Woman priest is regularly asked 'When will our church get round to it?'


RITE AND REASON:One of Ireland's first women priests writes about the experience of being a member of the Church of Ireland clergy, wrties Ginnie Kennerley

A SURPRISING thing about being one of the first women priests in Ireland has been the extent to which it has taken me out into the wider church community. It aroused an interest which was much wider than in my own church, and this offered the opportunity for a good deal of exposure to students, congregations and clergy of other churches - all of it enriching.

The differences between the churches in details of doctrine, which I studied at the Irish School of Ecumenics, seemed unimportant on the ground, though it was important to know about them. What was significant was the interest and affirmation that came from so many quarters in the majority church tradition in Ireland, from senior churchmen to simple country people.

In Bray, my first parish, I was invited by Fr John O'Connell of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer to preach at an inter-church Harvest Thanksgiving. In Newbridge, the year in which I moved to south Kildare to an incumbency of my own, I was invited to speak to an adult education class where participants told me that if the issues were only theological, most of them would opt for Anglicanism. They liked our way of running things much better.

The stand-off between the churches in Ireland, we agreed, was conditioned by our sociology and history, not on our response to the Gospel. But inter-church appreciation went both ways.

Ever since my childhood in England, with a grandmother, an uncle and an aunt who were Roman Catholic converts, I had been aware there were spiritual riches in the Catholic and the Orthodox traditions; this awareness fed into my occasional Christian Unity Week sermons down the years. Invariably there was a warm welcome on these occasions - so warm that one could be forgiven for impatience with the power plays between the churches' representatives.

"When will our church get around to it, I wonder?" was a common remark at country events where people who had never met a woman in a collar pressed round to shake my hand.

But what of the response within the Church of Ireland? It was not uniformly enthusiastic, although the final measure in the General Synod of 1990 was passed by nearly 70 per cent of clerical and nearly 90 per cent of lay votes. In a few cases, women's priesthood brought pain to individuals who felt it damaged the integrity of the church as they knew it, and closed the door to the future acceptance of Anglican orders by Rome.

Some of these were Anglican priests; a good many were mature women who expected their clergy to be, in some sense, "icons of Jesus". But most of those who had previously opposed women's priesthood have since accepted it.

Some would still argue that women's ordination has put paid to hope of unity with Rome.

It is remarkable that according to recent surveys, a majority of the Catholic population in Ireland would like to see women priests.

Looking back on 20 years in the ministry of the Church of Ireland, I am very grateful to those with whom, to whom and for whom I have ministered. A vocation it certainly is, and a more fulfilling way of spending one's time would be hard to imagine.

• Canon Ginnie Kennerley is editor of Search, a Church of Ireland journal, and has just published Embracing Women - Making History in the Church of Ireland(Columba Press, €12.99 /£10.50)