Memories from Maggie Guite

As one of the twelve who was officially ordained Deacon at Ely in April 1987, I've been asked to write a few memories. I had been a Deaconess since Michaelmas 1979, serving first in Southwark Diocese for nearly three years, before moving to Cambridge to be half-time on the staff of Westcott House and half-time in the Parish of St John the Evangelist, Hills Road.

In one sense, I had already been ordained Deacon. The Church of England, indeed the Anglican Communion, was always in a muddle about the order of Deaconesses. At one Lambeth Conference early in the twentieth century it was declared that they were in holy orders; ten years later the Lambeth Conference said "no, the Deaconess order is a lay one." By the time I came to be made a Deaconess, the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood (who was a famous individualist) decided that at our "ordination the word Deacon should be used.

We were ordained in the cathedral at a general ordination, alongside the men. But we went away with a licence stating that we were Deaconesses and although we were in our local clergy chapters, we weren't in the House of Clergy at any synodical level. So, at the time I came to be made a Deacon in Ely, I was a bit ambivalent about the whole process. I even wrote to Mervyn Stockwood's successor, Ronnie Bowlby, and asked if there was any proof that I was a Deacon already and he answered that regrettably this was not so, so I must be ordained again.

I wasn't particularly upset about it, I just reckoned that I didn't suppose God took all this too seriously, the important thing was to get on with the job (which had always been my attitude about all the issues around my ordination, or not). However, because of this background I didn't make a particularly big thing out of the ordination at Ely, I simply pinned up the envelop of tickets I'd been sent for the service on the back of the gate in Westcott, saying anyone could come if they wanted to.

I didn't buy any clerical shirts, I didn't see why I needed to start dressing like a man and at that time high-necked blouses were quite fashionable, so I had some which showed under my cassock collar and looked vaguely clerical. Of course, several of the others being ordained did buy clerical garb! I remember one co-ordinand had a fetching striped shirt which persuaded me that at least if I did ever wear a clerical shirt, it needn't be solid black, although I do wear black quite often now.

The diocese laid on a retreat for us at Bishop Woodford House and the leader and preacher at the service was Ruth Wintle, who was DDO (I think) in Worcester, but had previously worked at Church House, Westminster, in charge of the Lay Ministry (i.e. The Women's and Church Army Evangelists department). She was a lovely, wise woman, with whom I'd sat on committee, so I was delighted that she'd been invited.
The thing I remember about her sermon was how she talked about Deaconesses - reflecting on the confused history, she said that a Deaconess was a gallimaufry of a person neither one thing nor another. I'd never heard the word before, but it seemed such a delicious word that I immediately adopted it into my own vocabulary, even as I was leaving the status Ruth used it to describe. The most regrettable thing about becoming an official Deacon was that instead of the wonderful solid silver pectoral Deaconess crosses we'd worn, we were given some rather disappointing lapel crosses to wear (it wasn't assumed that most women Deacons would adopt clerical collars). The pins weren't awfully efficient. I soon lost mine.

We'd also had for worship, blue cassocks, mine had been made for me by a nun and we were told that as black cassocks aren't canonically required, we could go on using them if we wanted to, but with surplices over the top. I did, at some time have a black cassock made, but I still wear my blue cassock on rare occasions when I take a service (such as on Good Friday) when a surplice isn't necessary. Of course, I also have my Deaconess cross too, made by hand for me by a friend, rather than bought from Wippells, and it has references to texts which became significant to me when I started my ministry, engraved on the back. I treasure it, and hope to have those texts read at my funeral. To be honest, of all my ordinations, the one in 1979 when I was made a Deaconess is the one whose date I remember and count most significant, the beginning of my ministry.

Being officially made a Deacon and then a Priest, were just developments from that. Perhaps I should add a little background. Up to the late 1970's, no one could be selected directly for the Deaconess order. You had to be selected to be a Licensed Lay Worker (commonly called a Parish Worker) first for two years, before applying to become a Deaconess. I was selected at an ACCM conference to be a Licensed Lay Worker. (They had plum coloured cassocks, and no crosses)

Somehow, it was felt that the Deaconess order, although doubtfully in Holy Orders (probably not) was a bigger commitment than being a Parish Worker. When going through the selection process, the Dean of Women's Ministry in Southwark told me that; Although Deaconesses aren't required to be celibate, many choose to make that commitment when they become members of the order and it's somehow a bigger commitment. I then went to another interview with a Bishop's examining chaplain, an extremely doughty admiral's daughter, who was a Parish Worker of many years' standing in the inner city, in a parish famous for the South Bank Religion of the 1960s. I asked her, as I had asked the Dean of Women's Ministry, how she saw the difference between the two roles. She asked me what the Dean of Women's Ministry had said, so I told her, she said: well, they have to say that sort of thing, but do know if they said it to me, I should 

By the late 1970's the separate training colleges for women had closed and four of the proper theological colleges were taking women to train alongside the men. We had to do most of the same exams as them, except, mysteriously, for the Use of the Bible paper. During the time I was at one of those colleges in Durham, it was decided that women could come out of them and be made Deaconesses straight away, without having to be Parish Workers first. But it was felt we should go through a selection conference whilst in college, to be chosen to do this. (What nonsense!). It was also becoming clear that many people were coming out of college as part of a couple, so the old idea that Deaconesses were somehow quasi-nuns, living under a private vow of celibacy, went by the board. (It should be said however that there is an order of nuns, who were originally also Deaconesses, the Order of St Andrew, so maybe it was they who had set the tone).

In 1986/87, when women Deacons were on the horizon, someone wrote to the Church Times saying that we ought all to take the Use of the Bible paper if we were to be ordained. Happily, the CofE didnâ't follow that rather insulting suggestion - we'd all been using the Bible for years! (And in fact, at Cranmer Hall, we'd all had to attend the course, even though we didn't sit the paper.) Becoming a Deacon in 1987 didn't add greatly to what I could do, I had previously taken services, preached and conducted baptisms (regularly) as a Deaconess. To this was added the legal ability to take weddings (although not to pronounce blessings). I did conduct weddings as a Deacon but that was after I left Westcott House in 1990. That wouldn't be approved of now.

By 1987 there were twelve of us ordained. When I had come to the diocese in 1982, there had been two and a half of us I discovered. I'm not quite sure if I was the half because I was only half employed by the diocese, or someone else was the half being an active retired Deaconess. Perhaps that difference in numbers shows what a state of flux everything was in. By the time we came to be priested in 1994, there were 24 at the ordination (and we had a proper three day retreat!). Times change, but my philosophy has always been (following the advice in a sermon given by another very doughty high-born lady, Christian Howard, who preached at my college chapel when I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s) that the main thing for women to do is just to answer your call and get on with the job.

(views and opinions in this article are those of the author)