‘If we had known you were going to get married, we wouldn’t have wasted the money training you.’
That might sound like a line from the 1950s, but it was something that Rev Canon Dr Sue Penfold heard when she was at theological college in the 1980s.
By then, generations of pioneering women had battered down the barriers to most professions, but the church remained a closed shop.
Women were allowed to take on some lay roles within the church, but it was not until 1994 – after a lengthy and hard-fought battle – that women could be ordained as vicars. Women within the Church of England did not achieve full equality until 2014, when the church synod ruled that women vicars could become bishops.
The Roman Catholic church still does not ordain women.
These days, Rev Penfold is the Diocesan director of ministry for Blackburn Diocese, but she has faced a long hard struggle to get where she is today. She said: “I was actually originally a research scientist, but then I moved in to some church work. Before women were allowed to be ordained, we could do some roles in the church and take on a lay ministry.“I went to theological college, I was the first woman in my theological college in Cambridge in 1981. I graduated the same as the men but they all became priests while I was not allowed to.
“Then I got married, which annoyed the diocese. One man actually said to me that if they had known I was going to get married they would not have bothered training me, that it was a waste of money became now I was married I would obviously leave my role.
“So I became a deacon instead, which is a church role but without certain responsibilities, such as you cannot do weddings. I was in the first batch of deacons to be ordained in 1981, and then when the rules surrounding women priests changed, I was in the first batch of women ordained in 1994.
“That was an amazing moment, I had done a bit of campaigning for a change in the rules, but I wasn’t very active in the campaign and I was already working in church roles. “My husband was a vicar and I was in the same group parish with him as a deacon, but we had always been up front with everyone that if the rules changed – and in 1994 not many people thought that they would – I would become a vicar.
“I think being very up front about it helped, because in a way we had fought some of the battles before I was even ordained, and people knew what they were getting with us.
“When I was ordained my children were still quite young - seven and five - so juggling childcare with work was a big challenge, especially as the church does not pay you enough to afford childcare.
“I was also working in the same parish as my husband, so there were people who tried to pigeonhole me into the ‘vicar’s wife’ role.
“I had my own ways of dealing with that. I’ve never been able to arrange flowers and the one time I washed the alter cloth I washed and ironed it so badly that no-one ever asked me again.
“In general, people were welcoming to me as a woman vicar, and I think the more people see women doing this role the more accepting they are.
“When I was at theological college we went on mission to St Helens, 10 men and me, and a woman who said she had never before considered the issue of women vicars realised that I was doing the same degree as the men but would never be able to be ordained. She said that realisation changed her, by putting a human face to an issue, and made her realise that of course women could be ministers.
“Once my husband and I were both ordained as priests, we worked hard to avoid stereotypes gender roles. I was doing the work of a minister too and he had ironed his own shirts just as he always had.
“It was important to us but also important that our children grew up seeing that men and women do not have to be stuck in stereotypical roles, and for me it was important to see that women can combine ministry with having children. These days, ironically, my role in the Diocese is one that I could have done without being ordained as a vicar, but I have also been involved over the years in recruiting and training clergy.
“That has been wonderful to see all the women who are coming through and we have ordained several women who have small children.
“I feel so lucky to see them coming through and see the progress we have made.
“Although Blackburn as a diocese isn’t particularly good in terms of the number of women in the ministry we are still making progress. The numbers are rising but these things take time to filter through.
“At the moment the Church of England still has a formal provision for people who disagree with the idea of women vicars, and parishes can object to having a woman.
“But in a way I think that it helpful because it is a way to disagree and to have these discussions.
“I have always worked with colleagues who disagree with the idea, and I think it’s important that we can disagree.
“There are some people who just have a misogynist viewpoint, but others who disagree on theological grounds, who agree with St Paul that a woman should not be set over a man. As time goes on and more women come in to the ministry some will change their views, but some will not.
“When I was first a deaconess, it was legal for funeral directors to warn families that a woman might be taking the funeral. There was a case where one funeral director was prosecuted for warning a family that a black minister could take the service. That was straightforward discrimination, but it was legal to warn about women taking the service because at that time were still lay people, so technically that were warning that it was a warning about that.
“Those sort of things have changed with the times, but there are still issues.
“I think the difference will come – as it will in wider society – when more women get into senior roles. I think you see this in all walks of life that women need to be better represented at the higher levels in companies and on boards, and I think that is tied up in the battle for maternity and parental leave.
“I also think it is about society in general valuing what women bring to the table, which is not necessarily the same as men. Some of the so-called ‘soft skills’ that women bring, like teamwork, communications and juggling eight million tasks at once are not things you can easily quantify as a CV, but they are of great value to any company.
“For me that is the next battle and I think a lot of things will come from that.”