Some 24 years after the Church of England chose to allow women to be ordained as priests, it seems the subject can still raise hackles in parishes up and down the land. Last week, St Barnabas and St Paul with St Thomas the Martyr in the Jericho district of Oxford, and now our own church of Saints Peter and Paul in King’s Sutton have become the latest examples of this conflict between theological tradition and 21st century British society.
An advert placed by the parochial church council (PCC) stipulating male-only applicants for the current vacancy at St Barnabas and St Paul with St Thomas the Martyr, which like King’s Sutton’s parish church has a very strong Anglo-Catholic, “bells and smells” tradition, resulted in predictable accusations last week of “antediluvian misogyny” from a local politician and others hoping to score cheap points. With the death in summer of the much loved Fr Roger Bellamy, the subject of women priests has again become a thorny issue for the PCC here as well.
When Anglican churches were first allowed to start appointing woman priests, the parish of King’s Sutton requested and was granted an opt-out. However, our PCC always has the option to reverse that decision when looking at new appointments. After sometimes heated discussions in recent weeks, though, members of the PCC were completely split down the middle on whether to consider the possibility of a woman to replace Fr Bellamy.
This was no simplistic example of the “battle of the sexes” no matter how people outside the church may view it. Some of the strongest voices in favour of a male-only succession have always belonged to women themselves. In fact, the casting vote that ensured continuation of the status quo at Saints Peter and Paul was placed by the PCC’s female chair.
The PCC’s vote to stick with tradition could put it at odds with lay members of the local church, however. A straw poll undertaken last month among members of the King’s Sutton congregation revealed that around three quarters of them were in favour of (or had no objection to) appointing a woman. Contrary to what some traditionalists believe, this easy-going attitude is by no means unusual – it is thought around two thirds of Anglo-Catholic parishes in England have already opted to admit women priests.
Those people who argue that the PCC should consider all applicants for the post – male or female – on their merits rather than their gender are still hoping the congregation’s opinions will be taken into account before a final decision is made on the appointment. Privately, though, some opponents of the status quo have expressed doubts as to whether this will happen.
“King’s Sutton is like any other village,” says one PCC member who prefers not to be identified. “It’s a ‘goldfish bowl’ in which members of the PCC want to be seen as living in harmony with their fellow parishioners and, to some extent at least, representing their views. You’d like to think they might sense that people are generally opposed to maintaining outdated traditions, and perhaps change their minds on this issue accordingly. At the moment, though, that seems unlikely.”