“Is it your will…?”   The First Ordination of Women to the Priesthood.

As I look at the order of service for the first women to be ordained as a priest in the Diocese of London I notice something is wrong. On the cover there is the place, the date and the time of the service. It does not mention the ordaining bishop, which would normally appear on the cover, and the list of candidates does not include any parishes which is also very strange.  Why?  I will tell you why. This is what I recall of that day.

On Saturday 16th April 1994 the thirty-six candidates arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral in a coach – we were the first ‘batch’ of women to be ordained in London.  The coach windows had misted up but as we arrived I could see hundreds of people standing outside the cathedral.  It was a cold, grey, misty day and I wondered why they had not been allowed into the building. I soon found out.

The cathedral doors were locked and no-one was permitted to enter because the Revd. Paul Williamson was in the process of taking out a court order to prevent the service from taking place.  He had applied for an injunction against the Rt. Revd. Graham Dow, the Bishop of Willesden, who was going to be the ordaining bishop. The Bishop of London, the Rt. Revd. David Hope, refused to ordain women. 

We left the coach and were taken to the diocesan Chapter House and told to stay in the boardroom. There was a huge oak table and sitting alone on the table was a grey, cordless phone. It looked very tiny and very odd.  We were told that our friends and relatives could not enter the cathedral and that we were waiting for a call to say whether the ordination would be taking place.  That lone phone would bring us the news. 

I sat on the floor. We all just sat and waited, and waited.  Many of us had waited years for this moment. Some had waited decades. It was agony. 

After what seemed like hours the phone on the table rang.  Bishop Graham picked up the phone and left the room.  He returned, as I remember, fairly quickly and we tried to guess from his face what he was about to say, Bishop Graham stood still in front of us, we all stood up before he spoke.  “It’s on!” 

Then he told us that something would happen in the service and we were to remain calm.  He explained that at the moment in the service when he would ask the congregation, “Is it your will that they should be ordained priest?” the Revd. Paul Williamson would shout, “No!” and the service would have to stop.  He had, by law, to be allowed to present his objections publicly.  He would, we were told, move to a microphone and read from a script – he would not be permitted to deviate from that script and if he did so he would be removed from the cathedral.  We were told we had to listen to him in silence.  As we were being told about this so was the congregation – who were also told to remain silent whilst he read out his objections. 

We finally robed and were led out from the Chapter House to the great west door of the Cathedral.  I remember so clearly looking through that magnificent entrance and seeing the thousands of people in the nave and the long, long aisle we were about to walk down.  I remember thinking, “I have nothing left.”  Why did I think that?  My own parish priest had forbidden me to return to the church as a priest. When I stepped into that cathedral I was about to lose my home, my ministry and all that I held dear.  It should have been one of the most joyful days of my life.  It wasn’t.  And I wasn’t alone.  The reason there were no parishes mentioned in the order of service was because several of us were all being licensed to the same parish because our own parishes had refused to allow us to be licensed to them. 

The service continued and as expected Paul Williamson shouted, “No!” on cue.  I put my head down and cried – I’d had enough. I have an overhead photo of that exact moment – it shows Paul Williamson speaking and me, with my head down and the candidates at either side looking at me.  A very precise moment in my life.

Paul Williamson finished speaking and walked straight out of the cathedral.  The bishop again asked, “Is it your will that they should be ordained priest?” and the cry from the congregation shook me - I felt as if they could have taken the roof off.  Over two thousand people loudly cried, “It is!”

The rest of the ordination went on without a hitch.  As each of us was ordained by the bishop we were allowed to have up to six clergy colleagues come and lay hands on us.  I knelt before the bishop and he laid his hands on me and he whispered something to me before I stood up.  I walked back to my seat – I was a priest - at last.  I was, however, completely unaware that when my six friends had come up to lay hands on me they were joined by many others who had learned of my story.  I have no idea who they were but I thank them.

When the service was over we filed out through the great west door onto the front steps of St. Paul’s.  I was clutching my licence and Bible and wondering where my family were when Bishop Donald Arden came up to me and hugged me.  He whispered, “It will be all right. All shall be well.” And then he made me laugh.  I leaned back laughing and at that moment a journalist took a photo of me with Bishop Donald  - that photo appeared on the front page of virtually every newspaper.  I was even in Hello magazine!  My friends felt it was some kind of divine justice. 

It is a long story but I did return to my parish church the next day and in the evening I officiated at the Eucharist for the first time.  Hundreds came – including, of course, all the members of my congregation - but the sting in the tail is that no-one, apart from the Church Wardens, knew that they would never see me again.  I was forbidden to say goodbye to the people I had loved and served.  Giving them the bread for the first and last time was a very, very bitter-sweet moment. 

The following day I was sitting in first class, in an empty jumbo jet, as I flew out to South Africa.  I was about to begin a life changing experience with a people who truly understood the pain and patience of discrimination.

When I returned from South Africa I wrote to almost every diocese and was eventually offered a post in St. Albans Diocese where I spent, very happily, the next 27 years in parish ministry. I retired, reluctantly, in November 2021 and returned to my family roots in Poole and my new diocese of Salisbury.

Canon Pam Wise

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