Women priests given "dregs" in Church of England

London, England - Women priests are given the worst positions in the Church of England even though they make up half of all newly ordained ministers, research published on Sunday said.

The church ordained its first women priests in 1994 but new entrants have predominately been given unpaid roles while their male colleagues are largely found in paid or "stipendiary" positions, the research found.

"Women are left with the dregs," said David Voas, senior researcher at Manchester University, who conducted the study.

"Their congregations are often small, rural, old or liberal -- the kind of churches that need nursing care."

At the largest churches, attracting Sunday congregations of 300 or more, there were no female priests at all.

But as the number of women priests rises, pressure is likely to grow for the imbalance to be addressed.

Nearly a quarter of male priests are 60 or older and nearing retirement. At the same time, women make up 50 percent of all new priests.

"It seems pretty clear that in a couple of decades women will not only be 50 percent of the inflow but 50 percent of the stock of serving clergy," Voas said.

Christina Rees, chair of pro-women's ordination group Watch, said the number of women in senior church positions was "woefully low".

Rees, a member of the church's General Synod, said women have had a profound effect on the church since they were admitted to the clergy.

"Women are bringing what women bring to any profession. We now have the whole of humanity ministering as priests in the church, a more fully representative priesthood," she said.

Christopher Lowson, the church's director of ministry, said it would take time for a large proportion of women to fill the more senior posts.

"Women priests are playing an increasing role in the church's ministry, now providing 16 per cent of all full-time stipendiary clergy compared with 8 per cent in 1995," he said.

Voas said the growing levels of female participation should put paid to recent suggestions that the Church of England might reconsider its decision to allow the ordination of women.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams earlier this month was forced to stress his support for women priests after apparently suggesting in a newspaper interview he had doubts about female ordination.

Voas's analysis is based on new statistics on women ministers from the Church of England and the English Church Census 2005, conducted by charity Christian Research and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Women currently account for around 2,000 of the 12,000 priests in the Church of England.