Thirty years after the Church of England took the historic step of allowing women to become priests, equality campaigners say female clergy still face “institutionalised discrimination”.
Fewer than one in three paid clergy are female, according to 2020 data – the most recent published – although the same source showed more women (55%) than men had begun training for the priesthood.
Individual churches can refuse to accept women as priests or vicars, and the C of E also permits churches to reject the authority of a female bishop.
“We’re still living with institutionalised discrimination that is provided for in law and relies on exemptions from the Equality Act,” writes Martine Oborne, who last month became chair of Watch (Women and the Church), which campaigns for gender equality.
“The church is affirming women as equal while at the same time saying it’s all right for some churches not to accept them. It’s a contradiction.”
Oborne, who was ordained in 2009 and is the vicar at St Michael’s in Chiswick, west London, claimed that female clergy were less likely to get a role in sole charge of big urban churches, and more likely to end up in assistant vicar roles or running multiple small churches in rural parishes.
The C of E acknowledged that progress towards equality had been slower than it would have liked, but said the proportion of female clergy would increase as those in training took up posts.
“It has taken a while, but it has gradually evened out in the past few years,” said Helen Fraser, the C of E’s head of vocations.
The church allowed women to be appointed as bishops in 2014, and there are now 28 female bishops out of a total of 110. Only five of the serving female bishops are in senior diocesan roles.
Fraser said: “If you compare the church to commerce and industry, I imagine our senior leadership doesn’t compare favourably in lots of places. But the reality is we started from completely standing still just a few years ago.”
Under the measures passed by the General Synod, the C of E’s ruling body – after years of bitter divisions over the issue – special provision was made for churches and clergy who said their theological beliefs prevented them from accepting female priests.
Individual churches were permitted to refuse female vicars, and were given the right to be overseen by “flying bishops” – who also opposed women’s ordination – instead of their local bishop, male or female, who ordained women.
Sarah Mullally, the bishop of London since 2018, was on occasion required to delegate her authority to the bishop of Fulham, a more junior bishop.
Oborne said there were churches in London that only accepted applications for the post of vicar from men, and that it was “almost impossible for a woman to be appointed vicar at some of our large London churches”.
Although she was well supported in her parish, at times Oborne found herself “sitting at a table with senior clergy, some of whom don’t recognise that I’m actually a priest.
“How can we be in 2022 and the national church is still discriminating against women, who represent about two-thirds of their congregations and half the population?” she said.
Some women in the church felt under pressure to “keep quiet” about the issue, she said. “Talking about it is considered rather bad manners. No one really wants to admit this situation exists. It’s unjust, unhealthy and dishonest.”
Churches should be transparent about their stance on women’s ministry, clearly stating if they do not accept female priests or women in leadership positions in the church, so congregants could make informed choices, she said.
But ultimately, the C of E should end its exemption under the Equality Act and “stop legitimising the theology that churches use to limit women’s ministry”.
The C of E “loves to give the impression that the battle over women’s ministry is all sorted now. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve also a long way to go.”