Whitby’s priests led way for church equality

Rev Christine Haddon-Reece at Egton School end of year service'w142904i'Picture by Gary Simpson
Rev Christine Haddon-Reece at Egton School end of year service'w142904i'Picture by Gary Simpson

A Whitby priest has spoken of her joy after 20 years of waiting ended with the Church of England’s decision to allow women to become bishops.

The Reverend Christine Haddon-Reece was one of the first women to enter the clergy, and since then has eagerly awaited the time when genuine equality would be shared between male and female priests.

The Rt Rev Paul Ferguson, Bishop of Whitby

The Rt Rev Paul Ferguson, Bishop of Whitby

“I am delighted,” she said. “There has been a ceiling above which we couldn’t get, and it’s right that the ceiling has now been broken through.”

The Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops for the first time in its history on July 14 following almost five hours of debate at the University of York.

A previous vote in 2012 was backed by the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, but was blocked by traditionalist lay members.

However, Christine said she did not begrudge those conservative members of the church, saying the additional time was necessary for many of them to resolve some of their concerns about the change.

She explained: “It’s something which is long overdue, but at the same time, the timing had to be right to keep other people on board.

“There are still people who for theological reasons can’t accept women having total authority over men in the church.

“It was important that these people don’t leave the church and we were able to maintain a sense of being.”

When Christine first joined the clergy, she was one of the first women to come into the role. Although she encountered some resistance from the lay community, she said that regardless of their own personal beliefs, her fellow priests always treated her with respect.

“I have never felt less of a priest than a male priest,” she added. “There has just been a difference in what we could achieve in our job.”

Whitby’s bishop, the Rt Rev Paul Ferguson has long supported the introduction of female bishops, so he was pleased with the Synod’s decision.

“The result of the vote is what I had expected and hoped for,” explained Paul. “One of the very important things about it was not only the vote itself, but also the debate that went on, on the very same day and the fact that everybody was taking forward each other’s conscience and position.

“For the people who can’t accept the development, there’s still a place in the Church of England for them - it’s not a case of winners and losers.”

With Whitby’s history of strong women as leaders in the church, stretching back to St Hilda, Paul added that when the time comes, he would welcome a woman as his successor, if she was the right candidate for the job.

“I would say this about any appointment,” he said. “The important thing is, is the person the best equipped for the post?

“It shouldn’t matter if they were male or female.”

For Christine, the time has passed when she could have pursued a bishopric, and she is now focussed upon meeting the needs of her flock.

Throughout her time as clergy for Egton, Glaisdale with Leaholm, Goathland and Grosmont, Christine has gained many supporters, and helped convert others who had been unsure about female priests.

News about the vote was therefore warmly received in the parishes she oversees, and although the first women bishops will face a lot of hard work, those pioneering steps taken by women in the church, from St Hilda to Christine will help smooth the transition.