After the Church of England’s ban on female bishops, just what’s it really like to be a woman on a mission here?

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Reverend Sally Hitchiner stands outside Church House during a lunch break on November 20, 2012 in London, England. The Church of England's governing body, known as the General Synod, will later today vote on whether to allow women to become bishops. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Claire Kakuru with her husband Michael
Caroline McAfee

Kerry McKittrick talks faith, families and fashion with four female clergy members from across Northern Ireland.

Christmas is obviously the high point of the Christian calendar, and one of the busiest times of the year for clergy of all denominations. But for female clergy it can be a particularly fraught period as they juggle their spiritual and domestic duties. The role of women clergy was thrust back into the limelight recently when the Church of England voted against female bishops.

However other denominations have taken a more enlightened view.

The Rev Sally Hitchiner (32), who has been tipped as a future Bishop in the Church of England, said she was shocked and sad at the result of the vote. However, she urged the state not to get involved in the dispute by forcing the Church to push through the consecration of women bishops

But away from that controversy, the work of female clergy at ground level continues apace and we speak to four women about their Christian calling and the impact on their domestic lives at this time of the year.

‘I dress well and love heels like all other women’

The Rev Claire Kakuru (32) is a vicar at Shankill Church of Ireland in Lurgan where she lives with her husband Michael and their daughter Anna (five months). She says:

“I've always been involved with the church. I did a year out in Egypt doing missionary work before I did my theology degree at Queen's. Then I worked as a lay pastor for a number of years. I always wanted to be part of a team which is why I didn't immediately explore the option of being a minster out on my own. I pushed that particular door to find out more and it stayed open.

I'm now a member of a fantastic team overseeing the pastoral ministry in Lurgan.

I was ordained in 2007 — by that time women ministers weren't too much of a surprise. If I'm not wearing a dog collar people always say they're surprised and that I don't look like a minister. I love wearing nice clothes and heels just like any other woman.

Michael is from Uganda and when I met him he was living in Bristol. He moved over here to get married and works as a financial advisor. He knew what he was letting himself in for when he came over here but it has taken him a while to get used to it! I'm sure we get a few double takes out and about because there aren't that many African men in Northern Ireland.

We have got negative comments, particularly since the recession but it's more about foreigners stealing jobs than the colour of Michael's skin. You just have to let it roll off your back, though.

Otherwise, Michael has found the same kind of family-focused community here as there is in Uganda. I think the fact that we became a couple was as big a surprise to his family as it was to mine. Both families have been hugely supportive, though.

Each year we spend Christmas here so I can work then the New Year in Uganda. We can't make that this year though as our daughter Anna is only five months and too young to get the necessary injections.

Instead, because I'm on maternity leave, we'll hopefully get a lie in if Anna lets us, then have the whole family over for Christmas lunch. It's the first time we're hosting because I'm so busy with services normally I just don't have the time. My mum will be bringing the turkey with her and doing the stuffing though — she makes the best stuffing in the world.

I'm glad that within the Church of Ireland there is the option for women to become bishops but personally I'm happy just to be faithful to God's call on my life which right now is to be a wife, a mummy and the Vicar of Shankill — I'm busy enough!”

‘Being a bishop is not something I aspire to’

The Rev Pat Storey (52) works at St Augustine’s Church of Ireland in the centre of Londonderry. She lives with her husband Earl and they have two children, Carolyn (25) and Luke (21). She says:

I was barely in a church until I was 19 — lots of people assume that there must have been a strong family tradition but that wasn't the case for me. It wasn't until I was at Trinity College Dublin studying English and French that I really discovered the church. From that point I knew I wanted to be connected with the church. I spend a year as a church youth worker and then I was a stay-at-home mum with kids. I always wanted to work in the church but I couldn't see how I could become a minister as my husband was already one.

One day I heard of a couple who had just got engaged and they were both in training to become ministers. As soon as I heard that it was like a light bulb going on. I thought if they could do it then I would do it.

I started training in 1994, doing my theology degree at Trinity as we were living in Dublin at the time, then I was ordained in 1997. Earl and I decided for the family that only one of us would be in a parish ministry at the same time so he has now set up his own business providing PR and communications for the diocese up here in Derry. He also does relief work and preaching around Derry and Donegal.

My family and friends weren't especially surprised when I decided to join the Church — they must have assumed I would do it anyway. When other people found out what I did they would change a bit — mind what they said a bit more. When we moved up to Derry nine years ago I joined things like a book club and a creative writing class. I tended to keep my occupation to myself a bit because I didn't want to be treated differently. Now everyone knows what I do and everyone treats me the same.

I'm disappointed for my colleagues in the Church of England. When they were voting in women ministers in the Church of Ireland they also voted us in as bishops. It's really not something I would ever aspire to but if I felt God calling me to it clearly I would step forward.

This year for the first time I'm cooking Christmas dinner as everyone is coming to us. I don't think there has ever been a Christmas Day without Earl or me working. We have to be up very early to open presents before rushing off to church to welcome Jesus into the world. Luckily I'll be finished by 11am so it's not a big sacrifice.”

‘Women have more of a problem with me than men’

The Rev Caroline McAfee (60) is a deacon of the Church of the Nazarene and works as the senior chaplain of the Northern Ireland Hospice. She lives in Newtownabbey with her husband David and they have a daughter, Ruth (36). She says:

I was a nurse for 18 years then I entered the ministry at the age of 35 and was ordained in 1997. Although it was fairly new to have women ministers in Northern Ireland, the Church of the Nazarene has had women ministers from the very beginning in the British Isles.

I did wonder if entering the church in my mid-30s with a family was what I was really being called to do as I had to do a degree in theology part-time, but with prayer and advice I decided it was. I also had the support of my husband David — he's retired now but used to work as a driving instructor. In fact I've had the support of my family 100% along the way. I worked as a deacon in a church for six years first, then I started volunteering at the hospice. I continued with my voluntary work when I became a minister until a part-time position became available and it just went on from there.

All of my training seemed to lead me to where I am now. I also nursed my mother and father through illnesses and that experience helps me in my work.

I'm generally accepted as a minister in the broader sense by everyone, although women seem to have more of a problem with me than men. They just seem to find it difficult to accept that the minister coming to see them is a woman.

You can see people in the hospice are surprised to see me. They probably expect a balding man with a collar — we only wear collars if we're officiating at funerals or other church services. I don't look like a minister.

I think personality wins people over though, so once they get used to me they don't notice. I try to demystify the role.

There aren't any bishops in the Church of the Nazarene. We have six general superintendents instead who are democratically elected.

I feel bad that our sister churches are having such difficulties. Ministry is about service, not power, so although being a bishop brings responsibilities it's more about leadership than anything else.

On Christmas morning I'll go to the hospice where we'll have a service and carols and there will be hot drinks served. We go to my sister-in-law’s house for dinner — I've never actually cooked it!”

‘I’ll lead the church in Ireland’

Alf McCreary talks to the woman who has risen to the top in the Methodist Church in Ireland

The Rev Dr Heather Morris admits to being suprised at her nomination for the post of President-Designate of the Methodist Church, a post she will take up next June and hold for a year.

She says: “I don’t think that I have yet fully recovered from the shock. However, I don’t think that my gender was a factor when the church made that decision.

“I have always had great support from the church’s structures, and I have never been made to feel different as a woman. People have always been very positive, and when I served as minister at Dundonald, the congregation were most supportive.”

Heather (48) is currently a lecturer in Pastoral Theology at Edgehill College in Belfast, which trains Methodist clergy. Before that she held a number of different posts in the church at large, including one as a junior minister with the Central Mission based at the Grosvenor Hall in Belfast.

She is the daughter of a former Methodist President, the Reverend Paul Kingston. She was born in Nigeria, where her parents were missionaries, in 1964. She grew up in east Belfast, where her father was a minister. Then, when he took up a post in Dublin, she trained there as a speech therapist.

She worked happily in Drumcondra in the north of the city, but she felt a call to the ministry. “It was not a Damascus Road conversion, but an inner sense that God was leading me in a particular direction.” She spent several years studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Edgehill College in Belfast before taking up the full-time ministry.

She says: “There were big challenges but my husband Neil, who is an accountant, was very supportive. When our two boys Peter (20) and David (17) were young, he worked part-time, while I was full-time.

“It took a great deal of juggling, but this is not just a ‘woman’ issue. Men in the ministry, and their wives, face the same challenge, and each family deals with it in their own particular way.”

One of the busiest periods is at Christmas. Heather says: “It can be both hectic and nice. There are so many church services, carol services and other events which are joyful. However, Christmas is difficult for many people because of what happened in the past, and as a minister you have to be beside those who are hurting greatly at this time.”

Despite the challenges of being a minister, Heather finds great fulfilment in her role. “It is a privilege to be able to get to know people in this way, to be able to share the highs and lows of their lives, and to talk to them about the Christian faith, and about the love and care of Jesus for them.”

After six years as a parish minister at Dundonald from 1998, Heather took up her academic post in Edgehill, where she has been since. She says: “I care deeply about the way in which our ministers are trained, and once again I felt that I was responding to a call from God to be at Edgehill College.”

Despite the sense of shock at her nomination as the Methodist President-elect, she is looking forward to the experience in the top post, which lasts for a year from June next.

She says: “I really feel that it is a privilege to have been invited to be a leader of the church at this particular time.”

Heather Morris has taken a positive attitude to all the challenges and opportunities of her career as a minister. She says: “Whatever role I have taken on, my experiences as a minister have been positive and fulfilling, and I am most grateful to God for that. There is no other way I would want to live my life.”

Women’s roles in the churches

Presbyterian Church in Ireland: a General Assembly vote taken in 1973 allows women to become fully ordained ministers and to hold any position in the Church, including the top post of Moderator. No woman has been elected so far as Moderator.

Church of Ireland: the Church passed legislation in 1984 allowing women to become Deacons. In 1990 the Church passed legislation to allow women also to become ministers and Bishops, but none have been appointed yet.

Church of England: allows women to be ordained as ministers but not as Bishops. Legislation providing for women Bishops was narrowly defeated in a vote by the General Synod recently.

The Methodist Church: the Church has a number of ordained women ministers who have full rights of the ministry, and, unlike the Presbyterians, are able to preach in any pulpit within the Methodist Church.

Roman Catholic Church: maintains a male-dominated hierarchy, though women play an import role as nuns and among the laity of the Church.

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