Women Sharing in the Ministry of Christ

Marlene Parsons - Diocesan Director of Ordinands


When God chose to show humankind his nature and to come amongst them, he chose an ordinary young woman through which to do that - Mary of Nazareth, with the mystery and the graciousness of God, was chosen to be the mother of Christ.

When Christ chose to share with his closest friends the amazing reality that he had broken the bonds of death and was risen from the dead, he chose a woman who had earlier followed him and whose life had been changed by that encounter, to be the first witness to the Resurrection. Mary of Magdalene, not Peter, James or John was the first witness to the Resurrection.

I do not point out these two things in any way to make a particular point, but as a woman if I had no knowledge of the subsequent history of the ministry of women within the church, these two acts of choice and generosity would lead me to believe that the Christian church, the Body of Christ, has at the very least been given by God a pattern of valuing and treating equally women who are members of that body. Sadly, the history of the church tells another story.

The early church clearly had a lively debate as to whether and how women were to share in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. The facts seem to be these:

i) In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the whole company of believers being united in body and soul.

Elsewhere in the New Testament we read of the faith of Lois and Eunice inspiring young Timothy.

ii) In Paul's letter to the Romans, we read of Phoebe, a minister in the Church in Cenchrae, but also in the NT, particularly where Paul writes of Christian discipline and conduct in worship, the women are to learn, listening quietly.

Within the pages of Holy Scripture a woman seeking to follow a call to follow Christ receives mixed messages. One from God and sometimes a contradictory message from the Christian community. I would suggest that that mixed message continues even today.

A quick glance at the religious life of the middle ages shows that the only way then for women to share in the ministry of Christ with any sense of personal ownership about their call was through the religious communities. Where although they always needed the services of a priest and their constitutions had to be approved by the Pope, there was a measure of self-governance within the religious community. There was the opportunity to share in the ministry of Christ (expand) outside it, there was none.

In Post-Reformation England, it is not until the 1840s with the growing moves towards emancipation for women, that the church has to address these issues. In 1848 the first religious community for women was founded in a Post Reformation Church. In 1866 Elizabeth Ferard was admitted and licenses as the first Deaconess in the Church of England by the Bishop of London.

In 1961 I was living in a small village community outside of Glastonbury in Somerset. I had grown up within a Christian family, always belonging to the local church. I felt God's call to share the faith with others. When I spoke to my parish priest he was appalled. He told me "God's normal way for women to find fulfilment is to marry and have children, or else become a nun". At seventeen I did'nt think either of these options right or practicable. So for me began a very lonely, and at times, painful journey to discover what might be possible and how to go about it.

I eventually discovered that though a man could be ordained straight after training, a woman could not go to theological college, but had to train separately to be a licensed lay worker or Church Army Sister, and then only after she had proved her ability to share in the ministry of Christ could she be a Deaconess.

The irony for me is that since I was first licensed as a Church Army Sister in 1966, I have always found real fulfilment in ministry and have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities and challenges I have had. Yet it has always been within a context of interminable debates within the Synodical structures of the church, as to how women share in Christ's ministry. First the twenty year debate about women being ordained at all - Deacons in 1987. Then the following debate about women being priested - 1994, and now a working party considering women and the Episcopacy.

The stability and givenness in which a man's vocation can grow and flourish has never been the experience of women, indeed the Act of Synod, which sought in the ordination of women to ensure the greatest measure of communion, has in reality for the women created a circumstance where the Act means the church is in effect exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Opportunities Legislation. This seems a far cry from the gospel's account of Christ affirming equally the gifts and abilities of women and men.

In my work as Diocesan Director of Ordinands I listen to many women. They bring wide experiences of life as teachers, doctors etc. They bring a faith which has been and continues to be expressed in new and creative ways. Will they be able to flourish in a church which seeks and needs to find new ways of commending the gospel? Will the grace of God in them be given expression to help renew the church and bring in the kingdom?

Marlene Parsons


Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
Registered Charity no. 213618
Temple Balsall, Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0AN

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