Bullied, Belittled, and Barred from Ministry: A Warning that Toxic Environments for Women Priests Are Common

by Rebecca Winfrey | August 18, 2021

I unpacked my new clergy robes, which had been made to measure from a top-quality vestment maker. Excitedly, I slipped the cassock on. I was appalled: it looked like a sack. Clearly, they had made no concession to the fact that I was female. It seemed they did not understand that there was a difference between a chest measurement and a bust measurement, and they had assumed I was as wide as my bust all the way down. When I rang to say that the garment didn’t fit correctly without a waist, the sales assistant told me scornfully, “A cassock does not have a waist, madam.”

So began my induction into the Church of England as a priest. Little did I realize that the attitude of that sales assistant was not just an aberration. I was to come across so much misogyny. A woman who dares to think she can speak from a position of authority in the church is a threat to too many. Their reactions to me made it very clear that they felt I was out of order.

Women Priests as Second-Class Leaders

Prior to becoming a priest, I had never had to think about being discriminated against as a woman. As the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of women who had university degrees, and having worked for twenty years in family medicine, I was confident as a professional. People respected my authority as a doctor. It didn’t make any difference that I was a woman. My initiation into the inner circle of the Church of England soon disabused me of the notion that women no longer have to fight for their rights. Over and over again, the process of my “formation” as a Church of England priest gave me a stark choice: crumble under the pressure of being told that I was second-class or develop a core of steely resistance to my superiors.

My first trainer told me that a proper Anglican priest says Morning Prayer at 7:30am and Evening Prayer at 6pm every day in the church. He couldn’t have asked a mother of school-aged children to leave her home at more impossible times if he tried. Any mother (or father) knows how stressful it is chivvying children to get ready for the school bus in the morning. In the evening I needed to be at home cooking supper for my family at 6pm, not in the church. My trainer just didn’t understand when I refused. He saw it as a lack of obedience and a lack of commitment. I began to feel I would always be considered second-class.

My next trainer was constantly tripping me up by failing to do his part in things we planned together. On one occasion, a bereaved family agreed to have me lead their relative’s funeral on one condition: that my trainer was there. On the day of the funeral, the funeral directors arrived with the coffin, the mourners were all seated in the church, and we were ready to begin. But my trainer wasn’t there. Trembling with nerves, I had to start without him. He arrived just as the service was finishing. I felt utterly betrayed, and I wondered whether he was deliberately pulling the rug from under me. When such betrayals continued to happen regularly, I crumbled. The constant anxiety that he would let me down had eroded my confidence to such an extent that I could not work. Filled with the shame of failure, I had to take time off with depression.

Learning to See that God’s Perspective Differed from that of the Men I Worked With

In the academic part of my training, I found myself writing a master’s dissertation about toxic shame. This was the kind of shame that I had felt on so many occasions as I attended clergy meetings. So many times I had seen a clergyman’s eyes glaze over when I mentioned that I was training part-time because I was a mother. I was not of any interest to those who were doing the job “properly.”

As I studied, I discovered that I had been taught a gospel that only applied to those with power. We had been taught that pride was the source of all sin and that self-negation was what was required to be holy. No one had considered that Jesus only criticized those in power for their pride. No one had considered that people who had been shamed repeatedly didn’t need to be told to count themselves as nothing. For people in this position, self-negation was their characteristic sin, not pride. They needed affirmation, and Jesus gave it.

Jesus’s mother, a woman shamed for being pregnant out of wedlock, had sung of a kind of salvation that lifts up the lowly (Luke 1:52). For those at the bottom of the heap, many of whom were women, Jesus raised them up to stand tall. He didn’t tell them to think of themselves as nothing. He spent time with the shamed nobodies, loved them, praised them for their faith, and commissioned them as his witnesses—think the woman at the well, the woman with a hemorrhage, Mary Magdalene. Slowly, slowly, I learned to take strength from Jesus’s encouragement of women in the Gospels. Meditating on these stories, putting myself in the women’s place in my imagination, I gradually started to internalize the truth that the attitudes of some men in the church toward me were not those of God.

I also realized that I was growing an inner core of steely resistance to being shamed. I became a rebel, an asker of pointed questions, a fierce protector of others who were downtrodden, and I became quicker to move away from toxic work environments. When I was told in one church that the leader wouldn’t permit me to do anything new, I moved on. When I was told in another church, with no warning, that I had to stop preaching, I left. I’ve now decided I will not work for a church again.

The Next Generation of Women Needs to be Wise in Seeking Healthy Work Environments

I know too many other women with stories like mine. They have been bullied, belittled, and barred from ministry simply for being women who dared to speak out. That is the truth of where we are in the Church of England, despite the fact that it has been nearly thirty years since women were first ordained. I no longer have the stomach to continue the fight. It is time for me to pass the baton to the next generation.

My daughter has been growing up through all this turmoil. She has heard so many awful stories over the dinner table. She has seen my tears, my anger, my struggles to be courageous, my depression. What would I like her to take from my experience?

You, my daughter, have watched all this, and amazingly you still have a strong and vibrant faith in Jesus. When dealing with the church, you also have a sensible wariness about how things can be for a bold woman. Before joining a church at university, you rang round all the church leaders in the town and asked them what their attitudes were to women in ministry. As a result, you have joined a church which actively promotes the ministry of women. They refuse ever to run a service where an all-male cast leads. They have warmly welcomed you, affirming you in your gifts as a worship leader, and I have seen you blossom as a result. I pray that you will be spared much of the pain I have endured and that you will continue to find places in the church where your contribution will be honored and valued. Most of all, I pray that your roots will grow deep into the love and affirmation of God who made you, and nothing will get in the way of you realizing that you are “[his] handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [you] to do” (Eph. 2:10).

 

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.

 


 

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