Twenty five years ago, Janet Catterall became the first woman ordained a priest in Ireland. Jonathan de Burca Butler caught up with Rev. Catterall and asked how she thought women priests had helped the Anglican ministry.
Reverend Canon Janet Catterall never expected to be a part of Irish history. The Wigan-born Anglican priest had been serving as a deacon in the Church of England for 10 years when in 1988 she and her husband, David, the current Rector of Longford, “were called by God” to serve the Church of Ireland.
“We came over to Ireland in 1988,” recalls Rev Catterall. “Prior to that I was a deacon in Stockport and I came here and worked for a year as curate of Bandon in West Cork.” Within two years she was ordained and thus became the first woman invested with holy orders in the Republic of Ireland. It was a watershed moment and one that took many by surprise — including Catterall herself.
“I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” says the 62-year-old. “I think I was in the right place at the right time and there weren’t that many women actually working in the Church of Ireland as deacons at the time so there wasn’t a large pool to choose from really.”
“The calling to become a priest had been with me for a long time. I had been in ministry since 1978 and certainly within the Church of England the road to women joining the priesthood was a quite a struggle. When we came to Ireland, we really didn’t know anything about the background here or how many women there were. So to come here particularly after a difficult situation [for women] back home and for it to happen so quickly, well it was a surprise.”
Rev Catterall’s ordination in St Finbarr’s Cathedral, Cork took place in 1990 and came a full three years before the first female priest was ordained in the Church of England. It was made possible after a required two-thirds majority of clergy and laity had voted in favour of the proposal at a synod that May.
“Each province of the Anglican Church is independent so we kind of make our own policy really,” says Catterall. “I think it helps that we are a small church. Across in England it’s a much bigger animal and I think the Church of Ireland thinks and acts and does as one.” Overall, Catterall’s appointment was well-received within the Anglican community and she feels that over the last 25 years “there’s been a lot of generosity”.
“I wasn’t aware of much resistance to my ordination but there were some within the church who wouldn’t have been 100% happy about it,” she says. “To be honest, I think I can see why there was a struggle and I can understand it really. It did change the nature of the church and the way that it operated and how people understood it. I could sympathise with clergy who maybe didn’t understand the changes because it transformed the church from the way it was when they themselves had offered themselves into ministry. But I think having taken that step it has been embraced and accepted now.”
One indication of that acceptance is the fact the appointment of female priests within the Anglican church no longer creates headlines. Catterall’s ordination was front page news and media across Britain and Ireland covered the event extensively.
“At some point we all stopped counting [the amount of women priests] and that’s a great thing,” says Catterall. “The only real news we’ve made in recent years was when Pat Storey was made Bishop of Meath and Kildare in 2013. That was the next step along the way and it was great that it got attention. Apart from that we don’t make waves anymore and that’s great. It’s normal.”
Does she think other churches should create some waves of their own? “Each church can only act the way it feels led by God,” she says. “I can’t speak for other churches but I have met women within other churches who would make fine and wonderful priests but it’s not for me to say that a church should go that extra step and ordain them.
“On a personal level I just answered God’s call and Ieft it to him. But I do think that when you have both women and men in ministry you have a completeness. It’s not just men who were created in God’s image, all humanity is. It’s more representative. Ministry is so varied and fantastic and you meet and work with such a great mix of people. So if it’s the right calling for either male or female it’s the most exciting job you’ll ever do.”
It’s not just men who were created in God’s image, all humanity is
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