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The cross and the passion... Why women clerics are keeping the faith

Women of the cloth have long been a contentious issue. Stephanie Bell speaks to females involved in Churches about their decisions

They may be a growing force within our local communities, but female clergy often have to work that little bit harder than men to be accepted in their roles.

Even though the four main Protestant denominations relaxed their constraints on women taking up leadership roles in the Church many years ago, women today can still face resistance.

As the Church prepares for the most significant celebration in the Christian calendar at Easter, we talk to three local female ministers about why they choose to enter the Church and what the reality is for women clergy today.

Rev Anne Tolland made headlines when she became the first female to be installed as minister of St John's Newtownbreda in 2013.

Her appointment was regarded as significant because Newtownbreda is one of the largest congregations in Ireland to call a woman as minister.

Anne's late father, Rev James Tolland, was a former minister of First Donegore Presbyterian Church and so she grew up with a real insight into the running of a church.

She was just 14 when she first felt a calling to be a minister. As a woman, though, she was very aware of the challenges her gender would present, and she resisted for many years.

She recalls: "The Church was always a big part of my life growing up. Being in the manse, I got to see the Church from every side, and was under no illusions about what it would entail and for me. It was a vocation or a calling, rather than a job.

"I did feel called when I was about 14, but to be honest, I didn't want to go into the Church as there was so much opposition to women. I felt as if I would be set apart.

"I also knew that it can be a difficult job, as it becomes your life. There were so few women ministers and they were being treated in a different way. Women faced a lot of barriers and I wasn't sure I was ready for that."

Anne continued to resist the call to ministry as she grew up and planned for a different career. She studied microbiology and genetics at Queen's University, going on to train as a science teacher.

As much as she studied for an alternative career, though, she says that God had other plans for her. Despite this, it wasn't until her late 20s that she felt she could no longer resist her calling.

Anne says: "I was still involved in the Church and it was very much a big part of my life, and I felt I had to be sure of my calling. I applied to study theology and for the ministry - and decided if I was refused then it would be okay. When I was accepted, I knew then that this is what I was supposed to do."

Anne was ordained in 2000 and waited just one year until she was given her first church, which was Cairncastle, near Larne.

She spent 12 happy years there before making the leap from a small rural, mainly farming congregation to the large city congregation in Newtownbreda.

During her time in Ballygally, she became a leader of a cross-community Coastal Clergy Group in the Cairncastle, Glenarm and Carnlough areas.

It is an area that she is passionate about - and which she had continued in her new church as a member of the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship in Belfast.

She says: "I loved Cairncastle and was very, very happy there. It was quite a change going from a rural church to the city. But it never occurred to me that it was anything unusual, it just felt right."

As a minister, most of her work is taken up with pastoral duties and she is actively involved in many of the groups within her own church.

Anne explains: "For me, the pastoral work is the most rewarding and important part of the job. You get to know people and be part of their lives. You are there for them at the most wonderful of times and the saddest times.

"You get to journey with them and that is a real honour and privilege. No two weeks are the same, which is one of the joys of the job, as you never get bored.

"I have a wonderful congregation who are very supportive."

The resistance she feared because of her gender is something she now accepts as part and parcel of her role.

"You do have to develop a thick skin. It isn't just women, but a lot of men find resistance as well because they are supportive of women ministers," she says. "It is a theological thing and, at the start, it was pretty constant. There are three or four verses in the Bible which people like to quote to you about women. But for every verse they show me, I can show them four more which upholds the leadership of women in the Church."

Easter will be a special time for Anne's congregation, who will take part in an annual Easter Good Friday celebration with six other local churches. The faithful will join together to walk down the Ormeau Road carrying a cross in an annual ceremony organised by the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship.

Non-church goers traditionally join the short open air service in Ormeau Park, too, and then walk the short distance to Cooke Centenary Church for a special service.

Anne says: "We then have an evening Good Friday service in our church which is very traditional and poignant with low lighting and it goes dark at the end - which is symbolic of the tomb being closed.

"On Easter Sunday morning, we have a more joyous and uplifting service which is about rejoicing in the new life and fresh hope."

Rev Maureen Hassard also made history when she became the first woman to occupy the pulpit at Ballymena Methodist Church.

Originally from north Belfast, she spent most of her life working in the health service while all the time feeling a calling to the Church.

As a young girl growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, she got involved in cross-community work through her church. And this is something which she has continued throughout her life, especially since becoming a minister. Maureen (61) is married to David (64), a steel manager, and they have one son Graeme, who is 30.

She says: "I spent 28 years in the health service as a manager and about 14 years ago, when it became possible to train part-time as a minister, I studied through Edgehill Theological College at nights and weekends while still working.

"I felt a calling in the Church when I was about 20, but I got married and life took off in other directions and gave me different opportunities for leadership.

"I was an only child and spent most of my time looking after my mother, who didn't cope very well with the death of my father. The Church was always there for me and I saw it at its best. It was the one thing that never changed. When I went into the ministry I saw it as payback for what it had done for me as a child.

"Also I was lucky that our church in north Belfast was ahead of its time. I grew up at the height of the Troubles and our church was near the Ardoyne area and got involved in a lot of cross-community work. That has stayed with me all my life."

When she was ordained, Maureen took up an appointment as a non-stipendiary minister at Greenisland Methodist Church.

And since taking up her post at Ballymena Methodist, she has continued to be heavily involved in community work within the town.

She sits on the boards or is a member of many local groups including the Flourish Suicide Group, Woman's Aid and Habitat for Humanity. She is also on the Board of Governors for local primary schools and involved in the local Ethnic Forum.

It makes for a busy life on top of her pastoral and church duties, but she thrives on the opportunity and the challenge.

"It is about finding a voice on these issues and helping people who are hurting or whose lives are broken," she says.

"Starting as a minister after so many years working in the health service felt like coming home.

"There is a great sense of fulfilment.

"The pastoral side of the job is a real privilege and being allowed to draw alongside people in the best of time and the worst of times. It is very humbling to be able to do that."

As a woman, she feels blessed that the Methodist church is more open to female ministers, adding that he has never found her gender an issue.

Maureen says: "I think I am very fortunate that the Methodist Church has had women ministers for quite a long time. To me it seems to be more open to women than some other Churches.

"Being the first woman minister in the pulpit in this church was a challenge.

"Some people are wary of it but my church embraces it, and I have not been conscious of it with my congregation. I respect peoples' opinions and rights to hold their views. I know there is are still some who struggle with women in ministry."

Easter will be celebrated with a special three nights of storytelling and there will be four services throughout the week culminating in a special family service on Easter Sunday.

And Maureen adds: "Easter is my favourite time of the year because it is really what it is all about - and a real cause for celebration."

Maura Garrihy (26) is a youth ministry coordinator with Catholic Church in the Diocese of Derry.

She says: "I was brought up in the Church but it wasn't until I went on a retreat at the age of 16 and saw other young people and their friendship with Jesus that I was really drawn to the Church and that was a turning point for me.

"I then studied theology and have been involved in youth ministry for the last 10 years. My job is to help young people make the connection between their lives and faith and I work in local schools and parishes in the diocese.

"As a young female I can honestly say that I have only ever felt 100% valued and respected in the Church.

"Women are at the heart of the Church in the parishes, doing what we do naturally and while I cannot be ordained as a priest I see it that they have their specific parts to play and so do I and I don't see one as being better than the other.

"For me personally, Easter is always a beautiful time and I always like to use it as a time to challenge myself and reflect.

"It is a beautiful time in the Church as well and the extra masses we have from Thursday night through until Easter Sunday are a chance to stop and reflect and relive the great gift of our faith.

"We have a live stations of the cross service in Derry Cathedral on Saturday night which young people will be involved in and it is an opportunity for them to put themselves in the faith story.

"In parishes in the Catholic Church throughout Ireland there will be groups of people working to organise the Easter celebrations for weeks in advance and there will be many reflective times of prayer when people can reconnect with Jesus and the great gift he gave us."

Rev Fiona Forbes first felt called to a life in the Church when she was 13, but it was only a few years ago that she felt God had finally prepared her for becoming a minister.

Fiona (45) is married to Glyn (42), an IT consultant, and they have two children, Imogen (16) and Ruairidh (12).

She was an assistant at McCracken Memorial Church in south Belfast for two years, before taking up the role of minister at Cairncastle Presbyterian Church, Ballygally in 2014.

Previously, she had worked in food retail as an area manager before becoming a full-time mum.

She recalls: "I had a sense of calling as a very young teenager and felt very strongly that God had a plan for me to be a minister.

"It took the next 25 years for God to teach me the things about myself and characteristics I would need to do the job. I think being out in the world of work and being a parent taught me things.

"Those experiences changed me in a way that has prepared me for the role of minister. I think it was a case of whom God calls, he equips.

"I got a sense that the call was getting stronger and stronger, and finally felt it was time to push the door and see if it definitely was God's will for my life. Much to my surprise, it was."

When she did finally fulfil her calling, Fiona says she never considered that her gender could be an issue and has never encountered any issues because she is a woman. She says: "I've always tried not to focus on the gender issue. I had a sense of calling and wanted to ensure that it was a valid one.

"And in my eyes I am privileged enough to be ordained as a minister.

"My view has always been to simply be me and take confidence in Christ and the calling he has placed on my life - and to try not to look backwards. "

She loves the job which she describes as busy and diverse and "a wonderful, incredible privilege".

The cleric adds: "It is amazing how people will let you into their lives and homes - I never cease to be amazed by it. It is incredibly rewarding to have a sense of being where God wants you to be."

Easter will be celebrated in Ballygally with a series of special services and events.

An intimate communion service held last night attempted to recreate the feeling of Jesus taking part in the last supper.

Today, on Good Friday, the church will host a service of nails when every member of the congregation will be given a large nail to hold to encourage reflection of the crucifixion.

On Easter Sunday the local churches will come together for a service on the sea front, followed by breakfast together and then the annual church service.

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