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Celebrating thirty years of women’s priestly ministry in the Diocese of York

Several hundred lay people and clergy gathered to give thanks for the first thirty years of women's priestly ministry in Diocese of York, at Evensong in York Minster.

Women priests with Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell outside York Minster on 4th June 2024

Several hundred lay people and clergy gathered to give thanks for the first thirty years of women’s priestly ministry in Diocese of York, at Evensong in York Minster.

Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell was present and gave a blessing at the end, and the preacher was the Revd Canon Sue Sheriff, one of the 39 women ordained priest in York Minster in May 1994 and now Priest-in-Charge of St Oswald’s, Fulford, York.

Around sixty ordained women joined Archbishop Stephen on York Minster’s south steps for a photograph afterwards, followed by a smaller group of seventeen of those ordained priest in 1994, including a number of those ordained in York.

The Revd Canon Sue Sheriff reflected on her thirty years as a priest:

I have just surprised myself by getting very emotional while celebrating the first Sunday Communion since the 30th anniversary of being ordained as a priest.

Pictured: Sue Sheriff distributes Holy Communion for the first time in Southcoates, Hull, in 1994 [photo courtesy Hull Daily Mail]

It took me right back to the day after the priesting in 1994 when I celebrated my first Communion.

As I looked out that Sunday morning from behind the communion table at many of the people who had supported me through my Christian journey and vocation to be a priest, I was overwhelmed with compassion for the flock for which Jesus had asked me to care.

It felt a massive responsibility for which even after 7 years as a deacon I felt ill-prepared and unworthy.

I took confidence from the fact that the day before in a packed York Minster my bishop and many colleagues had laid hands on me as the bishop said, “Send down the Holy Spirit upon your servant Suzanne for the office and work of a priest in your Church.”

Together with some incredible Godly women I was ordained alongside, I had been interviewed to see if both the Church and we ourselves felt that God has called us to the distinctively different role of priest. In the ordination service we had been presented by the archdeacon to the bishop, and by the bishop to the people as he asked, is it your will that they should be ordained priest?

There had been a resounding “It is” that felt like it could have almost lifted the roof off our beautiful cathedral.

At the end of today’s Communion I once again felt humbled and overwhelmed with compassion as we sang the lines “I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart” and for me that sums up what the last 30 years have been about.

The Revd Canon Angela Bailey, another of those ordained in York Minster in 1994, recalls:

One feeling I have looking back on these years of women in priestly orders is deep respect for the women before us, and gratitude. Archbishop Runcie ordained as deacon in February 1987 women who were by then retired, together with us newbies. Some of these elder women had decades of faithful ministry behind them, models of service in places where they were not seen in the sanctuary nor heard in the liturgy.

We had a few years of ‘permanent diaconate’ as it was called then, before the ordination to priesthood. I was struck then and since by the way we needed to be light on our feet, adapting, developing theological thinking, learning new skills, to fulfil what the church was now calling us to. Of course, that’s true of all Christians, witnessing ‘afresh in each generation’, and these first ordinations came after a lot of liturgical revision so some folk were used to new perspectives. Not everyone likes change though!

Beginning as a deaconess I never expected to be ‘in charge’, there were few such posts – and yet we were called to leadership and had to step up. I hope this helped me to nurture the gifts of those who were tempted to keep their lights under a bushel. One great joy of my ministry has been to see people grow in their following Jesus, and answering his call on their lives.

The Eucharist has always been central in my own faith and to preside, to serve in that way is a privilege. The prayer of Jesus that we may be one is focussed in the Eucharist and is key to our witness that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God-self. For me this is the heart of our faith and our calling in the church, whatever our role in the celebration, to be together at the Eucharist. Speaking God’s word of peace wherever we are serving is my prayer in pastoral work, which is my main role now.

So gratitude for the women before us, a sense of being light-footed on the Way, sharing the journey and seeing others grow into maturity in Christ, speaking God’s word of peace and seeking unity in the Eucharist – these have been the themes of these past years. I’ve served with and among great folk – thank you.