Although the Anglican Church has made many changes to accommodate female clergy, not much has been done to appoint women in senior positions within the church.
So said Reverend Natalie Simons Arendse.
She believes strongly that she can do the job of a bishop, if she chooses to put herself up for this position, but she also knows that she won’t get the support to change the structure of the way things are done.
“If the church is serious about women in leadership, they need to change the structure. I know I won’t get the support if I should ask to change the meeting time, because I have to fetch my children from school, for example,” Reverend Simons Arendse said.
She was among the youngest female priests to be ordained in the Anglican Church, even though theology was not her first choice of study. She was 28 at the time.
The Kewtown resident said, like all people who work in the Christian ministry, God chose her to do this work.
“As much as I made my life plan, God had other plans for me. I studied commerce at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), because I wanted to make a lot of money and move out of Kewtown, but then God spoke to me within my first year of studies. Then I changed my course to theology.
She is also the first female associate priest to be appointed within the St John’s parish.
The parish has six Anglican churches under its banner with the oldest of these St John’s Church in Wynberg at 186 years old. The church which Reverend Simons Arendse leads, St Philip’s in Kenwyn, is celebrating its centenary next year.
In all its history, women have held other positions, and some were assistant priests, until Reverend Simons Arendse’s appointment in October 2016.
Her road to becoming a priest was not an easy one, because when she graduated, at the age of 23, the church considered her too young to do what is expected of her.
“When I graduated, I said I am ready. I also had to meet the requirements of the church, and did what I needed to do. The church, however, said I was too young and needed to experience life. I then worked at a gym and did waitressing. The latter I did throughout my studies. By the end of 1999, I had an opportunity to go to America. My mentor moved there. I was then involved with hospital ministry in America,” Reverend Simons Arendse said.
It was during this time that Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane also visited America, and happened to live with the same family Reverend Simons Arendse lived with.
“He said I must come home. He realised that we were being sidelined because we were young. He prioritised young men and women, and that is how I became an intern at Bishopscourt.”
After her internship, she joined St Michael’s Church in Khayelitsha, and then as an ordained deacon at St Andrew’s in Newlands, before joining the Church of the Resurrection in Bonteheuwel. She was also the chaplain at St Cyprian’s High School, which happens to be her alma mater.
Speaking about some of the challenges faced by female priests, Reverend Simons Arendse said: “I came into the ministry before I was married and had children. How do you deal with a pregnant woman on the pulpit? Male clergy can go on sabbatical, but when a woman needs to go on maternity leave, it is generally not so welcoming.
“Then there is a question of where a woman needs to be placed. Women can lead a church, and this means that she needs to be out in the evenings and driving alone. This is the nature of the job.
“Women also have to choose between meetings at night and their children. If they choose their children, they are seen as weak. When your child is sick and you do not attend a meeting, you could be accused of not taking the ministry seriously. Although payment between male and female priests are the same, the challenge for women is that they are not considered for the more prestigious jobs. It is difficult for a woman in the Anglican clergy to climb the ranks. Men are considered for these jobs, because they are out there – women are at home with their children.”
Other challenges that face the clergy generally, is that family holidays can only be scheduled around the “low seasons” of the church.
“Your job is to serve God, and often it comes at a big cost to your family.”
In response, the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Thabo Makgoba, said the church is the only one on the African continent to have elected women bishops – one in Swaziland, Ellinah Wamukoya, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland in 2012; and one in the Western Cape, Margaret Vertue, Bishop of the Diocese of False Bay, also in 2012 .
“So we have made some progress,” said Archbishop Makgoba. “However, I would like to see more women being nominated for senior positions in the church, both as senior priests and as bishops. We still have work to do to make that happen.”