What next for women in the Church?

An interview with the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, the Dean of York

Last year, Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first ever woman bishop. Her appointment followed the General Synod of 2014, where a modest yet momentous clause was added to Canon 33: “A man or a woman may be consecrated to the office of bishop.”  This amendment concluded a campaign spanning five decades, and for many in the C of E, the “stained glass ceiling” had finally been shattered. 

It could all have ended very differently. The 2014 Synod was itself haunted by the “no” vote against women bishops only two years before. “It was an awful moment,” recalls Rev. Vivienne Faull, the Dean of York. “There were outcries from everywhere. The Church had to wake up.”

Vivienne Faull has been a staunch campaigner for women in the Church since her career began among the first wave of female clerics ever to be appointed in the early eighties. As Libby Lane walked up the aisle and made history last year, it was resonant with Faull’s own pioneering journey to the Minster. Her ascendancy was likewise littered with “firsts”: first woman to study theology, first to become a Deacon, and first to become a Dean. But there have been as many obstacles as accolades. From day one, family, friends and school teachers were “very apprehensive” about Faull’s interest in a clerical career. To them, it seemed that she was “throwing away” her future. And indeed, given the legal limitations on women priests in the 70s, their fears were well-founded.

After a stint teaching in India, Faull went on to study theology at St John’s college, Nottingham, in 1979. She went to classes with both men and women, where she would learn that “unless men and women were allowed to train together they wouldn’t ever respect each other.” Her training gave way to job-hunting in a market with little – if any – demand for women priests. The Church institution “hadn’t the foggiest” where to put Faull or women like her – but with some help from encouraging friends and advocates she began to climb the ranks.

Yet there were hostilities to overcome daily. She received hate mail and anonymous phone calls regularly. For a whole year, she was stalked by an 84 year-old widower (“although the poor fellow could not move fast enough to chase me”).

The York Minster (Image credit: Keith Laverack, Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, it became clear to Faull that the rules were written differently for women than for men. In her first three years as a deaconess she could legally lead certain services, but she was not allowed to bless. She could baptize only when the vicar was not present, and she could not take weddings.

And it “even worse” for women priests in the urban, “more patriarchal” regions of England. A friend was told she couldn’t take funerals because “the bereaved ‘couldn’t be sure that they were properly dead’.”

Faull was herself based in Liverpool, with its close-knit, “more matriarchal” culture, where “women fitted in quite quickly.” But even here Faull felt marginalised – often by other women. “The change brought about very complicated psychological responses,” Faull says. “These women were lay workers who saw deaconesses having a closer relationship with the incumbent than they were allowed to have.”

“But even within a year or so, an undertaker came to me and said, ‘do you know, I’m finding increasingly that the bereaved are asking for women to take their funerals because they think they do a better job.’ There was a real shift in those three years, from 1979 to 1982. It was just the beginning.”

As legislation was revised – by small increments, year on year – Faull continued on her pioneering trajectory. By 1987, women were allowed to become deacons; by 1994, women were allowed to become priests – and Faull was at the forefront of every change.

Faull believes that the inclusion of women has led to “a re-framing of what it means to be holy”. A feminine presence offers an alternative image to that “solemnity” which has traditionally been “trained into” the men. “I still get really strong reactions in the Minster when those from around the world,” she says. “You can see it in their eyes. A Catholic woman from New York called in last week in tears saying that seeing a woman priest had changed her life. When you’ve done a very little thing which has had a profound effect on someone’s life, that’s hugely rewarding.”

Pastoral conversations with churchgoers have “opened up emotionally” because of women, with a new willingness to discuss sexual abuse, body image, and difficult relationships: “discussions”, as Faull puts it, “about what we are for and who we really are.

“Simultaneously, I think that ordaining women has enabled male priests to be more feminine,” she says.

And yet, even after the historic progress witnessed over the past year, could now be too early for Christian women to celebrate? Every woman bishop to have been ordained so far was already married to a clergyman. Should this pattern flag caution?

“It somehow makes these women ‘safer’ in church people’s eyes,” Faull says. “And you could put it more negatively than that. I’m looking forward to women bishops who are not married to clergy themselves, who therefore have an independent locus. I want to see women who are able to find their own voice in the institution – that’s the next big step.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to view the events of recent months as a fundamental shift. “Even 20 years ago, human beings did not consider that women could represent them. It was believed that women were not fully representative of human beings. I think there has been a profound confluence of psychological change in our culture. All of a sudden women are becoming acceptable in a way they never thought they could be. Acceptable to other people, acceptable to God and therefore acceptable to themselves.”