Women priests will 'save church from sinking'

November 25, 2006

Whether or not ordained women have had a significant impact over the past decade, they will save the Church from sinking in the future, according to ESRC-sponsored research at the University of Manchester.

Dr David Voas, a senior researcher at the university's School of Social Sciences said: "Nearly half of all priests ordained in recent years have been women. Close to a quarter of male parish priests are 60 or older, and their average age is 54. Without women, the pulpits would become as de-populated as the pews in the years to come."

His comments are based on analysis of new statistics on women ministers from two sources: the Church of England itself, and the English Church Census 2005, conducted by the independent charity Christian Research, and substantially funded by the ESRC.

In a recent interview in the Catholic Herald, the Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, whilst emphasising that he still believed the Church of England had been right to create women priests, was quoted as saying: "I don't think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways. Equally, I don't think it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England in spectacular ways."

But according to Dr Voas, this apparent failure on the part of women clergy is not surprising. He said: "The Church is far from being an equal opportunity employer. The glass ceiling is shatterproof: women are not yet allowed to become bishops, and they are far more likely to be 'second class' clergy.

"Most of the men who became priests in 2005 went into paid, 'stipendiary' ministry, while most of the women are in voluntary posts - 'non-stipendiary or 'ordained local ministers'." And Dr Voas points out that the Anglican Church is not alone in giving women the least desirable jobs.

He said: "Well over half of women ministers in all denominations serve in rural areas, with very few found in the flagship city centre churches. The larger the church, the more likely it is that a man will be put in charge."

The English Church Census found no women at all leading churches in the largest category - those with 300 or more attending on a typical Sunday. "Holy Trinity Brompton - home of the Alpha course - is an example: it has eight clergy, all of them male." Churches are traditional institutions, and tradition gives women a raw deal, according to Dr Voas.

"Old-fashioned Anglo-Catholics don't want women to be priests, and so the plum jobs mostly go to men. At the other end of the theological spectrum, evangelicals tend to be patriarchal, so the growing ethnic minority and Pentecostal churches typically have male leaders. Women are left with the dregs. Their congregations are often small, rural, old or liberal: the kind of churches that need nursing care."
Dr Voas on 0161 275 4836 / 01433 639212 or voas@man.ac.uk
Or Annika Howard at ESRC, on 01793 413032 / 07971027335/ 413119 or


  1. Dr David Voas is a senior researcher at the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, MANCHESTER M13 9PL. His current ESRC-funded research includes 'The dynamics of religious change: An international comparative analysis'; and 'Local culture and the maintenance and transmission of religious practice'.

  2. Methodology: The statistics quoted by Dr Voas come from the Church of England itself, and the English Church Census 2005, conducted by the independent charity Christian Research, and substantially funded by the ESRC.

  3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

  4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

Economic & Social Research Council

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