Today the Church, tomorrow the world: Some parishioners won't spot the difference when women become priests. So what's new? Susan Cole-King explains

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The Independent Online
THE ORDINATION of women as priests in the Church of England - the first of which takes in Bristol Cathedral tomorrow - is an event both overrated in importance and profoundly significant.

In all the excitement and media interest surrounding this ordination, with all the hype about 'firsts', there seems little awareness that there have been women priests in the Anglican Church for 23 years, and it is 50 years since the first woman was ordained. Half the churches belonging to the Anglican Communion (the international network of Anglican churches led by the Archbishop of Canterbury) already have women priests. But such is our xenophobia and arrogance that the experience of other countries, it seems, is irrelevant. The Church of England is the Anglican Communion as far as the English are concerned.

But even in the Church of England, women priests will make little practical difference to its day-to- day life. Female deacons have already been carrying out 80 per cent of priestly functions, as preachers, leading worship, providing pastoral care, and baptising, marrying and burying. Many have been in charge of parishes as acting 'vicars' for some years. The only things they have not been allowed to do are to say the words of consecration, absolution and blessing. This has blurred the definition of a priest, and most people in parishes where a woman deacon has been working will be unclear what difference it makes when she is priested.

On the practical level, ordaining women to the priesthood simply makes honest women of 'common law priests', as Bernice Broggio pointed out in one of the General Synod debates.

So why does it grab people's attention so much? What is it about the Church ordaining women as priests that seems so significant? When the Synod voted in November 1992 to allow women to be priests, women from other churches as well as the Church of England, and even women who were not churchgoers, felt a kind of gut-level affirmation. It was as if they actually felt for the first time they were daughters of God.

Many people spoke to me of what this decision meant to them. One Roman Catholic woman told me that she felt a new confidence, a new authority which would enable her to participate more in her church. It has taken a long time for Christians to recognise the significance and practical implications of the fact that women and men are made equally in God's image and share equally in Christ's priesthood.

I have spent most of my professional life working as a doctor in the so-called Third World. My work was primarily among women and children, who bear the greatest burden of ill-health, much of it a direct result of discrimination against women. Women have less access than men (sometimes grossly less) to health care, education, legal rights, land, income or jobs. In many countries, female circumcision is still normal practice. Maternal mortality is very high in some countries - mostly a result of preventable complications.

What has this to do with the ordination of women? The fact that the Church has for centuries denied women an equal place with men has legitimised the oppression of women; it gives a kind of religious sanction to regarding women as inferior, for that is the message conveyed when the Church says that women cannot be priests.

The attitudes of revered church fathers of the past that women were 'misbegotten males', or not full human beings, are deeply embedded in the patriarchal Judeo-Christian tradition, along with primitive attitudes about women's perceived uncleanness making them unfit for holy (priestly) functions.

In the past 50 years dramatic changes have taken place in Western attitudes, since women received the right to vote - and more recently with equal opportunities legislation (from which the Church has been exempt). Although women are still under-represented in many areas of economic and social life and discrimination still exists, the change has been remarkably rapid.

The Church, however, has lagged a long way behind secular society, defending its refusal to allow women into its leadership and sacramental ministry on theological grounds. Those theological arguments have been shown to be more and more untenable as the issues have been hotly debated in the past 10 years.

While recognising that there are genuine and sincerely-held theological objections to the ordination of women, when opponents come out with emotional outbursts, such as the one this week that women priests ought to be burned at the stake as witches, surely we are dealing here not with theology but with misogyny.

The opponents of women priests who are angry and upset have, however, grasped the significance of what this means in a way the majority probably have not. What is happening is a radical shift in consciousness that will have far-reaching effects into the next century.

What is being challenged is the way we understand the meaning of the Incarnation and ideas about God's relationship with human beings; ideas about sexuality and the relationships between men and women; ideas about the meaning of Christian priesthood and the nature of authority in the Church.

The current upheaval in the Church has been called a second Reformation. Like the first one, let us hope that it leads to a spiritual renewal of the Church (including the wider Church outside Anglicanism); and that this stone, thrown into the pond, will cause ripples to spread, and influence attitudes to women both inside and outside the Church, and even spread elsewhere in the world, to improve the quality of life for women everywhere.

The author is a medical doctor, and formerly the Senior Health Adviser to Unicef. She was ordained as a priest in New York in 1987, but since she has been back in England has worked as a deacon. On Sunday she resumes her full status as priest at St Peter's Church, Drayton, Oxfordshire.