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Episode 43: Rev Jane Dicker - 30 years of women's ordination

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[Music] Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity and purpose. I'm your host, C Cowell. [Music]


So today I'm delighted to be joined by the Reverend Jane Dicker and we're in Cambridgeshire on the edge of the Fens in your little bungalow.


So how long have you lived here, Jane?


J: So I've just been here six months from my retirement or semi-retirement, I should say, with the things that I've been doing.


C: So the reason I thought it'd be really good for us to have a conversation is that we met a few months ago at a spiritual directors gathering, training day type thing and you were telling me a little bit about your journey towards ordination and hopefully this podcast will go out on International Women's Day and we are now 30 years from when the first women were ordained as priests in the Church of England in England.


So I thought it'd be really interesting to hear a little bit of your story.


J: Well I first felt called to be ordained when I was 13 and at that time my parents lived in Hong Kong so during holidays when I went home women's ministry was very much in the forefront and most of the time it would be a woman celebrating the Eucharist which of course when I came back to this country, wasn't the case and when I was 17 I then started investigating how I could be ordained.


Yeah, I was told that wasn't possible.


C: So going back to when you were 13 can you remember what that call was like?


What happened for you?


J: Yeah well I think for me it was a very gradual call.


It came about in a very bizarre way in that I had to do an extra option at school and my father had the list and he said well you could do tennis coaching and being an idle beast the thought of tennis coaching did not appeal at all.


He said “or you could go to confirmation classes.”


I said “confirmation classes, what's that?”


So then my father explained to me about confirmation classes and going along and learning about the faith and I thought “oh that sounds an easy option, just listening to a priest for an hour, happy days.”


So I signed up for confirmation classes and it was through those classes that I realized that I actually cared very passionately about my Anglican faith and some of the things that the priest was saying, I was arguing with him because I did not believe, such as that women could not be ordained which he was very, very vehement on.


So that was really the start for me and so the journey progressed and then when I was 17 I actually had a calling through the gospel.


That sense of being chosen was then enforced through prayer and the Holy Spirit.


C: Yeah. So was there a particular part of the Gospels that had touched you?


J: Yes I mean it was in John's gospel and Jesus says “I have chosen you.”


You know you you know in that sense  “you have not chosen me, I have chosen you and I've chosen you to go out to bear fruit and fruit that will last.”


C: And you felt very particularly that that meant you in a particular way.


J: Absolutely.


C: Yeah and Hong Kong I think I'm right in saying that the first ordained Anglican woman was in Hong Kong.


J: That's correct yeah.


Florence Li Tim-Oi and that was 80 years ago 25th of January this year it was 80 years ago that she was ordained.


C: Florence Li Tim-Oi.


Yeah and my understanding of her story was that she was ordained and then she kind of rescinded it a bit.


J: Yes at the end of the war because the reason why, and this has happened in quite a number of countries where women have been ordained, that there's been not enough men to cover – particularly the pastoral ministry, but also the eucharistic ministry, and that was certainly the case in the war that there just wasn't enough men and so she was ordained to sort of fill that gap and help Bishop Hall out.


C: Yeah and then she stopped.


J: Then she stopped, and she then I believe she started up again. I know that more women were ordained in 1974 when I was out there. I was actually out there when Joyce and my namesake Jane were also ordained 


C: In 1974 in Hong Kong. So they were a good 20 years ahead of us.


J: Absolutely.


C: So in your teenage years, you were going to Hong Kong, you were seeing women in ministry.


J: Yeah.


C: Which, it's really important, isn't it, being able to see people.


J: Definitely. I found that the role models as well and the fact that I was very lucky because I had expressed a desire to be ordained, the bishop would invite me to the clergy breakfast and things. I had an opportunity to talk with the women clergy so I feel really blessed and the Bishop of Hong Kong did say “oh well if they don't get on with it Jane you're always welcome to come back here and I'll ordain you” which was lovely.


C: What happened next for you then?


How old were you when you were going to clergy breakfast and things in Hong Kong?


J: Probably about 16 because it was when ASB came out in 1980 and I remember that I bought my ASB from the bookshop that they also had open there when the clergy breakfast was on so I must have been about 16 when I was going.


C: So for people who aren't up to date with Anglican lingo the ASB was the alternative service book.


J: Yeah.


And that gives you kind of the prayers and things that people would say in the services of the liturgy.


I really liked it.


Yes I got one of those when I got confirmed, early 80s.


I still got it at home in this box.


J: Me too.


I got mine.




C: So you got your alternative service book?


J: Yes.


Then after I left school my father gave me some very wise advice and said do not go and talk to them about ordination yet.


You need to have a couple of years working in the world and get your degree and then go forward.


So I did exactly that.


I went out to work for two years and then at the end of that I went and did my theology degree and during that time I then started the process and I had a very supportive church.


I was attending in Fulham, All Saints Fulham and the clergy there was so kind and helpful.


So yes I can remember going along to bishops, advisors, panels and all this sort of thing for selection and then before I did my finals I had my ACCM as it was, which is a selection conference.


I had that on my 23rd birthday and then I went through and went to Lincoln Theological College for two years and then started my curacy.


So it went on like that.


C: Yeah but this was in the 80s at which point women couldn't be ordained as priests.


So what were you being ordained as at that point?


J: So while I was at my selection conference they'd had the first women the year before who had been ordained as deacons.


So they said you're being selected as a deacon in the church.


So that's the first ordination that people go through.


It means that you're called Reverend, you wear a clerical collar but much more than that you can do baptisms which for me was really important and yes it just really widened things and put priesthood just at arm's length really.


There were five years but after three years the vote was passed so after three years I did know that I was going to be ordained a priest.


C: Yeah.


What was that in-between period like?


J: Really hideous.


I mean when all my male colleagues and friends were ordained as priests it just felt absolutely dreadful and I was invited to read the gospel which I did do, but beforehand I felt in a terrible state because you know it's my calling and I just...


C: So you knew that you were called to be a priest within an organization that didn't ordain priests.




J: And at that point because it was the summer of 1990 then when my colleagues were ordained we didn't know if it was going to go through.


We knew the vote was coming up in 92 but we didn't know if it was going to go through.


C: What were the kind of rumblings around it?


Was there a sense that it would, that it wouldn't?


J: It was very much like that.


Sometimes people felt yes it would get through, we would get the two-thirds majority that we needed in all three houses and then other people were saying no it won't pass in the House of Laity or whatever so yeah it was a very difficult time, very uncertain.


C: Yeah I don't remember the ins and outs of that but obviously you were right in the middle of it.


J: Yeah.


C: I'm wondering whether, as these things happen, whether there was quite a backlash of people being fairly definitive about the fact that they didn't think it should happen and whether you found yourself kind of caught up in that.


J: Yes there were.


Sometimes you would go to a place on retreat or on pilgrimage or whatever and then you would find people who could be extremely unpleasant.


You know there was name-calling, women clergy was spat at.


C: Oh my goodness.


J: Yes it was really as horrible as that.


C: So where did you get spat at?


J: Well I wasn't spat at, I was called names and there were a few incidents that I had but I do know of women clergy who were spat at.


C: Gosh.


J: Yeah.


C: So these were Deacons?


J: Yes because of them being visible in wearing a clerical collar which, quite rightly you know, then that meant that people were immediately, it was like a red rag to a bull to certain people.


C: Yeah and for some of those women who were older than you presumably some of them had been waiting for this for a very long time.


J: And there was a lot of talk about whether women over 70 were going to be allowed to be ordained or not because some of the bishops were saying things like “well it's not a reward for long service, it's about being able to fulfill a ministry” and so there was that sort of talk that was around.


But in the end most of the women were ordained and in the team where I was working at the time. I had a lady who was in her early 70s, she did a lot of work in our team and the bishop ordained her.


C: Yeah.


What was your experience of walking with God in those years between being ordained as a deacon, you know, in that kind of in-between not knowing period?


What was that like for you spiritually?


J: I think spiritually I very much felt that presence of God saying it is going to work out, keep the faith, keep going, you know and that reassurance which I think we all need at times.


C: Yeah.


J: But there were obviously times of loneliness like I said when I was asked to read the gospel it felt quite a lonely time until I got up to actually do it and then when I read the gospel it felt a God-filled moment.


C: Yeah so that was reading the gospel at the ordination of people who you'd studied with and they were allowed to go for ordination and you weren't.


So yeah I can imagine why that would have been a really difficult moment and quite a dilemma as to whether you decide to do it or not.


J: Yes it was. I thought I'd be able to do it and then when I got into the vestry I just felt so enormously sad and the bishop of the time was very very kind and said “if you can't do it don't worry nobody will know, yes your colleagues did ask for you to do this, they wanted you to do it but if you can't be that visible sign at this moment don't worry.”


But I did find that inner strength to do it and I am pleased that I did for their sakes as well.


C: So they were wanting to make a stand that you were part of them and you needed to be part of this service.


J: And they felt angry and sad and all the other emotions you know that I couldn't be ordained with them.


It put a mark on their ordination really.


C: Yeah. Yeah. And then the vote happened in 1994.


J: 1992.


C: Ah okay.


J: So it happened in the November. November the 11th, very auspicious day in 1992 and there's a picture up there on my wall of myself outside Church House as it was announced.


C: Yeah. I was still in Sheffield. I was studying in Sheffield at the time and I do remember just that sense of joy.


J: Yes.


Finding out that the vote had gone through and women could become priests in the Anglican Church.


C: That felt like a very special moment to me too although it wasn't mine it was yeah it felt very special.


J: It was huge and as the picture will show from outside General Synod there were men and women waiting together and you can see the joy on everybody's face that it had gone through.


C: Yeah I'm imagining there were possibly also people waiting hoping it wouldn't go through.


J: I think they more or less kept to a different part to us.


C: So you weren't aware of that at the time?


J: No no no but I knew that there would be people in the house in General Synod who would be and would be feeling let down and all the other things that it had gone through.


C: That was quite a moment.


Quite a lot of people found that very very difficult didn't they, and there are a lot of vicars who chose to leave the Church of England at that point.


J: Yeah for a price.


C: Okay.


J: Well many of them left and they were given thirty thousand pounds.


C: Oh my goodness.


J: Yeah and of course in a way you could say they're leaving their career sort of like an exit thing and providing for them and their families because a lot of them would be married.


So both sides needed to be cared for.


C: Yeah. Yeah. That sounds like quite a big caring for.


J: Particularly in 1994 or whenever yeah.


C: Yes 

J: Yes 

C: Yeah. That's more than a year's salary isn't it?


J: Mmm it's it yes well in those days yeah when I when I started out my stipend was extremely low so yes.


C: Yeah and then quite a number of those men then joined the Roman Catholic Church.


J: Yes they did.


Some of them became lay people but some of them did go on to be priests and bishops of course.


And then there were quite a lot of churches that became part of what was called the Forward in Faith movement.


C: Yes.


They wanted to remain but they didn't want yeah to be part of...


I'm not quite sure what the technicalities of what they didn't want to be part of.


J: Right so they didn't want in that respect bishops taking part really in their services or having that sort of oversight who were ordaining women so that's why they had an alternative Episcopal oversight.


C: Yes so I remember they had what were called flying bishops.


J: Yes.


C: Which sounds more exciting than it actually was.


J: Provincial visitors or whatever they then became does not sound as good as a flying bishop. I like that idea.


C: Yes 


J: Yeah


C: So tell me about what priesthood means to you.


What is the ministry that you sent to, are called to?


How does that work out in practice?


J: Well for me my ministry is very much centered around the Eucharist.


That's really important to me as a priest and being able to nourish and feed the people of God in word and sacrament.


C: So for those people who don't know the word Eucharist.


J: Yes so Eucharist means Thanksgiving but it is where we celebrate Holy Communion with the bread and the wine.


C: Yeah.


J: So all the things like teaching the faith, pastoral care, spirituality, helping people to develop and grow in their spirituality and the liturgy of the church that that works well.


I don't know if people may have seen the Midnight Mass that was on the television from Portsmouth Cathedral but that is a real example of good liturgy and men and women celebrating that liturgy together.


I thoroughly enjoyed that so yes they're the things that I really value.


I'm not a great administrator or any of those things I'm afraid.


C: So helping people in the faith to develop their spirituality and sharing the bread and the wine, communion.


So where did you end up ministering?


J: So I started off in Southwark Diocese and I was a curate at St. James Merton.


I was there for four years to do my curacy.


A lovely, lovely group of people, very kind-hearted, very much in the Anglican Catholic tradition but welcoming to women and obviously I was a woman deacon the whole time I was with them.


And then I moved on to have a post of responsibility and I looked after a church in Devon in a village called Littleham.


It had a lovely church school and I was also part-time chaplain to the University of Plymouth looking after students at Roll College as it was then.


And I really found a thirst for being with students and encouraging them and helping them in their faith and in their working life and studies and all the things they go through.


So it was then that I felt that God was calling me to work full-time in university chaplaincy and so I went up to Lincoln Diocese and was chaplain to further and higher education in Grimsby which is actually a lovely place to live.


People think because of the name Grimm but it isn’t and it’s gorgeous.


And I had an FE college, further education, and a higher education university, and a sixth form college, so real spread. 30,000 students and staff and we became the FE college, one of the first three, to have a worship room which was open to all faiths, which is very important with a student and staff body which is so diverse.


And then I moved from there to Rochester Diocese and I was chaplain again to art college, university, University of Greenwich which is at Medway.


I was a honorary priest vicar at the Cathedral which is a great experience.


I love Cathedral worship. When I lived in Hong Kong and we worshiped at St. John's Cathedral and so going to Rochester was like going back to my roots. So I really enjoyed that and it was while I was there that I established my link with Westmoreline Abbey and ultimately after 10 years of going regularly I became a Benedictine Oblate.


C: Right you're gonna have to explain to us what a Benedictine Oblate is.


J: I thought you’d want to know about that.


Well it's a person who is living out in the community but also living out the rule of St. Benedict, which there are 73 chapters which we're encouraged to read and go through each year and also to say the offices morning and evening prayer and any others because there are all the like little offices that occur in between like Compline that I'm certain a lot of people will have heard of which is in the evening and then you have Turs which is in the morning and so it goes on.


So it was a fantastic day.


I'd be celebrating 10 years March the 2nd since I became an Oblate and the sisters are incredible.


They do marvelous work, the most important work of all which is prayer.


C: So what drew you towards the Benedictine philosophy in the first place?


J: I think one of the big things that a Benedictine life teaches you is about stability and I think flitting about from Hong Kong to here and there and everywhere and I think I really crave for the stability and one of the sort of rules of Benedictine life is that you stay with a particular community.


So like I'm at Westmoreline but I wouldn't go somewhere else, and that is really really important to have that and to be stable.


I'm certain it helped my ministry because then I started to be in places for longer periods of time instead of flitting a little bit you know.


I was at my parish in Waltham Cross for 11 years and that was a marvelous ministry.


I really loved being at Waltham Cross but I didn't feel after four or five years “oh I've got to move on.”


I felt I could make a home.


So that's something I think that the Benedictine sisters gave to me, that stability to make a home.


C: Yeah so you'd got to Rochester in your story of where you've been.


So you have been around quite a lot in Rochester.


Did you go to Waltham from Rochester?


J: Yes I did and then I moved from there and it was immediately that I walked into the church.


I could see myself behind the altar celebrating and I was so delighted when the bishop phoned me up and offered me the position.


The house as well was lovely you know the ministry was great the house was lovely and it enabled my father who was a widower to come and live with me and so he had the last 10 years of his life with me which was also tremendous because ministry is about encapsulating all people so you love your parishioners but you still have your family who you love and are important to you.


C: Yeah so of all the places that you've been and you've ministered what do you think was your favorite?


J: Oh well in parish ministry, sorry everybody I have got to say Waltham Cross, but I loved all the places where I served.


I was in West Bromwich before I moved here and I had seven years with them and they were lovely people.


As I say all my curacy church and everything was excellent so I think I've been very blessed to have such great people.


C: Yeah looking back I wonder if there are particular moments when you sense that God was working through you with particular people?


J: Yes I mean there are. It's very difficult because obviously they're quite private moments but if I talk in general terms, I think supporting people in bereavement, you quite often feel the third party – which of course is God – there with you and the bereaved person.


I think also at confirmations one of the most special moments in my life was when my father was confirmed and I really felt that presence of God so much and my joy to be able to present him as well.


So those sorts of occasions seeing the children in the schools achieving or understanding about the faith and I've still got a little picture that a little girl drew when she was six and she'd drawn herself in clerical clothes and she said “when I leave school I'm going to be like Mother Jane” and here she was dressed or like that and she'd given it to me and they're really special moments in your ministry and you think “oh Lord you are here you are making that difference.”


C: So if somebody was to ask you what it is that women bring to ministry that they weren't allowed to bring before, what difference do you think it has made to the ministry of the church to have women as well as men doing it?


J: That's quite a difficult question because I think we bring things as human beings, men and women alike, and we all have different qualities. They vary so much don't they?


I'll talk about it in my terms of what I feel that I've been able to bring and that has been an open heart, a listening ear and a willingness to try and move the church forward whilst listening to the people who are in the church because after all it's their church.


I used to say to people “you know after I've gone you'll still be here” and so that's really important that people own it as their home.


Benedictine thing again you see the stability, that is their home, their church.


C: And now kind of looking back how do you think your faith is different now to what it was when you were ordained?


Does it feel like it's entirely the same?


Are there ways in which things are shifted and grown?


J: I mean it's grown enormously and in different ways, some of it has been through learning and knowing more about the faith, a lot of it has been through experience, so meeting people and Christ talking through them.


Otherwise it's been about compassion, I think, being with people and alongside them in some of their worst moments and seeing their faith shine through so it's all sorts of different ways I think that my faith has grown.


C: How has your image of God changed over the years?


J: Oh I think yeah I think that's a big one because my image of God is probably much softer than it was when I was a young person.


Much softer that sort of kindness and loving father mother I think for me that really shines through more than anything else.


We tend to put so many things on to God and make him so much harder than he is.


It's our way, it's our human way of laws rules regulations that cause the issues rather than God.


C: What do you think has contributed to that shift for you to seeing God as softer and kinder than you used to?


J: Obviously through prayer and again through meeting people and seeing that shine through them because I do believe God is, you know, in each and every one of us, and that we're given the lens to be able to see different aspects of God from people as he wants us to know about things and likewise myself, yourself, that will be true.


C: I'm wondering if there's anything else it feels important to talk about?


J: So I am writing a book at the moment about my experiences in ministry because there's quite a lot out there that the men have written and I don't see so much that the women have written.


I think that's very important to talk about our particular journeys.


So it's going to be called The Misadventures of Mother Jane.


I wanted to get it finished this year because of it being such an important year, the 30th anniversary of women priests and I will have been ordained 35 years in July and I really want to get it out this year but there are quite a number of other things that are happening in my life which may prevent it, so watch this space really, for that one.


C: So other particular misadventures that you've wanted to talk about?


J: Oh dear.


I mean particularly in my early days, you know some of the things that you do because you just don't know when you make a mistake.


I quite like the Fred Seacombe books and one of the books is entitled How Green is My Curate and that is entirely true because you know when you are a curate you don't know and it's been my great pleasure that I've been able to walk alongside curates myself and to help them in my ministry, mostly women, but I have had one or two men who've also I've walked alongside and helped them in their journey, and it's very very easy to get it wrong and sometimes big style, but you have to read the book to find out about those sorts of adventures.


C: Shamelessly plugging 

J: and not giving anything away.


C: So it will be called The Misadventures of Mother Jane. Right .We'll have to look out for that.


J: Definitely.


C: Thank you very much, that's been really interesting.


J: Oh thank you.



Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you'd like to get in touch you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that's also the place to go if you're interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you'd like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.


Thank you for listening. [music]

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