A year ago, when it became clear that the Church of England was about to change its policy of allowing women to become priests, it was widely seen as a threat to the institution.
Now, despite a change in the Church’s ethos, the Church is hoping to build on the legacy of the first two decades of the 20th century by inviting women to the priesthood.
It’s a move that has the potential to be both a blessing and a curse for women who seek a better life for themselves and their families.
But the Church, which has never had a female bishop, is not the only institution in Britain that has embraced this opportunity.
The Church of Scotland, for example, has been running counselling courses for women in a bid to help them find their footing in the workforce and gain confidence as they approach retirement.
“In my 30 years in the priesthood I’ve never seen the Church as anything other than a home for women,” says Rachel Hoggart, the chaplain at the First Unitarian Church of St Andrews.
“It’s been so empowering for me.”
Hoggart says the counselling courses have been a major help for her, as they provide the women with support, a space where they can talk about their issues and seek help from the people who will listen.
The Church has also created a programme that teaches women to write letters of encouragement to their male colleagues.
“I know that the church is not going to change, but the counselling course will definitely help,” says Hoggam.
“We’ve had some women write to me and tell me how it has helped them to cope with their emotions.”
But while the Church has shown a willingness to welcome women into the priesthood, it is also facing criticism over its policy on sexual abuse.
The former chief chaplain of the church, Father Andrew Fyfe, told the Sunday Times that the current policy did not address the problem of child sexual abuse, but argued that it did not discriminate against women who are sexually abused.
“It doesn’t take a lot of evidence to know that when a man is sexually abused by a priest, he’s not going be taken seriously and the Church will look the other way,” he said.
“If they think they can’t get away with it, they’re wrong.”
The Church’s move into counselling courses is an acknowledgement that women’s education and career options in the church are still limited, says Rachel McQuillan, a professor of history at the University of Leicester.
“The Church is a very male-dominated institution.
It has a male head of department, so the men have a certain amount of influence and it’s hard to say that there’s an equal number of women and men in the hierarchy,” she says.”
It’s a little bit like a feminist utopia, where everyone is equal and everybody is free, but at the same time, the hierarchy has this male chauvinism that the women don’t belong there.””
The Church wants to attract women and, if you look at the demographics of the clergy, there’s a lot more women in the dioceses and in other ministries than there is in the Catholic Church.”
“It’s a little bit like a feminist utopia, where everyone is equal and everybody is free, but at the same time, the hierarchy has this male chauvinism that the women don’t belong there.”
But there are other concerns.
A study by the Centre for Social Justice found that, while the number of priests had fallen in the last three decades, the number seeking counselling services had increased, even as the number in care had increased.
“While women may not be the primary focus, they are still disproportionately represented in counselling and support services,” says Dr Lisa O’Connor, of the Centre.
“One of the biggest things that we’re seeing is that the gender imbalance in the service is a big issue.”
O’Connor says the Church could use to ensure that its counsellors are impartial and are not biased in favour of the male sex.
“There are some cases of men being in care but they’re not going through the same process as women,” she said.
In the meantime, women who have sought counselling may have to wait until they’re in their 30s, or until they retire.
But it’s a long wait for those who are struggling with mental health issues.
“When you have a mental health condition, you can get help for a very short time,” says McQuills.
“And for those people, it’s going to be very challenging, and I think a lot will be about getting the support they need to live a happier, healthier life.”
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