Before I started writing my novel The Girls’ Book of Priesthood, I interviewed over twenty women priests from all around the UK. It was a fascinating, often humbling, experience, as they shared their very personal stories about why they had followed this path. Many were in their early twenties, just starting out. Another was one of the original ‘suffragettes’ who had marched down Whitehall, banner aloft, campaigning for women’s ordination in the early 1990s.
This is what I learnt:
Forget all the stereotypes
Say ‘female priest’ and, even now, that can still conjure up a picture of steel grey hair, bobbly cardigans and a houseful of cats. The women I met couldn’t have been further from that image: funny, feisty, fiercely intelligent …and in some cases drop-dead glamorous. They could have pursued any path – yet they felt called to take on this particular role, with all its various challenges and rewards.
Even 24 years after women were first ordained, some things haven’t changed
Although the intake of young trainee priests is now 50/50 male and female, there are still large swathes of the Church of England that oppose women officiating at the altar. That ‘anti-camp’ compromises a pincer movement of both the high and the low end of the C of E: evangelicals on the one side and conservative Anglo-Catholics on the other. Some dioceses are also more liberal than others. Even in inner London, some parishes still refuse to employ a female curate or priest. But the capital has also done a recent high profile recruitment drive to encourage more women on board.
Older women priests often worked for free
Never mind the gender pay gap. Many of the first waves of female priests found themselves offered roles in Self Supporting Ministry – in other words, unpaid positions. These slots were frequently in remote rural team parishes, serving several villages, that no one else wanted to take on.
Being accepted intro training is like joining the Royal Marines
Getting into theological college and becoming a trainee, or ‘ordinand’, is not a shoe-in. Some curates even describe theological college as ‘spiritual boot camp’, so tough is the entrance process and the training that follows.
It’s all about finding the right vicar
When you’re in training, everything hinges on that all-important working relationship with your vicar – the ‘incumbent’. He or she is the one who guides you as you learn and helps you navigate the rough patches that are bound to crop up. Some vicars and curates first meet at introductory ‘pets and owners’ sessions held at theological colleges – a form of clerical speed dating.
Being young, single and female makes you Public Property Number 1
People in the parish often think they know – or need to know – everything about you, as the new curate on board. That curiosity ramps up tenfold, if you’re a young woman and still something of a novelty.
Dating a member of the congregation is an absolute no-no
Becoming romantically involved with a parishioner is totally off-limits for anyone on the clergy team. If that parishioner also happens to be married – as is the case in my novel – that could turn out to be a sackable offence.
Gallows humour gets you through
Rev and the Vicar of Dibley had it right. Being a priest is an extremely demanding role – emotionally, physically and spiritually. And, as in any close knit team, it’s the barbed in-jokes, the witty codenames, the letting off steam in a safe place that helps get you through.
It’s a 24-7 job where ‘me-time’ is essential
Priests can be dealing with life, death and everything in between, all in one afternoon: a baptism, sorting out the flower rota, attending a dying parishioner in a hospice, trying to sort out the endlessly leaking roof. That’s why curates are encouraged to ring-fence regular time for themselves – preferably out of the parish and with friends who know them from a completely different world.
You can get mistaken for a kiss-o-gram
Some people are apparently still so startled by the sight of an attractive young woman in a dog collar that they assume she’s simply dressing up…