March through London to mark 20 years of women priests

Justin Welby with a large number of female priests Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby welcomed female priests at St Paul's Cathedral

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A procession through London has been held to celebrate 20 years since the first women were ordained as priests in the Church of England.

Hundreds of women priests and supporters marched from Westminster Abbey to St Paul's Cathedral.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told those gathered at St Paul's the CofE still had a "long way to go".

Every woman ordained in 1994 was invited, while all dioceses in England were expected to be represented.

The St Paul's service gave thanks for the dedication of women ordained into the Church and reflected on the work they have done since 1994.

'Day to celebrate'

A large screen was set up to relay the service to people outside.

Before the march, the crowd gave three cheers for the general synod for voting, in 1992, to allow women priests.

The Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons, was carrying the same placard - reading "women - beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God" - that she had held when that vote took place.

"We were told we must be quiet then," she told the BBC. "We were told not to celebrate, but today I am going to celebrate."

As Robert Piggott reports, a third of the Church of England's clergy are now women

The march gets under way Before the march, the crowd gave three cheers for the general synod's 1992 decision to allow female priests
A crowd marching with a banner saying: "A woman's place? Where she's called." Organisers said the celebration demonstrated the Church's public approval of the ordination of women
Justin Welby with a large number of female priests on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral All women ordained as Church of England priests in 1994 were invited to the St Paul's service

The Reverend Claire Herbert, lecturer in inclusive theology at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, was one of the first women to be ordained.

At the scene

As they gathered to celebrate 20 years since the first women were ordained as Church of England priests, many remembered the road that led to this point.

Sally Barnes, now press officer for campaign group Women and the Church, said she started campaigning in 1979 - three years after the Church had voted against allowing women priests.

Her efforts included a silent protest at St Paul's Cathedral in 1989 - and she said it was "wonderful" to march there now with many women who had been ordained.

Some of the vicars and supporters who gathered on the grass of Dean's Yard at Westminster Abbey shouted with joy when they saw each other, then shared picnic food and swapped stories of their work around the country.

The atmosphere was jubilant, and there was laughter when the crowd got a message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying "yippee!"

But St Paul's is not the final destination in the wrangles over the place of women in the Church.

The general synod could decide in July to allow women to become bishops - and before the jubilant celebration of the march a speaker told the crowd of her "quiet hope" that they would do so.

"For most of us it has completely changed our lives," she said.

"It's so fantastic to be surrounded by women because we usually don't see each other all that much.

"You also realise how many of us there are."

But BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said there were some "clouds hanging over the celebrations".

He said a "disproportionate number" of women priests worked unpaid, and recruitment of young women priests had "dried to a trickle".

Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, said only one in seven people coming forward as new clergy were women - and said the reason was that women were "very much second-class citizens" among CofE clergy.

She said women made up half of unpaid clergy and only a third of paid clergy, and said they generally held "lower-status, lower-paid, lower-power" roles in the Church.

The Reverend Sally Hitchiner, a priest and senior chaplain at Brunel University in London, said women still had some way to go to achieve equality in the Church.

"I think it's a wider reflection of society that young women in general don't feel as confident as young men often do," she said.

'Costly grind'

In his sermon at St Paul's, Archbishop Welby said: "As we celebrate how far we have come, let us be mindful of the distance yet to travel.

"In 20 years we have come a long way.

"How did we not see that women and men are equally icons, witnesses, vessels of Christ for the world?"

He told those at the service they should not forget the "costly grind" which paved the way for the ordination of women.

"In our celebrations let us not overlook the cost, the bitterness of disappointment and rejection, the knee-jerk resistance of an institution facing change," he said.

Legislation is being considered that could lead to the first women bishops being ordained by early next year.

Mother and daughter Helen and Susie Thorp - both priests - told the BBC's Robert Pigott that it was a "day to celebrate an amazing job"

Canon Philippa Boardman, treasurer of St Paul's - who presided at the St Paul's service while Archbishop Welby acted as deacon - said the event would be "just the beginning of so many good things to come".

"Twenty years ago when the huge wooden doors of St Paul's Cathedral swung open as the procession of the soon-to-be-ordained women came in, it was a time of great hope and also some concern about the impact on the unity of the Church," she said.

"Twenty years on, many of these hopes have been fulfilled and fears allayed as women and men have worked together as priests, bringing new life to churches and parishes including some of the neediest communities in our country."

The Catholic Church in the UK has no female priests, but the march was joined by members of campaign group Catholic Women's Ordination.

Group member Lala Winkley said she felt deep sadness" at the Catholic Church's refusal to ordain women priests.

"I am a Catholic and I am not envious of anything but I grieve for our particular tradition because it is so bereft of women's input and significantly the poorer because of it - and it does not realise it," she said.

"I don't feel that our dear Pope really has understood this."

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