Motherhood and Priesthood – mind the gap

What would change if priestly ministry wasn’t simply seen as what a Vicar/Chaplain/Padre does?

Graham_TomlinTomlin, following Barth, argues that there are three levels of priestly ministry. Humanity to creation, the church to humanity and the ordained to the church.

If this is true then the institutional church would do well to accredit all three of this ‘priestly layers’ when considering candidates for parishes appointments and other significant posts.

If a candidate has driven forward an activist church expansion, but not paused to be the ‘priest in the parish’, or enable the congregation to realise their priestly status to humanity and the environment perhaps they are lacking…

Cue a discussion on a gender gap in senior posts.

We know for example that a significant number of female candidates have delayed their ordination whilst having a family. Female ordained ministers are also much more likely to work part-time or to work as self-supporting ministers whilst children are young. These decisions are sometimes voluntary and sometimes imposed.

They can be imposed due to institutional bias. Lesley Bentley contends that ‘there are issues about willingness of bishops to offer incumbencies to women with young children’. (Kurht, 2001, 238). A curate noted, ‘when I got pregnant, the message was “we are very happy for you, but this complicates things” and my training incumbent and I had to go for mediation. And she was a woman.’ Several women with young children reported being steered away from full-time stipendiary ministry even by female (A)DDOs. Others found it impossible to gain flexibility in the workplace, with one mother weeks after her first child was born being told she had to return to work on a full-time basis if she wanted to be signed off as completing her curacy.

Perspectives on married roles also had an impact. While some reported husbands very willing to assume a role of main child-care provider, other respondents didn’t want their vocational path to be an impediment to a husband’s career and others reported both partners juggling multiple roles all at once.

However whether the decision to work part-time, or delay ordination has been imposed or voluntary, what the church needs to do is recognise the priestly validity of those years in developing any minister, male or female.

I spent a year and a half as primary carer to our young children whilst my wife Nicola was finishing a curacy and running an interregnum in a large church. I was fortunate that an enlightened area bishop recruited me as a 0.2 FTE consultant to the Diocese on matters that happened to interest me, and the pay and the distraction were both a welcome relief. But that brief time was also key in developing my procreative ministry to creation, and to the wider community. Day after day I inhabited the strange world of child-care, and found that I was mixing far more with the community as a result than I had done in much of my stipended ministry. Having now returned to a full-time pariochial role much of our ministry is built around our family, school gate contacts, and the six carer/toddler sessions a week that our church now hosts, which attracts more than 300 children a week. We even have a  soft-play centre in the old vestry and own two bouncy castles. I doubt either of us would have fully understood the need for these spaces if we weren’t wrestling and struggling with being parents ourselves.

Those who have delayed stipendiary ministry, taken time-out, gone ‘part-time’, and /or juggled sometimes excruciating responsibilities are likely to have gained significant ‘priestly’ experience at all three levels whilst doing so.

The church should find ways to affirm and validate these experiences in appointing men and women to parish and diocesan roles.

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