A Christian in a Muslim majority country, Amelia Jacob, 71, had an arranged marriage and moved to England, later becoming one of the first female priests in the Church of England
I was born on 13 May 1952, in the town of Faisalabad, Pakistan. My Dada’s, (father’s father) family were Hindus by faith, Kshatriyas by caste (second in hierarchy in the Hindu caste system) and goldsmiths by profession. When Dada was a high school student, on his way home he received Christian tracts from British missionaries. Something about the words of the Lord’s Prayer touched his heart. Because of him I was brought up as a Christian.
Dealing with death
When I was six years old my mother was taken ill with tuberculosis while pregnant with her sixth child. She died later that year. About four years later, at the insistence of Dada, my father remarried. He and his new wife settled back in Haripur Hazara with my three younger siblings, leaving me and my sister with our grandparents.
After school I went on to study at a government college for women in Faisalabad. While I was in my third year, Dada was taken ill. He was admitted to hospital for breathing issues, came home but in November 1972 died in his chair after leading family prayers.
This was my first experience of witnessing a death. I could not help crying aloud, and in that moment I uttered: “Who is going to lead our prayers now?” Inside I kept praying: “Please, Lord, make him wake up!” This second loss had a lasting impact on my life – especially the final moments, when Dada was faithful to his last breath.
An arranged marriage
Not long after his death a proposal of marriage was brought to my father. One of my aunt’s colleagues was asking for my hand in marriage for her son, Stanley who was in the UK. I accepted it as God’s will for me, even though I had not even met Stanley! I had already made up my mind beforehand not to choose a partner for myself, in case I made a wrong choice.
Stanley asked if he could write to me. My father permitted this, so I needed to buy airmail envelopes and a letter-writing pad, but had no money. On that same day, one of my aunts who lived close by came to visit with her friend who had come to congratulate me on my engagement, and she gave me a gift of five rupees – enough to buy a writing pad and a pack of international envelopes with some leftover change! I took this provision as a positive sign of God’s approval of my engagement.
Embracing a new life in a new country
After our wedding, I had a 16-month wait for my visa, and then joined Stanley in the UK. My flight was booked for 11 May 1975; two days before my 23rd birthday. I was leaving home for the first time to go thousands of miles away to meet a man I hardly knew, but still I was looking forward to experiencing this new life that God was laying before me.
On arrival in England, I started having a recurring dream a few times a year. In the dream I had an exam the following day and could not find the right books to study, so began to panic. I had this dream from around 1975 to 1983. I did not know the meaning or the purpose behind it.
We were able to buy a house of our own in Alperton, which we moved into in August 1977. When our daughter was born, in November 1977, we decided to name her Rebecca, as Stanley’s mother had said about me: “I have found Rebecca for my son Isaac.” Rebecca was the first grandchild in both of our families. Our second child, a son, Sharoon (Rocky), was born in 1983.
A growing hunger to learn
During this time, a Pakistani evangelist made a visit to our house and asked if I read the Bible as well as praying. I said: “I hear the Word from your sermons, isn’t that enough?” He replied: “Just praying and not reading the Bible is like just drinking water and not having solid food.” I thought about this and realised that there was a void in my life that was as yet unfulfilled. I took his words quite seriously and knew I had to start to read the Bible in earnest and with full commitment. The hunger and zeal were growing in me.
One evening I sat alone with my Urdu Bible in the front room and began to read from the Gospel of Matthew. Then I woke up quite early in the morning, so carried on reading. I was on the third chapter of Matthew – it is about John the Baptist, preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v2). Suddenly my eyes were opened and I understood that the Bible was the subject I had not prepared for – this was the meaning of the dream!
God had been so patient, waiting for me to turn to him fully to be able to understand the meaning of the dream. “Where are You leading me, Lord,” I thought, “with all this preparation?”
Stirred to serve
Stanley observed me praying and reading my Bible more frequently and so asked: “What sort of career would you like to pursue?” My answer was: “I would like to serve the Lord.” He replied: “You need to be properly trained, then. You cannot just pick up the Bible and go around preaching.”
I asked our vicar about this possibility. He told me: “Training for ministry will be quite hard for you.” Maybe from his own experience, being an immigrant to the country and English not being his first language, he recognised the difficulties involved, so I left it there for the time being. Within that same year, our vicar started having heart problems. His health deteriorated rapidly and in one of the services he said that his wish was that someone from within the congregation would lead us forward.
I was sitting at the back with our son, Rocky, who was then about 18 months old. A small voice within me said: “Should I offer myself for this ministry?” I spoke back to myself: “This cannot be for me, because of my academic and English language limitations.” Once again, I left it and forgot all about it. Then one day we heard the shocking and sad news that our vicar had died from a massive heart attack.
A small voice within me said: ‘Should I offer myself for this ministry?’
During the memorial service, our local bishop shared our vicar’s wish that someone from this congregation should be trained to carry on his duties. I had forgotten about the small voice suggesting I lead the congregation. To my surprise, I heard the voice of my husband saying: “What about my wife?”
I said yes and soon I was recommended for non-stipendiary ministry (NSM). For this I had to attend part-time training at Oak Hill Theological College in Southgate, London.
I started college in September 1987. I would attend every Tuesday evening for two hours. For me, studying at Oak Hill was the biggest challenge of my life. I suffered with lots of stress and anxiety, trying to complete my assignments on time.
I was licensed as a deacon in 1990 for Pakistani fellowship at All Saints Tufnell Park Church, where I served for one year before being licensed in St James’ in February 1992, our local parish. I was 39 years old.
Forging the way
Two years into my service at St James’, the big, debated issue of women’s priesthood came to the forefront, after ten years of discussions. The year 1994 was the landmark for women deacons to be priests for the first time in the history of the Church of England. I was asked by our bishop if I would like to be put forward for priesthood ordination.
I was given about six months to pray about it and to seek God’s guidance on this issue. This was not an easy decision, as there was a large difference of opinion in the wider Church. I wanted to be fully sure within myself that this was the correct step for me to take, as I did not want to have any regrets over my decision afterwards.
I went on holiday to Pakistan and left the issue totally in God’s hands. On my return, I met up with the bishop again in order to let him know my final decision. By this time, I had no hesitation in saying: “Yes” to the bishop, who praised God at this news!
Amelia Jacob served as one of the first female priests in the Church of England and retired in February 2020. This article has been edited using extracts from her book, The Priest from Pakistan (Instant Apostle, 2023).