My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Thursday 2nd December 1999


My name is Angela Bernes Wilson. I'm 45 years old. And I'm a priest in charge of two rural parishes, in the Bristol diocese, but actually in the county of Wiltshire, in the south-west of England. Five years ago, I was one of the first group of 32 women to be ordained priest in the Church of England. There were already, of course, women in other churches; but we were the first women to be priests in the Anglican Church in England. And the ordination took place in Bristol Cathedral on the 12th of March, 1994. Because my name begins with B and our Bishop always ordains alphabetically, I was actually the first candidate to be presented to the Bishop of Bristol, the Right Reverend Barry Rogerson. I have many memories of that wonderful day. I shall never forget it as long as I live. An early memory from the day is: we had all been away on retreat, at Glenfall House, near Cheltenham. And as the coach came to take us back to Bristol Cathedral, as we turned round a bend in the drive a sheep had just dropped two lambs. And I remember one of the women saying: "Oh, I think one of them's a boy, and one of them's a girl." And that somehow seemed a wonderful metaphor for what was about to happen - that at long last the priesthood would be open to all God's children, of both sexes, women as well as men. We then went on to Bristol and had to run the gamut of hundreds of photographers as we got out of the coach to go and prepare for this wonderful service. So we started off and went into this packed cathedral, absolutely packed - extra chairs everywhere - and we suddenly thought: "This is it. This is really history in the making." And it was a very proud but also a very humbling moment. Some of the opposition one encountered in the struggle to be a priest: people thinking that you were really evil and wrong. I had one gentleman who wrote to me eight pages of a very closely-written letter, from his holiday in Majorca, saying he was really worried about my soul, that I was going to be a priest. That sort of thing is sad and almost laughable. But some women had much worse things, like having their hands bitten when they went to give someone Communion. I have a friend who's actually a grandmother - although she doesn't look old enough, but she is - who had someone call her a "whore" in the street. And people crossed the street to avoid being on the same pavement with some women - I've known that happen in London. Some people say that the tradition of the Church of England was overturned by ordaining women. But to them I would always want to say: "We're not actually doing anything different. We are taking our place alongside the men. The priesthood is being expanded, enhanced, by being open to both sexes. And at the altar, at the Eucharist, the priest represents God to the people, but also the people to God. So how can an all-male priesthood completely represent both sexes to God? I think it's a fulfilment of the tradition, rather than changing it. I say exactly the same words when I celebrate as male priests do. I'm not doing anything different. It's just that I'm female." I think it's very important that the Church is seen to be at the forefront of what's going on in the world and not taking a back seat. We should be leading the way. And therefore for the Church to be one of the few institutions left in society - as we were just ten years ago - that didn't have women in leadership roles was a very sad thing. I think the fact that we now do have women priests is saying a lot to so many women - particularly women in very difficult circumstances, in very poor countries, who have almost nothing. The fact that women can represent God and the people at the altar, that we are taking a leadership role within the Church, is actually speaking volumes about how Jesus himself related to women, treated them as equals. Sometimes people ask me how much of a milestone the ordination of women was in the Church of England. I think at this stage, only five years on, it's quite hard to say. Five years in the whole history of the Church - two thousand years - is only a very tiny time-span. But certainly in 50 years, 100 years, 200 years' time, I do believe that people will look back and see the 12th of March, 1994 as indeed a real watershed in the history of the Church - not just the Church of England, but in the history of the Churches. E N D