Four decades after the first women were ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada, much progress remains to be made, say female priests who profess to have struggled with everything from unequal pay to inappropriate touching by some parishioners.
From November 28-December 1, 40 female priests from the Anglican Church of Canada gathered at St. James Anglican Church for “Unmasking the Feminine,” a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in the church. For participants, the event seemed an occasion both for celebrating the achievements made in advancing the rights of women and being mindful of the challenges many say yet remain.
“The progress we’ve made over those years has made life significantly better than it was for our mothers and grandmothers, but oh my, it has been a very hard row to hoe,” said Canon Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation, in a keynote address opening the event. “All of us know the strain of a white collar around our neck, and all of us know the sting and the pain of opposition. But thank God, thank God, we also know the indomitable spirit of hope.”
“We have much to be grateful for in Canada,” Linda Nicholls, installed as Bishop of Huron the previous Saturday, said in her introduction to a conference workshop. “It doesn’t mean we’re finished, but it means we’re on the way.”
Asked what they felt were the continuing challenges of women in the church, some noted that female priests are still being paid less than their male counterparts.
For example, said the Rev. Trish McCarthy, of All Saints Anglican Church in Regina, many locally-ordained priests are women. Such priests, she said, are normally compensated for their mileage, and they’re entitled to other benefits, but otherwise their positions are unpaid.
“In the west, that’s pretty dominant,” she said. “There’s a major pay equity problem.”
One participant said that female priests are more likely to be working part-time, in small parishes, and another said that women priests tend to lose out because they’re less inclined to negotiate salary than men.
In a brief interview with the Anglican Journal, Nicholls voiced some similar concerns.
“I think some of the women do find that in places, there’s been the experience that women serve in smaller churches, and more women are in non-stipendiary roles,” she said. “That’s also true for Indigenous communities and others, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to have equality in terms of those kinds of things.”
Many parishes in Canada, some participants said, still will not accept women priests. The Rev. Karen Laldin, of St. Andrew’s on the Red Anglican Church, Man., said she came close to leaving the Anglican church after what she calls a “terrible experience” priesting for an especially resistant parish in the 1990s.
“They made no bones about it—they wanted a man,” she said. After serving the parish for five years, she decided to quit. The announcement of her imminent departure, she said, was greeted with jubilation by some in the congregation.
“There was a certain amount of applause and the comment was, ‘Now we’ll get a man,’ ” Laldin said.
As it turned out, Laldin was succeeded not by a man, but by several female priests in turn, before a male priest finally arrived.
“God, in her infinite wisdom, has a fabulous sense of humour,” said Laldin.
Nicholls, who, like Rois, was ordained in 1985, told conference participants she was spared some of the “absolutely atrocious” behaviour of some people toward the first female priests, such as heckling and walking out during sermons. But she’s still had to endure sexism, she said.
“Things like clergy jokes about what you were wearing,” Nicholls said. “Sexist comments. Inappropriate hugs,” she said with a wince, to murmurs of agreement from numerous participants.
Nicholls cautioned participants, however, against focusing on gender equality to the exclusion of God. As priests, she said, they ought to try to work out conflicts “in a way that does not make gender the battleground, but makes the gospel the place that we’re heading for.
“I think that’s ultimately what we want—we want a church where that is at the core, not where women have won,” she said.
In an interview, Rois said she believed it would be a long time before the church reaches full gender equality.
“I think lots of people still don’t feel that a woman can stand in the place of Christ—that Christ had 12 disciples, and they were men,” she said. “I think a lot of people still feel just a little more comfortable if a man is in charge…Women can do this and be just as capable, but a lot of people don’t want to take that chance.”
Rois is also the co-author of a 2013 study, Why is the Stained Glass Window a Stained Glass Ceiling? Organizational Perspectives on Female Bishops in the Anglican Communion. The study explores how gender bias has worked against female priests becoming bishops.
According to Anglican Church of Canada statistics, 406 out of 1,139 active clergy—35.5 per cent—are women; of retired clergy, females number 369 out of 1,750, or 21.1 per cent.
The first ordination of women in the Anglican Church of Canada took place in 1976, following the approval by General Synod of a resolution authorizing the ordination of women in 1975. Six women were ordained in four dioceses: Cariboo, Huron, Niagara and New Westminster. By 1991, every diocese in Canada has permitted the ordination of woman.