Another woman has shattered the stained-glass ceiling in the Church, becoming a ‘dean’ in a German diocese and thereby occupying a position up until now reserved to priests.

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In an historic first January 17, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster named Maria Hölscheidt one of two new deans of the deanery of Recklinghausen, to serve a usual term for deans of the diocese of six years.

Not only is is the first time in the diocese that the duties of dean have been split up this way, but it is also the first time a woman will take on the responsibilities associated with the role.

Both Münster diocesan statutes and the Church’s Code of Canon Law stipulate that only senior priests can be deans and, in that position, oversee the pastoral activities, religious functions, administration and clergy of a cluster of neighbouring parishes, called a deanery.

The other new co-dean of Recklinghausen, named alongside Hölscheidt – Ludger Ernsting – does fulfill the requisite of being a priest, but only of the rank of rector, and not that of pastor usually required to be appointed dean.

Hölscheidt, for her part, is a lay pastoral assistant in a deanery church in Datteln.

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According to Münster diocesan spokesman Stephan Kronenburg, when the time came to look for a replacement for the outgoing dean of Recklinghausen, Bishop Genn quickly warmed to the “creative proposal” from the deanery itself for a joint man-woman, priest-lay appointment.

That’s in line with the “overall picture of new governance models” to which Genn is committed in the diocese, which extend to other innovative shared leadership structures in parishes and other Church bodies.

Why it matters

According to Kronenburg, there’s no canonical problem with Hölscheidt and Ernsting’s appointment, since technically they are not deans but episcopal commissioners who will carry out the duties of a dean.

Those duties include acting as the bishop’s representatives and spokespeople, chairing and attending meetings and conferences on his behalf and liaising between parish communities and possible new pastors.

“We work as a team in the deanery in Recklinghausen”, Hölscheidt said of her new appointment. “We are showing that too with the new model”.

For his part, Ernsting celebrated “that a priest and a non-ordained woman had been entrusted with management in the same way”.

Hölscheidt’s appointment as co-dean of Recklinghausen follows on from another historic designation in the German Church in November, when laywoman Christine Hölscher was appointed as ‘pastor’ of the parishes of Bad Iburg and Glane, in the Diocese of Osnabrück.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.