Long and Winding Road to Equality in the Church; Religious Affairs Reporter Helen Bruce Examines the Drive by Women Priests for Acceptance within Their Religion

Article excerpt

Byline: Helen Bruce

The issue of women bishops is the most divisive faced by the Church since its decision to ordain priests seven years ago, which led to an exodus of more than 400 clergy.

To open a discussion on the subject is often to re-ignite the passions of traditionalists, who still resent the presence of women priests in their parishes.

Birmingham's highest ranking woman priest, area dean the Rev Maxine Marsh, believes the consecration of women bishops is a dream of equality worth striving for.

Yet she is under no illusions that the path will be an easy one.

While she has had nothing but support from the Bishop of Birmingham, the Right Rev Mark Santer, Miss Marsh has had people refuse to take communion from her and is still battling against stereotype.

'Some people don't like the idea of women priests. A couple of men refused to take communion from me. They start off saying, 'It's nothing personal' - but you can't get much more personal than gender. And some families who don't know me sometimes refuse to let me conduct funerals.

'It upset me at first, because you want to be liked and get on, but now I just think it's their problem. I'm happy to do anything I can to work it through with them, but at the end of the day it's not my responsibility. When push came to shove, most did receive communion from me.

'Partly they seem to be reassured when they see I'm doing a 'normal' service, just like a man's but with a woman's voice. Some seem to think I'll be waltzing round the aisles naked or something.'

The heavy smoking former English teacher spent three years as curate of Kings Norton before moving to St Peter and St Paul's in Kingsbury. She has spent six years there, the last two as area dean, challenging people's preconceptions.

Miss Marsh, 51, said the obstacles to progress within the Church itself could be frustrating.

'I don't want to put anyone off coming into the Church, but they should be aware that gender is still an issue. They need to know that the fight for equality has not ended. We still have to work for it.

'But my view is that if the Church can't be totally inclusive, I don't know what institution can be. The Church should be a model for society. Everyone should have a place in the Church, and no gender is necessarily better than the other.'

Bishops differ from priests in that they carry a special responsibility for teaching. Only bishops are allowed to administer the sacraments of confirmation and ordination.

Bishops must also be figures of unity within their diocese -the aspect of their role that is likely to cause the most difficulty to the working party.

Canon Marlene Parson, director of ordinands for the Birmingham diocese and dean of women's ministry, has set up a working group looking into the issues surrounding the episcopation of women. …