Thirty years on from the ordination of the first female priest in the Church of Ireland, follow this short series featuring four women in ordained and lay ministry in the Diocese of Down and Dromore.
Revd Emma Rutherford has been the rector of St Molua’s Church in the Parish of Stormont, in East Belfast since September 2017. Prior to that she was the priest in charge of St Andrew’s, Glencairn and St Columba’s, Whiterock, in the Greater Shankill area. Emma graduated from Art College in 1994 and worked in interior design and soft furnishings. She has been married to Graham for 27 years and they have one son.
How were you called to ordained ministry?
If you had told me at school that I would be an ordained minister, I would have laughed – and so (I imagine!) would everyone who knew me as a teenager. As someone who was a bit of a goth, I just couldn’t wait to leave school and go to art college, with dreams of being a textile designer. Our son will soon be 21, and it was when I was expecting him that I really began to think much more about matters of faith. When I had the opportunity to do an Alpha course, it was particularly instrumental in igniting something in me. I felt that I was being called to explore ministry outside my involvement in my local church. I spoke to my Rector who suggested I speak to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, and I also did the Network Course. One thing led to another and in late 2004, I started working as the Family and Children’s Worker in Knocknagoney Parish in East Belfast. A sense of call to ordained ministry continued to get stronger during my time there.
What reservations (if any) did you have as a woman entering ministry?
I was a member of the first class to go through the new M.Th. training course and was ordained deacon in August 2011. It’s hard to believe this year will be the tenth anniversary. My son was only 9 when I started training, and there is no doubt that it was difficult – Sunday evenings were particularly hard as I headed off to Dublin for the week. I haven’t faced any major opposition as a woman in ministry, but I somehow don’t think my male counterparts got quite the same grilling about leaving a young family at home when studying full–time in Dublin.“Are you sure the part time option wouldn’t suit you better?” was a question that was often put to me. I was blessed to have the backing and support of a wonderful husband, parents, and parents–in–law. I truly couldn’t have done it without them.
Thankfully my experiences as a woman in both lay and ordained ministry positions have been mainly positive. Very occasionally there have been a few folk who struggle a little with the idea of female priests. Strangers calling at the rectory have often asked “Can I speak to the minister?” and are then taken back when I say, “You are speaking to her”. In my last church a caller to the church hall asked, “Is the ‘wee girl’ who does the christenings here?” which made me laugh.
Do you think women in ministry bring particular gifts to the church?
All men and women are created in the image of God, so it should come as no surprise that when we work together as the body of Christ, we can provide a fuller and more balanced ministry as we all bring different gifts to the church. It would be wrong to over generalise what those gifts are, as not all women are the same and not all men are the same.
What excites you and brings you joy in ministry?
What excites me is seeing people coming to faith (or reigniting their faith), growing in their faith, and using their God–given gifts to further the Kingdom of God.
What are the challenges?
The biggest challenges are those that most people face in parish ministry – parish finances, church growth, and not having enough time to devote to the practical ‘hands on’ mission of parish life because of buildings, admin, etc. etc. And as boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life’ are easily blurred in ordained ministry, I can be guilty of working too many hours.
How do you switch off?
I try to switch off by taking a good walk – whether that’s locally in the wonderful nearby surroundings or further afield. Some days it can be easy to look out the window and be dissuaded from going out, but our four–legged friend insists otherwise, which keeps us grounded!
What would you say to a woman who is considering training for lay or ordained ministry?
People never cease to amaze me, and God never ceases to amaze me! He always puts the right folk around you at just the right time. So, if you feel called as a woman to lay or ordained ministry, don’t assume that obstacles will be placed in your way. It is an amazing privilege to serve God and his church, and we do not undertake this task in our own strength. Keep Jesus Christ as your focus, and he will guide and carry you through.
Find out more about how to explore ordination in the Church of Ireland.