Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Women's ordination is coming, ready or not

Women are swelling the ranks of the Anglican clergy, and in the Catholic Church, they aren't waiting for the Vatican to find its feminine side

By Peter Stanford  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

"It feels so good to be discussing this," Victoria Rue tells me, the note of mischief clear in her Californian drawl. "Officially the Vatican has decreed that Catholics can't even talk about women priests, let alone ordain them, but here we are doing it."

In her white alb with the decorated stole that is the trademark of the priesthood hanging round her neck, Rue, professor of religion at San Jose State University, California, looks and sounds every inch a Catholic cleric.

Last July, she was ordained as one of the world's first Catholic women priests. Tomorrow she will be in Britain to say mass in Leeds, in the north of England, with members of Britain's 300-strong Catholic Women's Ordination (CWO) association. The service will take place in an Anglican church because, in the eyes of the Vatican, Rue, 59, is not a priest. It has responded to the ordinations of a handful of American, German, Austrian and South African women with threats of excommunication.

Rue's visit comes at what many see as a crucial moment in women's struggle to achieve equality before God. In America, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church has just elected its first woman leader -- Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, 52, a marine biologist and former pilot who beat six men for the job. Meanwhile, in Britain the Church of England's General Synod voted last Saturday to allow women to become bishops.

Many see it as the next logical step after women were admitted to its priesthood in 1994. A recent report by the British think-tank Demos highlighted the fact that 50 percent of those now entering Britain's Anglican seminaries are women. But these women's advancement has opened up powerful divisions among the faithful.

The pressure for women to be given something more to do in church than flower-arranging is building from both within Catholicism -- 70 more American women are preparing for ordination as Catholic priests, 120 in total worldwide -- and from outside because of the example of what is happening in the Anglican Church.

The figures contained in the Demos report on the rapid rise of women priests in the Church of England have taken many by surprise. To reach parity with men in terms of numbers in just a dozen years is remarkable. In other professions, it has taken women generations.

"Initially, there were a number of women waiting in the wings who had had a vocation for years but had not been able to follow it," says Reverend Angela Tilby, vice-principal of Westcott House Theological Training College in Cambridge, England. "But that first wave should have passed. What I see today in the students I train are two sorts of women -- recent graduates with a calling and women in midlife looking for a second life track. Because women still often take responsibility for bringing up children, I think they have more flexibility than men, who are locked into careers, and so can embark on something new."

The move to allow women bishops -- specifically excluded in 1994 but permitted elsewhere in the worldwide Anglican communion -- is important, Tilby believes.

"The ecology of our church feels wrong without them. A Church of England bishop who had initially been opposed to women priests said to me recently that we needed women bishops because he no longer trusted resolutions coming out of the House of Bishops in the General Synod because as a group the bishops were so unrepresentative of the clergy," she says.

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