More than a year after the first women were ordained priests in the Church of England, the terminal split predicted by the traditionalists has yet to occur.
There still are strong pockets of opposition, but women are now quietly running parishes up and down the country. Far from weakening the Church of England, the arrival of women lifted morale and in many cases increased membership.
“The overwhelming sense is of the rightness and naturalness of the ministry of women and the fact that their priestly orders are in every sense of God,” says the Rev. John Oliver, bishop of Hereford. “And their gifts and skills are enormously enriching to the diocese.”
Women tend to lead their churches differently than men, says the Rev. Robert Warren, the Church of England’s national officer for evangelism, whose job sends him to parishes throughout the country.
“There are exceptions, but in general women priests tend to share their power and involve everyone in a team,” Warren says. “They have a greater ability to empathize and are better at developing relationships between individuals.
“As a result, women priests are causing the Church of England to be a more wholesome, friendly church.”
And people seem to have responded to this.
While touring the country, Warren has noticed that congregations led by women tend to be growing, while those headed by men tend to be static or in decline.
“It’s not a dramatic growth,” Warren says, “but a steady, quality growth.”
He is confident the trend will continue and help reverse the century-long decline in church membership. Of the 1,500 women who have been ordained to date, about 200 are leading parishes.
“If the first 200 are having an impact, the others will too,” Warren says.
The Church of England doesn’t keep central statistics on church attendance, but many parishes have confirmed an increase in membership, and none has experienced the exodus predicted by traditionalists as a result of women’s ordination.
Yet many parishes have refused to accept a woman priest, and 250 priests have left the Church of England in protest of women’s ordination, according to official statistics.
As in any new fields open to them, women have yet to be appointed to senior positions. The first woman bishop is still many years away, and there are no female archdeacons or cathedral deans.
And many women have not been able to break the old boys’ network and secure their first parish, a difficulty exacerbated by the recession. This contrasts sharply with the experience of many Protestant denominations that have had women clergy for years.
Yet there have been some notable successes in the Church of England.
The Rev. Sue Hope’s congregation is one of the many across the country that has welcomed a change in leadership. Since Hope took charge of St. Margaret and of St. Thomas in a poor, industrial part of Sheffield, membership in both churches has shot up, in one by 50 percent.
“I think it’s because I encourage lay people to get involved,” she says. “We now have a very vibrant church.
“I might also be less competitive and more accessible. Men feel they can cry in front of me.”
Many people feel more comfortable having a woman officiating at events such as funerals, and women priests, in turn, probably are more comfortable around people going through emotional crises, says the Rev. Christine Farrington, a clergy member at the Cambridge University church and co-director for ordinands for the diocese of Ely. Like Farrington, hundreds of the women who are now priests had been working for years within the Church of England.