Called to serve

We talked to Janet Eastwood Vicar at Holy Trinity, Wavertree about her memories to mark the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Priesthood.

Most of my life has been spent in and around Liverpool.  I had never thought of myself as a deaconess, let alone a priest, yet this was to be way I felt God was directing me. I was well established as a manager at George Henry Lee, and active in my church of All Saints, Crosby.   Then one Autumn, I started to feel a prompting to do something more.  I explored reader ministry, but that didn’t seem right, and I let the matter drop, then at the end of January in 1983, an unexpected conversation reopened the whole issue again, but this time focussing on a calling to be a deaconess.  By the end of July in the same year, I had been interviewed, and attended a selection conference and started my training in Oxford in September.  To say those months were a roller coaster ride, is not to do them justice!

I was one of the last to be routinely licensed as a deaconess in September 1986 and one of the first to be deaconed in June 1987, and both of those events which took place in Liverpool cathedral were very special.  

By the time General Synod decided women could be priests, however, I was living in Kirby Lonsdale in the Diocese of Carlisle with the dual role of Youth Officer and Team Minister in the Kirkby Lonsdale Team..  

On a late afternoon in November 1992, my father rang me.  He was not well, but like me, he had been watching the debate on the television, and as they went out to vote, he asked if I thought it would go through.   I doubted that very much.   In Carlisle Diocese, there had been some very strong and sometimes militant opposition, and it seemed to me that we would not see women priest until the new millennium.  Just as we were about to end the conversation, we realised the vote had already been taken, and General Synod members silently came back to their seats. 

Not only was it a ‘yes’ vote – there was a substantial majority.  My father was so pleased, and my mother in the background was delighted.   We hardly had words, it was such a poignant moment especially as my dad died just a month later.

We ended our conversation and I put the phone down.  It rang immediately  . . . and again and again and again!   Around 12.30am, the calls finally stopped for the day, it was such a wonderful evening!

It was not quite plain sailing after that.   We still had to go through a selection process and be interviewed by our two bishops, but on 14th May 1994 ordinations took place.   During the week before, we shared a wonderful retreat at Rydal Hall with our Bishop, Ian Harland.  I remember that on the final evening he had some oil, perfumed with lavender I think, and he anointed our hands.  

The Saturday dawned, bright and clear.    Those of us from the south of the diocese were ordained in Kendal Parish Church, with friends and family travelling long distances to be there.   A dear friend, though, was very torn.   I visit him one day, knowing that he found the concept of women priests very hard.  I asked whether I should invite him to my ordination.   He shook his head wearily, for he was expected to attend a Forward in Faith Rally planned to coincide with my ordination.   I asked him what he would do. ‘Stay in bed with a bottle of whisky!’ he said!

It was such a wonderful day.  There was the threat that the service could be disrupted by people who opposed our ordination, but plans were in place to deal with this.   We had been asked to choose just three priests who, with the bishop, would lay hands on our heads.  I chose my three, but no-one took notice, and every priest present surrounded us and stretched out his hands to share in this moment of blessing.

Eleven months later I returned to Liverpool and to the parish of Holy Trinity, Wavertree, nervous, excited, overwhelmed at the prospect of having my own parish.    My mother sat beside me as I waited to be installed, and my brother and his wife the other side.   They were so proud and pleased for me, and we were all overwhelmed by the people present from many stages of my life.    

Liverpool was a good place in which to begin this phase of my ministry.   It had always encouraged  women’s ministry, and I came to a church which welcomed and supported me from the start.   I too had been fortunate in my friends, some who did not always sit comfortably with the concept of women priests, but who still cared for me, and I rarely had my priestly ministry questioned because I was a woman.    I think I was also helped in that my work prior to being a deaconess involved working in management alongside other men and women, and I drew on that experience when I came to Wavertree.

A year or so ago, women priests met at Bishop’s Lodge with Bishop James.  He invited us to go and share with him the disappointment felt when General Synod voted against women Bishops.    Many of us crowded into the chapel, some even sitting on the floor.    I was catapulted back 20 years as some of my colleagues were angry and some wept.    One had found no sympathy from her church and was told that it must be God’s will and he did not want women as bishops.  Another told of a male colleague who was dismissive, and simply couldn’t understand why she was so upset.  Yet another, walking out to the supermarket and wearing her dog collar felt overwhelmed by the support and frustration expressed by people she did not even know.

For me, I was reminded that, when I was 21 years old, Frances Briscoe, my parish worker was made a deaconess, though I did not then recognise just how significant that was.   When I was 33, I was ordained deacon alongside Frances.   Now approaching my 60th birthday, I might soon be able to celebrate with her the inclusiveness of a Christian ministry that welcomes women into every level of leadership in our church.

I look forward to the day in which we rejoice, not simply in seeing women finally ‘arriving’ but in the inclusiveness and diversity of our work and worship together, showing to the world a healthy, united and loving church.