The Stained Glass Ceiling

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The hate mail no longer riles her, but the Rev. Katharine Rumens still gets upset when people in the street tell her she is an "aberration." It's not just passers-by who harass women priests — many report harsh treatment from colleagues. Two recent studies show that in the six years since the first ordinations in the Church of England, women priests — while warmly welcomed by many — have also been bullied and marginalized. This despite the fact that these women are part of a movement that is more than a century old and now reaches Judaism, Roman Catholicism and even Islam.

In a 1998 survey to which 107 Anglican women priests responded, about 75% said they had been bullied by clergy and others. One was accused of being a lesbian, another was quizzed about her sexual habits and others were called witch or abomination. In a much larger study by Dr. Helen Thorne of England's Bristol University, begun in 1996 and published this year, nearly half the women priests reported difficulties with male clergy. A quarter said they had experienced sexual harassment or abuse while working for the church.

Thorne's report, covering more than 1,200 women ordained in 1994-95, also suggests that women's careers in the Anglican Church lag behind men's. Women made up 14% of clergy in 1997, but only 4% held high-status jobs — excluding that of bishop, from which they are still barred. Although small numbers in the highest posts might be expected at this stage, women say they come up against a "stained glass ceiling" when it comes to jobs and promotion. Women were also underrepresented as vicars of parishes in 1997, and a disproportionate number were in lower-ranked jobs such as chaplains to prisons or hospitals; 31% were working unpaid in non-stipendiary ministry posts. Thorne's own research shows junior and unpaid posts are more common for older women, those married to vicars, and women with young children. Church of England Press Office spokesman Steve Jenkins says, however, that since Thorne's study women have been catching up — there are now two female archdeacons and one cathedral provost.

Though the 1992 vote of the Church's General Synod, made up of bishops, clergy and laypeople, was in favor of women priests, the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod allows parishes to vote to be overseen by a Provincial Episcopal Visitor, or "flying bishop," rather than one who has ordained women. Edwin Barnes, "flying" Bishop of Richborough in Kent, with responsibility for a third of the Church's territory, says that during the Eucharist priests are icons of Jesus, who was male. A woman in this role, says Barnes, is "like Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet. It doesn't seem right." Geoffrey Kirk, secretary of Forward in Faith, a traditionalist movement, recites some of the standard arguments against women's ordination. It's not supported by scripture; it's not part of tradition; and the Church of England can't make such a decision without the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. He insists that men and women have different social and spiritual roles.

Such attitudes make it unsurprising that many women priests report being cold-shouldered and isolated. When Mary Robins was serving in South Hertfordshire as a deacon — the first step to priesthood — she was "eased out" by an incoming vicar who had the power to make the decisions affecting the parish. She is now happy in an unpaid post in London, but says many clergymen in the London area "don't want to work with women, and make it very difficult to hold a conversation." Because faiths are not covered by U.K. employment law, women don't have the usual legal protection or complaints procedures. Faiths are also exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act.

In Germany, things are easier for ordained women now that there are more of them — they make up about 25% of Protestant ministers. Lutheran minister Brigitte Enzner-Probst, ordained in 1980 and now working at Munich's Technical University, helped abolish the right of male priests and parish councilors to veto the appointment of women priests in Bavaria. She finds most prejudices have faded — but have not totally disappeared. People initially questioned whether a woman's voice was commanding enough to lead a service, and even whether a woman should give Communion when menstruating or pregnant. "A cassock makes a great maternity dress," she says.

Women are knocking on the doors of even the most traditionally male-dominated religions. In Egypt, it has become fashionable for middle-class women to teach other women in mosques. In Jerusalem, Haviva Ner-David is studying to become the first Orthodox woman rabbi, though she sees her future as a teacher and adviser. After her application to New York's Yeshiva University met with silence, she found a male Orthodox rabbi willing to instruct her — any recognized rabbi can ordain a pupil he feels has reached the necessary level of scholarship. "Until women have the title of Rabbi," she says, "women will never have the same authority. I don't think people will accept my ordination, but it will make the idea of a woman rabbi more normal." In late May, after an 11-year court battle, women were granted the right to pray in groups in the same way as men at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

Away from Orthodox Judaism, there are women rabbis in the Liberal and Reform congregations, but London's Leo Baeck College is currently the only European institution that will ordain them. There are now 24 in Europe. The pioneer was Regina Jonas, ordained in Germany in 1935. After she died in Auschwitz in 1944, there were no more in Europe until Jacqueline Tabick was ordained in Britain in 1975. When Pauline Bebe, France's only woman rabbi, started in the job, "some people — women included — felt threatened by the fact that a woman could be playing a significant role in their religion," she says. "As guardians of conservatism, religions don't develop as fast as the rest of society."

Most Orthodox Christian believers would consider women's ordination impossible, says Bishop Kallistos of the Greek Orthodox Church in Oxford, though a minority see it as an open question and a few are in favor. And although Pope John Paul II declared in 1994 that the Roman Catholic Church had no authority to ordain women, there is a small but vocal international movement pressing for it. Iris Müller, based in Münster, has been aiming for the Catholic priesthood all her adult life. "I have had to realize," she says, "that no arguments, no doctoral thesis, no serious research, nothing helps. There is such a fanatical hatred of women."

The Anglican Archbishops' Commission of 1935 stated that if a woman celebrated the sacraments her sexuality would be too distracting. Lutherans may now accept pregnant ministers, but in the Greek Orthodox Church some still observe rules — harking back to the Biblical Book of Leviticus — against women receiving Communion during their period. In a reaction against such attitudes, modern pagans — there are about 120,000 in the U.K. — see women's fertility as powerful, and some groups give priestesses priority, says Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol University and author of a history of modern pagan witchcraft.

Real equality may be far off for the Anglican women, but there are promising signs. There are now about 2,000 Anglican women priests, and 40% of trainees are female.The Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, which published the 1998 report, is open to all clergy, and is campaigning to have them included in employment law. Preliminary findings of a survey by Christian Research, to be published in September, show that nearly 90% of Anglican laypeople surveyed welcomed women priests and nearly 80% would welcome women bishops. And at the Church's General Synod meeting this week Archdeacon Judith Rose put forward a motion preparing the ground for future debate on women bishops. If women can achieve parity in this once all-male institution, women in other faiths — and in the rest of society — will surely benefit.

— With reporting by Sabrina Arena Ferrisi/Rome, Nicholas Le Quesne and Jennifer L. Schenker/Paris, Amany Radwan/Cairo, Eric Silver/Jerusalem and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin