are deacons in Lockleaze, a post-war council estate in the north of the city. The Rev Karen McKinnon has been the full-time parish deacon at the church of St Francis and St Mary Magdalene for the last two years.

She will become the youngest woman priest in England when ordained. Her journey has been straightforward compared to that of some of her fellow priests. Sister Rosemary Dawn Watling has been a deacon since 1970; Christine Clarke since 1971. But Ms McKinnon has had to wait only an extra year as a deacon, compared to the men who studied alongside her.

She has wanted to be a Christian minister for 17 years, since she was a 13-year-old Pentecostalist. 'But the Pentecostalists don't let women do anything,' she said.

While reading Theology at Exeter University she met a retired Anglican deaconess whose stories of her life persuaded her to become an Anglican. She was accepted for training to the ministry at her second attempt: the first time round she was turned down as too new a convert.

In Bristol she has encountered no prejudice against women priests, though once in Hull when she was distributing communion wine, which is not a priestly function, one woman pushed the cup away at the altar rails and left with her family.

She says that becoming a curate rather than a deacon will make little practical difference to her life. It is not the ability to pronounce the words of consecration at the Eucharist but the power she will acquire on Saturday to give absolutions after confessions that will make the difference.

One elderly member of the Lockleaze congregation, Louise Jones, who was brought up as a German Roman Catholic, said she had not been to confession for 45 years because if she did her confession would have to be made to a man. 'It is also a help to the priest himself that he will not need to hear all women's confessions in the future,' she said.

Most of the congregation could not see what the fuss was about: the ordination of women could not possibly threaten the identity of the Church of England as it has done for those priests who will leave as a result. It was an issue of justice or of competence rewarded. Almost all the deacons to be ordained on Saturday are in their thirties and forties, and they are barred by the legislation from becoming bishops.

Father Paul Denyer, in charge at Lockleaze, will soon have a staff of four including himself for his congregation: Ms McKinnon; Judith Carpenter, who is studying for the priesthood at the local theological college; and Ms Kings, a part-time parish deacon who is also chaplain at the University of the West of England.

'It will not make much difference to my job as a chaplain,' Ms Kings said. 'People who have experienced a woman's ministry seem to lose their objections. The first time I preached at home you could have sliced the atmosphere with a knife beforehand. But afterwards people were delighted.'

She added: 'Most of the Catholic laity I know are in favour. I did a debate at the local Catholic church on the motion 'This house believes women can be priests', and we won by a large margin.'

But Ms Kings saw difficulties ahead for the women once they had been ordained. 'There is no doubt that there are people who would withdraw all decision-making from women - but we will be less disenfranchised after this.

'Of course some people are afraid of us because they think we are all big and butch. Some of us may be big but most of us aren't butch. Most people, if you say God's calling you, they give you the dignity of believing it.'

(Photograph omitted)