Women’s History Month: Canon Ann Clarke

My journey to priesthood took thirty-seven-years, but what a journey it has been and continues to be. It started when I was still a child, and I vividly remember a conversation between my fourteen-year-old self and the Bishop;

“I want be a priest” I said,
“You can’ t be a priest” he replied,
“Why not?” I asked,
“Because women can’t be priests”.

So to begin with I pursued a career in teaching. I went to the churchiest of church colleges, and virtually ran the college chapel. I taught Religious Education (RE) in a Church of England comprehensive school for three years, after which I joined a religious community and became a nun. I loved the rhythm of the life of prayer and work. I also experienced some fascinating areas of work; university chaplaincy, mother and baby groups, Parish work, supporting a drug rehabilitation centre, and training as a Deaconess. However, after five years when I had to take life vows, I knew couldn’t say yes to life in that community forever. I returned to teaching, this time specialising in teaching children with special needs in mainstream secondary schools, including an all-boys school in Hackney, a Senior High school in Waltham Forest, finally a school in Southend.

Meanwhile, I continued throw my lot in with the Church of England until I could no longer tolerate the issues around the ordination of women. The Anglican Churches of America, Canada and New Zealand had already ordained women, and so the final straw came when there was an Act of Synod in this country, which forbade any woman legally ordained abroad from celebrating the Eucharist in this country.

Having never been part of a campaigning group I joined the St Hilda Community, a radical ecumenical group of women and men who believed that women should be ordained to the priesthood, which was founded in 1987. We met in St Benet’s Chapel, at Queen Mary University of London in Mile End every Sunday evening, and whenever possible invited female priests from overseas to celebrate the Eucharist. A female priest from the USA who was studying in London became our regular priest, and it felt like we were harbouring her in a ‘Priest-hole’ as a refuge while she stayed at my house. There was a lot of media interest at the time, and our neighbours must have been fascinated by the various camera crews who turned up to interview us.

Then one afternoon a motorcycle courier turned up with an injunction from the High Court forbidding the American priest from celebrating in St Benet’s Chapel. We had a final Eucharist in the Queen Mary University car park, and then we moved to the Methodists across the road and continued to create our own liturgies each week which were inclusive and radical.

They were exciting, heady times. However, I realised that unless we could create change in the Church we were effectively just forming a sect. Change did eventually come. On 12 March 1994, the first female priests in the Church of England were ordained in Bristol Cathedral. I had my nose pressed against the glass doors because there was no room inside. Mainstream church at this time still held no attraction for me until I was introduced to St Mary of Eton, Hackney Wick and more specifically their very special parish priest the Reverend Duncan Ross. Here I found a home and renewed my journey to ordination, and the Parish sponsored me to go forward for training.

I was ordained a Deacon on 30 June 1996, and became a priest the following year. It had taken thirty-seven years, at times I gave up on the Church but I never gave up on God, and God never gave up on me.

”Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.Luke 1.45.

I worked as a priest in secular employment for four years until November 2001, when I became Team Rector in Becontree South, Dagenham. Then for eight years I worked in what the Bishop called, A very challenging part of God’s vineyard. It was challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. This was followed by another eight years in the Chichester diocese, then a ‘no go’ area for women in the Church, it was a different kind of challenge. Imagine when, to my surprise, I was made an Honorary Canon, and I continue to be Canon Emerita of Chichester Cathedral today.

Aged 71, I returned to London to a part-time post, for what I thought would be my final position before hanging up my dog collar! But that was not to be. A small advert in the Church Times with the word ‘Preacher’, in bold capital letters leapt out at me. I was appointed Preacher at the Charterhouse in the middle of the Pandemic, a place that itself arose from an earlier pandemic – the Black Death of 1348. It was an honour and privilege to have been appointed, and I became the Charterhouse’s first female Preacher. “The rest, as they say is history” – living history, and making history. My licensing took place on 1 October 2020; in the photograph that marks the occasion are the first female Bishop of London, and the first female Preacher of the Charterhouse and the first female Master of the Charterhouse.

Although I recognise that for many ordaining women was regarded as a matter of equality, for me it has always been an answer to a ‘call’, the call of God, a very personal vocation, not a right. It is an enormous privilege to minister to people, non-less so than here at the Charterhouse. I will go on exercising my priesthood for as long as I have breath in my body, “Thou art forever a priest after the order of Melchizedek”.  Psalm 110.4

The Revd. Canon Ann Clarke – Preacher at the Charterhouse

12th March 2024 was the 30th Anniversary of the Ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England

Canon Ann Clarke (c) Julian Calder

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