Jackie Searle Dean of Women's ministry and 'How does it feel to be a female priest?'

Today was one of those amazing 'Lord you are so faithful...I think I am going to explode with joy' days. The reason being, before I really acted upon God's call on my life, two women became a part of my journey. I followed Christina Baxter before meeting her at college at Lambeth 08, following as it was live-blogged and posting my reactions as it progressed and it was thrilling. I became aware that Jackie Searle was Dean of Women's Ministry in Derby and she would be able to help me with a few issues I had. But I never actually met Jackie until she came to college this week. I 'went it alone', if you like, aware now that if I had visited Jackie she might have helped me with my journey, which instead I painfully worked out on my own with God, perhaps this was what I had to do, who knows.

These two women captured the attention of all the St John's students as they discussed with us the way forward for Women Bishops and the feelings this sensitive issue has thrown up for them in ministry over the years.

Rev'd Jackie Searle was born into a Christian family with a father who was in the Brethren Church. All the women wore hats and only the men were able to speak in church. After she relocated with her family as a teenager, the local Anglican vicar visited and the family experienced renewal as the Anglican priest prayed for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Jackie joined a very energetic youth group which was a part of a church in which women could prophesy and speak in tongues but leadership roles, at this point, were still very much occupied by men.

Jackie Searle trained as a teacher and joined the CU at university. The leader was male as you would have expected. Despite the lack of female leadership examples, the church she attended nurtured her in her vocation as she felt called to ministry within the C of E. Women could be deacons at this time. The vicar was prepared to test out her calling and the ordination journey began.

At Jackie's theological college, there were other women there studying and female ordinands in other years, but she was one of only two women in her year who were training for ordination. They would be ordained deacon but when the men were ordained priest a year later, Jackie and her friend would not be.

Jackie was ordained deacon in 1992 and then married David Runcorn in the November and in General Synod that year women were able to be ordained to the priesthood. The Act of Synod brought in the phrase 'a period or reception' and this did seem to be latched onto by those opposed to suggest the decision could be rescinded. There were experiences then of pain and joy as some men refused to continue with Post-ordination training because there would now be women present.

At the time of her ordination, a number of women being ordained in the country were pregnant but Jackie was the first priest in this country to give birth. It strikes us all as somewhat amusing that the women being ordained that year were advised not to be too overtly feminine with dangly ear-rings or such like; Jackie was 8 month's pregnant and I guess there was no concealing that, no matter how generous the gown!

Encouragingly, Jackie reflects on how the C of E has allowed opportunity for flexible working and maternity leave and has been a good and a fair employer.

She is vicar of St Peter's, Littleover, Derby and has been Dean of Women's ministry for the last three years. She reflects on what ordained life has been like as she has watched the Church work through its issues over female priests and bishops. Synod has worked to keep those who disagree on board. All her ordained life, she has lived with the act that has allowed parishes to opt out of having women as ordained ministers. Flying bishops have been granted to these parishes.

What is the effect of this?
She explains how you just get on with it but because of the provision, it seems that the C of E can discriminate against women. She wonders whether God has perhaps called some of us to work in this painful situation and she recognises that there is pain on the other side too.

Jackie explains movingly how the idea of there being women in C of E leadership is not an issue 'over there', it is an issue that is embodied. It is at 'the very core of her being'. At this point, I think there are a few of us whose hearts are beating very loudly in our chests with the stirrings of what this means for us. She describes how in sharing a platform with people who do not share her views, in so much as for them her orders are invalid and her ordination 'didn't take', and that people taking the sacrament from women are not really receiving it – does something far deeper. It says something about you at an ontological level; about a woman and who she really is.

She reflects on how it feels when the visible presence of the hierarchy of the Church of England is completely embodied by men. 'Where are the women?'
'After all it is not good for the man to be alone' and she draws on Gal 3:28 and explains how surely we are all under 'the head who is Christ'.

Aware that business is an unsatisfactory parallel to church-life, Jackie reflects, nevertheless, on how the secular world is articulating what it gains from having women in leadership roles. There is a different context and purpose here but the qualities that women bring are being recognised. She wonders whether the church will see that we miss these things in our corporate church life? This is a corollary to her explanation that there are theological reasons and human reasons why we should have women bishops. She explains the findings in a recent book about the positive contributions women are bringing to the boardroom.

She wonders about the kind of leadership we need for the 21st century with the feeling that if we are to be a mission shaped church, we need women bishops and she explores how our culture is staggered that we are even battling with this issue. Other areas of Europe have been consecrating women for years now. It is normal and yet we are far behind.

Jackie reflects on the scriptures and Joel 2:28. She describes how Jesus turned the water into wine where the jars are symbolic of all that has come before and he doesn't smash the jars but he refills them. David Runcorn will flesh out beautifully the rest of this meditation on John 2 in our worship time, as a college, later that evening.

Jackie explains how she wants us to have women bishops in the Church but not at any cost. However, she has lived a long time with the act of Synod and there should be no need to safe-guard people from women's episcopacy. The word 'safe-guard' is in itself a loaded word. She explains how women should be consecrated on the same terms as men, we are messing with the very definitions of episcopacy if this does not happen.

At this point we listen to Christina Baxter who explains the possible outcomes of the work that the General Synod will do in July, and the consequences. She highlights how important the next round of General Synod elections will be and I sit and think about that article I reflected on here, a while ago, about Rod Thomas and his hope that Reform will make sure that it gets itself healthily represented on the next General Synod, if it can, so I understand what is at stake.

I will not go into all of Christina's details here, only to say that, of course, we are waiting on the Revision Committee and I think that we are all hoping that there will not be too much more of a delay but this is very important and it has to be right.

Jackie answers questions, one about male headship which caused some of us to shuffle uncomfortably in our seats. She answered very graciously and set her answer firmly within the what the scriptures reveal to her about that issue. She also reflects on the accusation that by appointing women to the episcopate, the Church is giving in to the liberal agenda. She recognises that there are debates about how we approach reason and tradition and scripture, the Church is also exploring issues over homosexuality but we need to keep the issues distinct and look at what scripture says about women as we engage with the women issue. She finishes with a reflection on the C of E and how it is wonderful for the range of voices and the diversity – but we have to recognise that men and women are both made in the image of God and equally called by God. (Hooray, I think to myself and smile, knowing that I can ask questions later of Christina and Jackie later over coffee in Christina's office – what a privilege!)

...so God brought me full circle as I explored these issues with the two women who, unbeknown to them, had had a significant part to play in my journey towards priesthood, I still have all of the training to do yet and who knows what God might do but I feel as though I am in a more stable place, whatever happens along the way, for the witness and courage of these two pioneering women. Thanks be to God!


Anonymous said...

thanks for the post. i am continuing to think long and hard about these issues.

Rachel Marszalek said...

Great I really encourage us all to grapple with all of the consequences of this issue.the psychological, political, social, traditional and historical and human dimensions.


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