Inroads by women fall short of leadership positions

Published October 1, 2001

Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all

– Dr. Samuel Johnson

Waterloo, Ont.

IF Dr. Johnson, the great 18th-century author and lexicographer, were to visit the Anglican Church of Canada today, 25 years after the ordination of the first women priests, he would not be merely surprised, he would be astounded.

Female clergy make up about 16 per cent of active Anglican clergy in Canada (344 out of 2048, as of July 31, 2000) and they are represented in nearly all areas and all levels of the church.

However, women priests today say they still struggle to be accepted in some places and some are concerned that advancement within the church hierarchy is moving at a discouragingly slow pace. Out of 43 active bishops, two, or 4.6 per cent, are women. No woman has filled the office of archbishop or primate and Canada’s first female cathedral dean, Susan Charbonneau of Saskatoon, was appointed just this year.

“It’s the glass ceiling issue. It’s the same in all the professions. There is still a whole issue of acceptance,” said Bishop Ann Tottenham, suffragan, or assistant, bishop in the diocese of Toronto. The phrase “glass ceiling,” used in the business world to describe the perception that women face intangible barriers getting to the top jobs, sometimes becomes “stained-glass ceiling” in discussions about barriers facing women in the church.

Although Bishop Tottenham, 61, points to major urban Toronto congregations with female priests, many feel that women are still have a tough time moving into leadership roles in high-profile parishes that are often a stepping-stone to the bishop’s office.

“We have more women as assistants and associates and part-timers than men. People can easily accept women in assistant jobs. The women go there because they are not offered single-point parishes in the cities,” said Rev. Mary Lucas, 53, one of the six women ordained on Nov. 30, 1976, now at the parish of St. Aidan in Oakville, Ont., diocese of Niagara.

Rev. Linda St. Clair, at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, diocese of New Westminster, wondered why more women aren’t being encouraged to seek leadership roles.

“I would want us to avoid tokenism, but you need to say, ‘What do we look for?’ It’s one of the development issues bishops need to face,” said Ms. St. Clair, who is 62.

Without encouragement, many women decide that leadership positions aren’t worth the travel and long hours. At a recent episcopal election in the diocese of Toronto, only one of 11 candidates was a woman. (She was not elected).

“We’ve scoured around, but for many women, getting ahead isn’t one of the things that motivates them a lot. It’s like ‘I don’t need that kind of grief, I’m happy at St. Swithin’s-in-the-Swamp,'” said Bishop Tottenham.

There are also demographic factors, noted Bishop Victoria Matthews, 47, elected the first female bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1994 and, so far, the only diocesan bishop.

“Canada did not ordain a lot of women in the first five years, then in the next five years, there was growing acceptance. Still, the average age (of female priests) was significantly older than the men,” she said. Women often came to the priesthood as a second career after spending years in a first career where they were more readily accepted, such as teaching or nursing. It has taken years, therefore, to produce enough younger female priests to create a pool of candidates for top jobs.

Both primates who have held office in the 25 years since ordinations of women began (Archbishop Ted Scott and the current primate, Archbishop Michael Peers) have been strong supporters of women’s ordination, but female priests still occasionally encounter difficulty.

Earlier this year, at the ordination of Rev. Susan Fyfe in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, a fellow priest, Rev. John Paul Westin, refused to participate in the laying-on of hands, a physical gesture by fellow priests that symbolizes the succession of priests from the apostles, Christ’s first followers.

“It was really shocking for a lot of us (women priests). We thought this didn’t happen any more. I was very angry at this sense of injustice. I thought we had addressed these things and it has stirred me out of my complacency,” said Rev. Joanne Mercer, who was at the ceremony and serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Gander, diocese of Central Newfound-land.

Rev. Frances Boutilier, of the parish of Alberton-O’Leary, P.E.I., diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, 59, had some rough times when she arrived four years ago. “There is one house I will not visit because I will not be verbally abused. I have my integrity, too,” she said, adding that she believes acceptance, overall, has been good.

While women in the church may face resistance to the general idea of female leaders, they also face some theological opposition, based on the argument that women should not be priests because Jesus didn’t choose women as disciples.

Another viewpoint holds that since the priest reflects the image of Christ, a woman cannot fulfil that role.

Others say that ordaining women is a break with a tradition that reaches back to the first century A.D. and makes ecumenical relations difficult with denominations that don’t ordain women, such as the Roman Catholic church.

But when asked “why women priests?” many female ministers counter, not facetiously, with “why not?”

“I believe that God called me here,” said Rev. Boutilier, a sentiment echoed over and over again by female priests interviewed for this article.

Bishop Matthews, who often faces varying levels of acceptance when she travels abroad, stated, “the ordained leadership of the church is called forth from the baptized,” which includes both men and women.

Ordaining women makes use of “the range of gifts that are available” in the church, said Rev. Lucas. “We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of possibilities,” she said.

First of two articles


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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