Slowly, slowly does it . . . women become priests

Location : Norwich

When I sought to serve God as a teenager every door seemed closed. You needed to be a man to serve. Who would have dreamt that I would end up as an ordained priest in the Church of England! After completing my degree in the early 1950s I trained and worked as a neighbourhood worker for some years and that was it. I was, of course, unmarried and expected to live in the Time and Talents building which was located in Bermondsey, which was then a deprived area of London. We ran clubs for young people, organised trips and holiday camps and did home visits and other similar activities.

Eventually after doing training at Gilmore House Theological College on Clapham Common I was let loose in 1966, and was licensed to the Rector of Beaconsfield as Parish Worker. Then as now Beaconsfield was a desirable place to live and commute to London from, and prosperous, so the parish could afford to pay me my salary. The amount was determined by the Diocese and compared favourably with what I had previously received as a neighbourhood worker. That was how it was then, but during my time in Beaconsfield, a scheme was started whereby a wealthy parish could sponsor a worker to go where the Diocese reckoned they were particularly needed.

Oxford Diocese provided someone, whose title and name escape me, to organise and facilitate all who served in the Diocese as Woman or Parish Workers. I found these meetings encouraging and a good source of information. I was surprised to learn that some of my fellow workers did not receive a regular salary and never had done! Others worked just for being accommodated in parish property. We met in one such place, a delightful two up two down cottage. If I remember right it was called the Curate’s Cottage!

Beaconsfield had several large council house estates and the old established church, to which I was attached, had a tradition of reaching out and accommodating those who lived on the estates. This fitted well with my previous work with Time and Talents Settlement. I was able to run clubs and develop a Sunday School which was of mixed social background. Through this link I was able to build up a group of children for whom a week away was a great excitement. The first year we went to St Mary’s Bay Holiday Camp – very spartan! One enormous room and two minute cubicles for the leaders! Then I came to an agreement with Billy Butlin through whose generosity we were able to afford to stay at Butlins for a whole week! This was an excitement! The scheme was more or less self financing, 1/6d, or less, according to family circumstances, paid weekly to me. Everyone saved, and only I knew the amounts paid. This was a great excitement for children who had never previously left the town.

Charles Warner, my Rector, had a pastoral heart and this was the area where he wanted me to work. He taught me so much about faithful visiting and what it can achieve. I had no official Church role. I was welcomed at Mattins the first Sunday sitting in the front pew. But that was it!

An incident just before Mr Warner retired showed that the Parish was ready for change! Mr Warner was invited to preach elsewhere, and forgot to arrange cover! At 25 past 6 this became obvious! It was decided that the Choir Tenor would sing the Office, and I would deliver an address that I had prepared for another occasion! I can’t remember what the occasion was, but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with either our faith or the Bible. I was not seeking to illuminate the congregation, just to keep going for ten minutes! So I galloped home to get my notes while the choir processed in, and then I gave my address. I did not presume to use the pulpit! And there were no complaints!

Finally Mr Warner retired. I was living in a big room on the top floor of the Rectory. A servant’s staircase enabled me to come and go without entering their part of the house. I needed to move, and the men of the parish renovated, repaired and redecorated part of the old stables, which had been used by the stable boys of Victorian, or was it Georgian, Rectors.

Mr Warner was followed by Peter Nott, whose reputation as being unhappy about women in ministry preceded him! He apparently asked the Diocese after he came what I SHOULD be doing! All change! I was like a new curate! And the upshot was that Peter changed his opinions and said so at my ordination – to my dumbfounded astonishment! I never saw the wheels turning! We never discussed the matter but, looking back, there was a perhaps a significant incident. Early in the 1980s, I think?? Some Bishops in the United States ordained some women before the Church there had agreed to it officially. There was a furore in the religious press!! Peter asked me to explain the situation to our Parochial Church Council. Sadly I concluded that it would not help matters as the Church of England was not a Congregational Church! For us change must come through General Synod. I must have passed the test!!

Things were changing in the Parish. Beaconsfield became a Team, the three churches worked together. This was good for me. The weekly Team meeting was a really good learning opportunity and I got asked to do things across the parish.

Next I moved to Banbury and for the first time lived in a house provided by the diocese. I had crossed an important frontier. It was no longer assumed that I would be unmarried. When I trained, that was assumed, as it was for many areas of women’s work. When I worked for the Settlement all the workers had lived in the Settlement House and all meals provided. I well remember the controversy when they appointed a married neighbourhood worker who insisted on having her own flat! Things were changing!

I remember being told at college that I would be expected to do at least three years Parish Work before feeling free to leave and marry. Of course getting married meant giving up work. It was great to have my own house and live where Parish wanted me to be. Far better than having a large room on the top floor of the Beaconsfield Rectory, which was where I had started!

One nice thing about that move was that the Diocese paid for shelving for my books. And as it was not fixed to the wall, I have taken this shelving, and the brackets, with me as I moved! I still have five shelves left…it is very well travelled!

There was, of course, much discussion at this time about the role women should take in the leadership of the church. Debate during the 1980s initially centred on whether women, previously only permitted to be deaconnesses, should now be ordained as deacons, the first step towards full ordination to the priesthood.

Thinking back, being made a deacon did not affect what I did greatly. I did occasionally preside over a communion service using the reserved sacrament when my priestly colleagues were elsewhere. But I did not like doing it; I felt it rubbed it in what I was not!

I retired in 1992, so fortunately I had two years to adjust to not being responsible for anything that wasn’t being done! Then Synod passed the new legislation which changed everything. Being ordained priest in 1994 was like being given a whole new world of experience! The joy of being able to break bread with those I knew and worshipped with week by week was enormous.

Having come from the bottom, as it were, with low expectations, my working life was good. To have gone, for example to kind Mr Warner late in my working life, would have been hard. But, I feel, God has opened so many unexpected doors for me and he has given me the courage to walk through them! God is good! Alleluia!

Jane Durell (b. 1932) was also interviewed for WISEArchive in August 2015 and her story appears under the title “Attitudes have Changed”.

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