Young women priests face issues of age and gender

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The Rev. Dawn Leger says she went through a phase where she had to diminish herself to keep everyone content and happy. But, she realized, “I can’t just take on everybody’s anxiety about women in leadership all the time.” Photo: Stephen Brash
The Rev. Dawn Leger says she went through a phase where she had to diminish herself to keep everyone content and happy. But, she realized, “I can’t just take on everybody’s anxiety about women in leadership all the time.” Photo: Stephen Brash

Two key moments relating to the ordination of women have been seared in the memory of the Rev. Dawn Leger, an associate priest at Christ Church Anglican in Stouffville, Ont.

While pursuing her master’s of divinity at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, two of Leger’s classmates were retired nurses. “I remember being so moved and compelled by their stories because, unlike me, they had both wanted to join the priesthood from a really young age, but they couldn’t, because the church [then] wasn’t ordaining women,” says Leger. Once the Anglican Church of Canada began ordaining women in 1976, these nurses decided that as soon as they wrapped up their careers, they would go back to school-which they did. “I was so honoured to be able to share a classroom with them,” says Leger.

Leger was ordained a priest in 2006, the same year that the Anglican Church of Canada celebrated the 30th anniversary of women’s ordination. The homilist, one of the first women to be ordained in the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, recalled having guards on either side of her so that she could safely walk down the aisle, recalls Leger.

Hearing stories about the struggles of women clergy before her has made Leger wonder: “Would I have been so compelled? Could I have fought the fight?”

Like Leger, the Rev. Riscylla Shaw, priest and pastor of Christ Church, Bolton, Ont., says she remains “very conscious” that where she and other young women clergy stand now was once “not an easy place to get to.” She remains thankful to “those who led the way before us.”

The Rev. Riscylla Shaw baptizes young parishioners of Christ Church, Bolton, Ont. Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Riscylla Shaw baptizes young parishioners of Christ Church, Bolton, Ont. Photo: Contributed

Thirty-eight years after the Canadian Anglican church began to ordain women and 70 years after the ordination of the Anglican Communion’s first female priest, Florence Li Tim-Oi, what do Leger, Shaw and other young clergy women like them think about the status of female priests within the Anglican Church of Canada?

Maj. The Rev. Catherine Askew, a military chaplain for the Canadian Armed Forces who is also an aboriginal woman, says she has seen the church change from the time she was a theological student at Trinity College, University of Toronto. “I entered seminary at a time when things were really breaking open for us as women,” she says, adding that she has seen the stained-glass ceiling “shattering.” She cites Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, the first aboriginal woman bishop, who is “really breaking new ground and really redefining who we are as a Canadian church.”

Major The Rev. Catherine Askew with aboriginal elder and veteran Tom Eagle, at Vimy, France, during the rededication ceremonies for the monument in 2007. Tom Eagle passed way in 2009. Photo: Contributed
Major The Rev. Catherine Askew with aboriginal elder and veteran Tom Eagle, at Vimy, France, during the rededication ceremonies for the monument in 2007. Tom Eagle passed way in 2009. Photo: Contributed

Within the military chaplaincy, Askew notes that female military chaplains are in senior command positions. “The command chaplain of the navy is a female Anglican priest [Lt. Col. The Rev. Michelle Staples],” she says. “A higher percentage of our women are in leadership roles than the men.” [There are about 200 male chaplains and 20 female chaplains in the regular forces.]

For Leger, the growth has been in “leaps and bounds,” noting, “where I stand now, I feel I’m being selected for leadership not because of or in spite of my sex but because of the gifts that I have.”

The Rev. Cathy Laskey, associate priest at St. Martins-in-the-Woods Anglican Church in Shediac Cape, N.B., says the influence of female clergy in bringing people together is being affirmed.

“Traditionally, women have played leadership roles in the church and kept things going. You look at the ACWs (Anglican Church Women) and there are many stories,” she notes. “It is a natural role and it’s being broadened into a more recognized form of leadership…Being able to draw people together in a family kind of context certainly is a positive thing for the body of Christ.”

The Rev. Cathy Laskey, associate priest at St.Martin-in-the-Woods Anglican Church in Shediac Cape, N.B. Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Cathy Laskey, associate priest at St.Martin-in-the-Woods Anglican Church in Shediac Cape, N.B. Photo: Contributed

The Rev. Jolene Peters, a newly ordained priest serving the Parish of Labrador West, says female clergy today have “more opportunities.” She acknowledges that while training to become a priest she did encounter skeptics who remained “uncomfortable” with the idea of women clergy, but her experience has been largely positive. Peters finds it “very encouraging” that the archdeacon of her diocese, Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, is a woman-Sandra Tilley.

Shaw says that while there are plenty of women in ordained ministry and plenty of lay leaders within the church, “as far as key influencers, there’s a lot of room for growth.” When asked where female priests stand now, Shaw says half-jokingly, “Well, we let people stand on our shoulders.”

If one considers the time frame that women have been in ministry, “then we are working our way,” says Shaw. “But when we consider how societies have changed, it still feels like we have a lot of work to do.”

Leger, Askew and Laskey, like Shaw, would like to see more women represented in leadership roles within the church. They note, for instance, that men tend to head larger churches.

“I think some of it has to do with the fundamental perspective on collaboration and co-operative ministry versus power and authority,” says Shaw. The perspective that women bring “doesn’t lend itself to the style of top-down ministry that the Anglican church has been founded on.”

Leger and Laskey echo a similar view. “I think the hierarchical structure contributes more to that than per se gender,” says Laskey.

“It’s just harder for women to have to claim the authority to make the decisions that need to be made. We don’t trust women as much as we trust men. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone,” says Leger. “When I have to exercise my authority, I always feel like I’m walking this fine line of authority with humility because there’s a far greater burden on me than on my male colleagues, to be seen as humble and as a servant…”

Leger says she went through a phase where she had to diminish herself to keep everyone content and happy. But, she realized, “I can’t just take on everybody’s anxiety about women in leadership all the time.”

Askew says it is harder for women to get senior positions because many come into ministry much later, often after they’ve raised children. The expectations of some parishes tend to be more unrealistic for women than for men, and they often struggle to achieve a work-life balance. “[Parishes] sometimes expect their female clergy to do everything they would expect their male clergy to do plus that of the traditional clergy wife, which his not fair,” she says.

Age-sometimes more so than gender-is a major challenge for young female priests.

“Just to be a young priest of either gender now is rare, and sometimes that’s held against you,” says Askew. “Opportunities are withheld simply because of our age, when in fact we may be more senior in our ministry than somebody who’s entered it as a second career.” She cites that she was ordained 15 years ago, yet finds that somebody five years older is often viewed in the church as more senior-even though that person may have been ordained for only a few years.

Leger belongs to The Young Women Clergy Project, an international group where she finds support for issues particular to her generation. “It’s a wonderfully safe and encouraging place where we can share some of the ridiculous stories of being told ?your dress is inappropriate because a tweed skirt comes above your knee,’ [as well as] the really hard stuff,” she says.

The challenge of being “constantly underestimated” because of one’s age is not, however, exclusive to the church or to women, says Leger. She quotes a friend who sums up her generation’s collective frustration: “In a culture where 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30, in order for that to be maintained and for people of that age to feel young, vital and vibrant, it means that those of us who are in our 30s have to be kept in our 20s.”

People assume that because she’s young, she lacks experience, says Leger. She recalls moving into a new diocese and celebrating communion there for the first time. “You did a marvellous job for someone so young,” one person commented. When Leger mentioned that she had been giving communion three times every Sunday for four years, the person responded, “Oh, I guess I just never thought of that.”

Such comments don’t upset Leger; she reckons that the church is simply in a period where baby boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials are “just trying to find a place in an institution that’s shrinking.”

Being single also poses a challenge for young clergy, and it’s heightened when you’re female, observes Laskey. Speaking from others’ experience, not her own, Laskey relates that if there’s a parish potluck or a fundraising event, people expect the wife of a married male priest to bring the food. But if you’re a single female priest, the expectation is that you will bring the food. “So you’re kind of doing double duty in a sense,” says Laskey, who worked as a mechanical engineer-another male-dominated field-prior to becoming a priest.

The Rev. Jolene Peters with young parishioners from the Parish of Labrador West. Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Jolene Peters with young parishioners from the Parish of Labrador West. Photo: Contributed

For Peters, the struggle has been about explaining to people why a young person would want to become a priest instead of doing something “that makes more money.” But, she says, “for me, [money] wasn’t even an issue. It’s a vocation, and this one is for me. I can’t imagine myself doing something else.”

The onus is on everyone in the church, including women, to work for change, the priests say.

“I think it’s all our responsibility. I think it’s a really difficult thing to put on a different set of shoes, but sometimes women in leadership need to do that,” says Shaw.

Congregations need to recognize the need for work-life balance, not just for women but also for men, say Laskey and Askew.

“I think sometimes I’m my own biggest roadblock,” says Leger. “I’m the one who says, ?Oh, they won’t want me to serve in that area.’ ” Leger, who will turn 40 next year, notes that there are lots of bishops in the communion today who became bishops long before they were 40. Yet, “I’m the one who says, ?Oh my God, I can’t be a bishop right now.’ ”

Shaw says she remains hopeful that things will change. “The leadership style can’t help but be influenced by the consensus style,” she says.

“I still have a great deal of hope that we will fill those positions and that women will be more equal in leadership,” adds Leger.

For Askew, the more pressing issue in aboriginal communities is whether there are enough young people who might enter the priesthood. Very often, those who are ordained have already had years of lay leadership. “It is not the model that we often see in the south or in the urban centres, where people are discerning a call while they’re still in high school or undergraduate studies and then going off to a traditional seminary,” says Askew. Askew, whose father is native and her mother non-native, didn’t grow up on a reserve; she took the traditional seminary route to priesthood. “So probably there’s not going to be a lot of people like me,” she says. “But things are not going to change until we start modelling the picture of the church we want to be and want to have.”

The five young clergy women all say they feel supported in their ministry.

“I’m very happy,” says Peters. “Everything has its ups and downs some days, and you go through struggles. [But] every day is a new opportunity for learning and for experiences.”

Parishes, particularly those that recall when the ordination of women was an issue, often take pride in having a female priest they can trust, says Leger. “There’s a bit of badge of honour there.”

“I love my job and I like the opportunity to work for change from within the system,” says Shaw. “I feel that’s what I’m called to be. I don’t feel like it’s a perfect system, but neither is it [so] flawed that I can’t be a part of it.”

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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