Anglican priest is first to be ordained in UAE

Ceremony makes her one of few women in GCC to be appointed.

Jo Henderson has served and worked, over the years, with the Anglican Church in Greece, Qatar and now Abu Dhabi.
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ABU DHABI // The first Anglican priest to be ordained in the country made history on two fronts yesterday - she was also among the first women to be ordained in the Arabian Gulf.

Jo Henderson, 49, was welcomed at St Andrew's Church by dozens of Christians from around the UAE.

The Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf only began to ordain and appoint female priests last year after it received permission from the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

After the hour-long ceremony yesterday Mrs Henderson, from Surrey, England told of a journey she embarked on at the age of 16.

She has lived abroad for nearly 20 years with her husband, a civil engineer. They first relocated to Greece, where Mrs Henderson was very active in the church.

After moving to Qatar and then to the UAE in 2005, she felt that it was time to become a priest.

"This was something that was growing in me for years but at that time, no women could be ordained in this area of the world," she said.

After the announcement was made at the annual Synod of the Diocese in Cyprus that the bishop, the Right Rev Michael Lewis, was given permission to ordain and appoint women, Mrs Henderson was able to reconsider the course of her life.

"I was going to wait until we go back to England," she said. "But then we had a change of direction.

"What was meant to be one year abroad, turned to us staying away from many years. Then it was [possible] here."

She went through a rigorous three-day selection process in England, she said, to see if her calling was genuine and if she could handle the training at the theological Ripon College Cuddesdon outside of Oxford, England.

After her selection, she had to travel back and forth between the UAE and the UK every six weeks.

Her 20-year-old son, James, said it was tough.

"It was hard for her to leave her family every month or so," he said. "We were supportive of her. And very proud of her today."

She completed her training in July. After yesterday's ordainment, she is technically still a deacon, and will officially become a priest after a year of training.

"It was such a long journey, since 16," she said. "I am very excited that part had ended and now I am on a whole new journey."

Gill Nisbet, a priest at the church, said priesthood could be challenging at times for a women in a society that is not accustomed to seeing female priests.

"Some are not used to seeing women [priests]," she said. "Some struggle with it."

She said walking around in the community with her priest collar usually led to "second looks" - but only meant that women like her were "breaking new grounds".

"It encourages anyone to think if God is calling them, particularly for women."

Many from the community made sure to come as they learnt more about Mrs Henderson through their children.

"She gets involved with the children," said Ruth Amin, also from the UK.

She added that Mrs Henderson also organised activities twice a year for children who come to the church, as well as others who do not, just to help get them involved.

Julia Morton, a close friend, flew to the UAE from England to be with Mrs Henderson for the ceremony yesterday.

"I have known Jo for 30 years," she said. "We met at the junior choir and we kept in contact all these years."

She said if Mrs Henderson had stayed in England, the process would have been much quicker. But because of the time it took, she and other friends were especially proud of her, she said.

Mrs Henderson will give her first church service next Friday, alongside Reverend Andrew Thompson.