Married, female and ordained: Rev Eileen Cremin is part of progress in Church of Ireland
Fermoy rector believes the church must change in order to ‘continue into the future’
“Society has changed:” Rev Eileen Cremin, Fermoy’s Church of Ireland minister, in Christchurch, Fermoy, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Despite a name that would sound at home in the Co Cork countryside that she now calls home, the Rev Eileen Cremin was born in Hackney, in east London. She is also the child of Antiguan immigrants, who arrived in England in the 1950s, alongside waves of Irish settlers.
Born Eileen Lake, and named after an Irish friend of her mother, she picked up the Cremin name when she married a man from Passage West, Co Cork. The couple now live in Fermoy, where she is rector of the union of parishes.
She was raised Anglican but felt like an outsider when first considering ministry in London. “My experience of priests at the time was that they were white, male and middle-class, and I was totally the opposite to that in all sorts of ways. My family background has been very much working class, so I went forward for selection not thinking that I would get through.”
Nonetheless, she was ordained a deacon in 1988, just a year after church rules made that possible for women. She was more concerned with ministry than with the title of priest, but she felt frustrated watching male colleagues progress.
“I was a member of the movement for the ordination of women, but it wasn’t something I pushed too much,” she says. “All I wanted to be was a full-time minister.” But she was exuberant in November 1992, when the Church of England decided to allow female priests. (The Church of Ireland had voted in favour of women priests and bishops in 1990.)
“For the first time we at least could be on an equal par with our male colleagues, who we were doing exactly the same work as.”
Late last year the Church of England voted to allow female bishops; the first was appointed just before Christmas, when Libby Lane was made suffragan bishop of Stockport. While the wider Anglican communion remains divided on the role of women, Cremin believes her female colleagues will excel in positions of leadership.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I know. When I left England, I left behind many capable women and there’ll be plenty of them ripe as candidates when it comes. It has been frustrating in that it has taken so long.”
She decided to switch from England to Ireland after years in London when she took up a role as curate’s assistant in Douglas, just outside Cork city. Douglas seemed attractive on multiple levels, especially as the union, or group of parishes, included Passage West, where her husband’s mother still lived. Five years later she moved to Fermoy, one of the largest groups of parishes in Cork, including Mitchelstown and Conna. Once it had 47 churches; now it’s down to five, run by Cremin and a part-time auxiliary minister.
Declining attendance is affecting most religions, and Cremin says Fermoy’s Anglican community is no different. She attributes some of the change to young people moving away but admits that a dip in faith has resulted in falling numbers, in turn causing financial pressure.
“It’s a reality that it is a struggle to keep our young people interested in church postconfirmation,” she says. “Society has changed; our people are changing. What worked 20 years ago is not going to work now. We really have to find new ways of being a church, in order to continue into the future.”
One of the issues important to many young people is gay marriage. Cremin says she understands gay people’s struggles to be accepted, having dealt with her own. “We are all human beings; we didn’t ask to be born the way we are. I didn’t ask to be born black and a woman, but that’s my situation now. I have to live with it, I have to work with it, and I would hope that the church, as an organisation where people are meant to be welcome whatever their state – because God created us all to be the way we are – I would hope that gay people would be just as welcome as me in my position.”
But she is unsure about using the term “marriage”, because of its connotations within the church. “I think to use the same name confuses the issue, and it makes people then more entrenched in their view that it should be between a man and a woman . . . Maybe there needs to be a different term used, but as far as gay relationships and so on, I have many gay friends, and my experience of my friendship with them is that they experience love in the same way that I experience love, so why treat them any differently?”
As for her own marriage, she believes it helps her deal better with her parishioners. “As someone who is married, I can now understand what my married members of the congregation are going through and feeling, and what it takes to make a relationship work . . . It has made me a much better, more rounded person.”