Church in Wales marks 20 years of women priests

The first women to be ordained as priests at St Asaph cathedral Image copyright Diocese of St Asaph

Services of celebration were held at Wales' six Anglican cathedrals to mark 20 years since the Church in Wales first ordained women priests.

It comes just weeks before the church marks another milestone - with the consecration of its first woman bishop.

On 11 January 1997, 61 women became priests at services across Wales.

It was a campaign that had lasted over a century, since the first woman was made an Anglican deaconess in Usk, Monmouthshire, in 1884.

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Media captionRev Jenny Wigley was one of the first women to be ordained

"Today it's impossible for me to think of a church in which we don't celebrate and welcome the equal ministry of women," said Bishop of St Asaph Gregory Cameron.

"We really can give thanks for the huge step forward that the Church in Wales took in 1997. We've been greatly enriched by the dedication, service and insight of so many women over this period. May God continue this blessing."

As part of the celebrations, the church has commissioned a special logo containing the names of all the women priests first ordained 20 years ago.

One of those first in the St Asaph diocese was the Reverend Margaret Harvey, who had been a deacon-in-charge near Corwen in Denbighshire at the time.

"For me the most exciting part of that weekend in January 1997 was what happened the morning after ordination at the end of my first Sunday morning Eucharist as priest," she said.

"As usual people gathered around the font to chat about the service. Someone said we didn't think it would be different - but it was."

Image copyright Church in Wales

Services were held at:

  • St Asaph - the Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek
  • Bangor - preacher, Enid Morgan
  • Brecon - preacher, Canon Carol Wardman
  • Llandaff, Cardiff - preacher, Canon Jenny Wigley
  • Newport - Bishop Dominic Walker
  • St David's - Canon Joanna Penberthy

But the road to ordination as priests in the Welsh Anglican church was long and winding, as the publication 'Crossing Thresholds' recounted, examining the role of women in the church in Wales over the past 130 years.

In its foreword, the Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan said: "The whole notion of women not being allowed to be ordained in any capacity seems as old‐fashioned and fuddy‐duddy as carrying wives over thresholds and tying them to the kitchen sink."

But for a time in the 1990s, the old fashioned attitudes prevailed.

Just weeks after the first women priests were ordained in the Church of England, a bill to ordain women in Wales was defeated by the clergy - despite the unanimous support of bishops and the overwhelming support of lay members of the Church in Wales.

The Reverend Canon Jenny Wigley recalled the shock of losing the April 1994 vote in Crossing Thresholds: "I came out of the hall in Lampeter, walked up to the nearest TV camera and made my first campaigning speech," she said.

"As far as the people of Wales were concerned, and indeed most of the media, it was so obvious: 'The church' was wrong and we were right.

"We were hugely encouraged by their response and the next two years were empowering and often exhilarating - even when we were meeting on wet Saturday afternoons in the church hall in Llanidloes!"

Two years later, in September 1996, another vote and this time victory for those supporting women clergy.

Image copyright Church in Wales
Image caption Canon Joanna Penberthy becomes the first woman bishop in the Church in Wales later in January

Kathy Ferguson was ordained along with seven other deacons in Bangor Cathedral in 1997 but, like many others, it was the journey back to her parish that really mattered - and taking her first Holy Communion.

"I truly can remember just about every detail of that morning, even to the butterflies in my stomach as I sang the priest's part of the service for the very first time," she wrote.

"Then, for me, came the crowning moment when my broadly‐smiling vicar presented me with the beautiful silver home‐communion set which was the parishes' gift to me to mark the occasion. It has had much use over the years since then and I treasure it still."

But it was to be another 16 years before the Church in Wales finally agreed to allow women to become bishops - at the second time of asking - in September 2013.

And it will be 20 years and 10 days when the very first woman to become a Church in Wales bishop is consecrated, when Canon Joanna Penberthy becomes Bishop of St David's Diocese on 21 January.

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