Women priests tell of abuse and discrimination

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WOMEN priests and their supporters yesterday called upon the Church of England to tackle the problem of harassment and discrimination of women clergy.

A report to be published later this month will highlight a catalogue of abuse and discrimi- nation against female clergy.

Five years since the historic vote to allow the ordination of women, the study found that female priests often face hostility and sexism from male colleagues and sometimes from other women.

In some cases, male vicars have refused to stand alongside a woman priest in a service. Women have found themselves excluded from church meetings and intimidated by insults. Jobs are sometimes advertised with the words: "Men only need apply."

Sally Barnes, who monitors women's appointments for the Women and the Watch organisation (Watch), said: "I believe what we are hearing about is only the tip of the iceberg."

She receives many calls from across the country from women clergy reporting discrimination and harassment which makes them miserable. "[Opponents of woman priests] can make if difficult in that kind of way that runs women down and makes life very hard," she said.

Senior members of the church are already examining copies of the report, carried out by the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union which set up a division to represent vicars last year. They have been concerned that the women questioned in the survey came from only six out of the 44 dioceses.

However, Mrs Barnes, a schools inspector who is married to a vicar, said: "They should not be rubbishing this and saying it's only a few people and not significant. I feel that the church has got a long way to go in accepting there is a problem."

Christina Rees, the chair of Watch, said some of the opposition was "soul- destroying" for women priests, particularly in fiercely traditional areas such as parts of London.

"It is hard to work with your colleagues when they are more or less implying that you don't have a right to work there," she said.

Canon Patience Purchas, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, said she had not experienced difficulties. "I'm in a fairly senior post and I'm fairly feisty."

But she said: "I have no doubt that there are some places where women are treated unpleasantly. I think we're still feeling our way with how men and women work together appropriately in the ministry."

She said she suspected that a small amount of sexual harassment occurred, as in other professions,"but it just shocks people that it should happen within the ministry".

"The church is the only profession that is exempted under equal opportunities legislation, but there are whole issues to do with gender and civil rights that the church is ducking. I think there is a failure at the top to acknowledge that there are issues to be addressed."

Dr William Beaver, the Church of England's head of communications, said: "In no shape or form would we tolerate harassment or bullying of women. Every woman cleric knows where to take any allegations for redress."