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Meeting the female Church of England vicars of Devon

Newly ordained curates outside Exeter Cathedral: Rev'd Hazel Britton is 5 from right. Bishop Jackie is also in the picture, 8 from left. Photo: Diocese of Exeter
Newly ordained curates outside Exeter Cathedral: Rev'd Hazel Britton is 5 from right. Bishop Jackie is also in the picture, 8 from left. Photo: Diocese of Exeter

It’s been almost 30 years since the first women were ordained in the Church of England. Simone Stanbrook-Byrne talks to a trio of Devon’s women priests about their spiritual journeys

Great British Life: Rev'd Hazel Britton, with churchwarden, Marion Brown, and Hazel's 'training' incumbent, Rev'd Olly Mears, in St Disen's, Bradninch - showing just how much fun it is!. Photo: Mike BrittonRev'd Hazel Britton, with churchwarden, Marion Brown, and Hazel's 'training' incumbent, Rev'd Olly Mears, in St Disen's, Bradninch - showing just how much fun it is!. Photo: Mike Britton

From classroom to church

I first met the recently ordained Rev’d Hazel Britton over a cup of a coffee in Bradninch’s Warm Welcome Café. To chat to Hazel is like being enveloped in a hug of enthusiasm and laughter.

‘When I went for my ordination interview they asked if I’d ever served on a parochial church council. I told them I hadn’t, but I’d watched the Vicar of Dibley and it couldn’t be that much different.’

Hazel was ordained as curate (the first level of priesthood) in Exeter Cathedral last autumn, ‘with a whole bunch of other curates, 10 women and five men, which was quite an amazing thing,’ she tells me.

‘As somebody who grew up in Exeter, to find myself being ordained in the Cathedral was a moving occasion. I’m very thrilled that the Church of England welcomed the ordination of women because it's such a big, broad denomination with significant training opportunities to help in different churches.’

Hazel says she has felt this calling since childhood. ‘I was always very active as a Christian from a young age. When I was 18, I wanted to go to Bible college, but I wasn't encouraged. So, I did a degree in geography and history and became a teacher, eventually teaching RE and heading the department.

‘But my calling throughout my teaching career, and throughout my life, was about sharing my faith. I wanted to be able to do this in different ways with young people. I think the general attitudes to women in the church that were prevailing in my youth meant that I didn't even consider Christian ministry as a vocation until now – and now it's wonderful to be free to have the opportunity to minister, and to be supported and trained and treated equally. That means a huge amount to me.’

The role of a curate, she says, ‘is one of training and participation in the ministry of the church. I meet with my training incumbent, Rev’d Olly Mears, once a fortnight for a supervision meeting which is reflective on how the last couple of weeks have gone, what opportunities there are and what new things I’ve learned.’ A training incumbent is an ordained priest who guides new curates through this foundation process. Hazel also leads a service, and speaks at another, once a month.

Of her past teaching career leading to her present-day ministry, Hazel says: ‘There’s a lot of common ground, and as I’ve said to a million people, ministry is all the joy of teaching and none of the marking!’

Great British Life: Rev'd Hannah Mears began her ordination training when she was 25. Photo: Matt Prior, Diocese of ExeterRev'd Hannah Mears began her ordination training when she was 25. Photo: Matt Prior, Diocese of Exeter

Making a difference

There is a lovely sense of serenity about Rev’d Hannah Mears – though as a busy working mum and wife of another priest, she’ll probably laugh when she reads that. Currently working as vocations development officer for Exeter Diocese, in her early twenties Hannah was a support worker in Edinburgh, ‘helping people find freedom from addiction, in particular from heroin, and hope for their future,’ she tells me. ‘It was a good training ground because I saw life in all its starkness.

‘As a young adult I sensed that God was calling me to serve the church as a priest who would contribute towards building up the church through proclaiming the good news of God’s love,’ she says, ‘empowering others to use their gifts to make a difference in the world, and through equipping other Christian leaders.’

Hannah says she began ordination training when she was 25, at Trinity College, Bristol, completing it in two years, rather than the usual three for people under 30, as she already had a theology degree and a master’s in theological research from Durham University.

‘During my time at Trinity I focused on linking theological learning to real ministry on the ground, through a programme called Context Based Training.’

Now ordained for 15 years, I ask Hannah if there has been a particular highlight during her ministry.

‘Exploring the Christian faith with 20 plus adults during my curacy,’ she replies, ‘who I then went on to baptise – each coming to know the freedom, hope and love found in Jesus.’

I wonder if she has ever met with resistance on account of being female and, to my surprise, Hannah says she has – as recently as 2016.

‘I was declined three different appointments based solely on my gender, although it is harder for churches to do this now. This was obviously very challenging, but the Holy Spirit strengthened me to keep moving forward and reminded me of the injustice Jesus faced.’

Hannah’s work in the Exeter Diocese is about to expand as she has been appointed director of lay ministry training with the South West Ministry Training Course, guiding and training people to grow and develop in licensed lay ministry roles.

Great British Life: Bishop Jackie is currently acting Bishop of Exeter. Photo: Matt PriorBishop Jackie is currently acting Bishop of Exeter. Photo: Matt Prior

Leading the way

For Bishop Jackie Searle, the Bishop of Crediton (and currently acting Bishop of Exeter), 1994 was a hugely significant year. Having grown up in a deeply Christian family, and with a background in teaching, she was one of the very first women to be ordained in the Church of England. At the time she was also expecting her first child – two life-changing events.

‘I was initially ordained a deacon in 1992, and at that time the vote had not passed that women could be priests, so it was a very great joy to be ordained a priest after the church made that decision.

‘Ordination of woman was something people had campaigned for and prayed for, for a very long time. There were so many women waiting to be ordained in London [in 1994] that they held the services over two days in St Paul’s Cathedral – It was the same weekend as the London Marathon which felt quite significant at the time. It was a wonderful occasion, full of joy and huge excitement.’

‘Serving as a priest has been the heart of my calling,’ says Bishop Jackie, who has a master’s degree in theology from Bristol University. ‘I didn’t imagine at that time that I might become a bishop, but my ministry was increasingly one of “oversight” with a strong vocation to serve Christ as a “shepherd of the flock”. These were key when it came later to an exploration of ministry as a bishop. The Church of England, after long years of debate, agreed to women being ordained as bishop in July 2014, with the first female bishop, The Rt Rev’d Libby Lane, being consecrated in December that year.

‘I was ordained bishop in a service of consecration at Southwark Cathedral, London, on 27 September 2018. It was a hugely special moment, surrounded by friends and family, people from different stages of my life and ministry and many from the Diocese of Exeter who were getting ready to welcome me as their new Bishop of Crediton. It felt to me to be a very fulfilling next step in following God’s call. I love being in Devon, working with my colleagues and doing all I can to support the church and communities across the county.’

Of the 115 bishops in the Church of England, presently fewer than 30 are women. I ask Bishop Jackie if she can envisage a time when a woman might hold the position of archbishop – of which there are only two: Canterbury and York.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I think that is perfectly possible. There are archbishops who are female in other parts of the Anglican Communion across the world. It is a matter of the right person at the right time.’

And to that positive prospect, I think we can say ‘Amen!’



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