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Helen Blackburn vocation story

Helen Blackburn

Chapter 12, ‘The waiting time’, from In Good Company: Women in the Ministry edited by Lesley MacDonald, here pp. 168-177. The extract is here re-published on our website with permission of the author and the publisher.

The book can be ordered from Andrew Press, tel. 0131-2255722; fax 0131-2203113. ISBN No 1 901557 15 4; price £ 9.99; copyright Wild Goose Publications, The Iona Community, Glasgow 1999.

‘We asked for bread and you gave

I was born into an ordinary Catholic family in the north-east of England on October 23 1965. I was to be the eldest of four daughters. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of chaotic Sunday mornings, as my Mam and Dad got us all up, dressed and into the car in time to get to church for 8 am Mass. We always sat near the front so we could see what was going on. Somehow we didn’t see the priests as ‘ordinary people’. I grew up in a Redemptorist parish and in those days it was very unusual not to see the priests dressed in their distinctive black habits. After Mass we would go to visit my Gran and Grandad and sometimes we would play ‘Mass’, improvising with an assortment of tea towels and pigeon-racing trophies! It was never disrespectful: it was rather that being part of the church and going to Mass every Sunday was a significant part of our childhood. On reflection I sometimes wonder how my parents managed. I’m sure we must have been late occasionally!

I went to the Catholic primary school, next door to the church. I think I probably enjoyed most of my time there. I didn’t understand the term ‘gender issues’ then; I just knew that there were some things that weren’t quite right. I couldn’t understand why the boys and girls had to play in separate yards when we could all play together in the street at home. Or why, when we had a film show or party and there were desks and chairs to be moved, it was always the boys who were asked to help. Things didn’t get any better when we made our first Holy Communion. The boys looked smart in their shirts and ties, but I couldn’t understand why the girls had to look like mini-brides in their veils and frilly white dresses. I don’t look terribly happy in the photograph, but it wasn’t something you’d have dared to protest about at that time. When we learned about the sacraments, we were told that there were seven . . . but that the girls could only receive six. No one attempted to explain why, and the girls were left feeling marginalised and excluded.

On Wednesday afternoons, the entire school would go round to church for Benediction. This was the real thing, mostly in Latin – at least until I was well into junior school. Of course, what with all the candles, the bells and the incense, there were a lot of altar servers needed. Once the boys in my class started to be altar servers, I could hold my peace no longer and I asked if I could be an ‘altar girl’. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was not allowed, but I could give out the hymn books instead. Again, no one ever made any attempt to explain why. Later on, the argument was put forward that altar boys were potential vocations to the priesthood, and having girls serving alongside them might put them off! Eventually, in April 1994, the Vatican agreed that it was acceptable to have female altar servers, but only if there were no men or boys available! Of course many parishes had had female altar servers for years so this was not such a big issue for them, but for me it was a significant turning point. It showed me that the hierarchy was beginning to acknowledge the diversity of women’s ministry. It is very interesting that when lay people were commissioned as Eucharistic ministers over ten years ago, both women and men were asked to take on this ministry, which involves actually administering the consecrated elements of Holy Communion. Yet women and girls had to wait several more years before they could simply assist the priest through the ministry of serving.

It would be all too easy to feel quite negative about the apparent lack of progress made in promoting and developing women’s ministry, but it is important to keep a sense of historical perspective. I am too young to remember the Latin Mass said by the priest with his back to the people, with minimal participation from the laity; too young to remember Mass without lay people serving as readers. Mass in the vernacular with lots of participation seems perfectly normal to me because it is what I have grown up with. For many others, change is difficult to cope with, and they often long for things to go back to the way they were. I recall my Gran saying that she did not think women should read at Mass, but that was over twenty years ago, and perhaps it was something that her generation would have become used to and accepted as a valid ministry for women.

In 1976 Pope Paul VI published Inter Insignores, and I vividly remember the headline in one of the Catholic newspapers: ‘Vatican says no to women priests.’ Of course it did not encourage the faithful to engage in dialogue – it simply said no. I must have been about ten years old. I didn’t understand why, and yet again no one wanted to explain why. The idea that I might have a vocation to ordained ministry hadn’t really crossed my mind then – probably because I knew it wasn’t possible. But I was starting to give the issues surrounding women’s ordination some fairly serious thought.

The rest of the world was starting to think about women’s ordination too. Who can forget Una Kroll’s cry from the gallery – ‘We asked for bread and you gave us a stone’ – when the Church of England General Synod voted unsuccessfully on women’s ordination in 1978. In the United States of America, the Roman Catholic ‘Women’s Ordination Conference’ came into being in 1975 but it must have been another ten years before I found out it even existed, and some more years after that before I found out how to join. Meanwhile, nearer to home in the late 1980s I had visited an Anglican church. I cannot remember which church or why I was there . . . but among a pile of literature on a table near the door was a leaflet about the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW). This was a real gift! I took the leaflet home and joined MOW immediately. All of a sudden I had access to literature, information, booklists, newsletters – and t-shirts! I still have my MOW t-shirt, although it’s getting a bit old and faded now. I was really proud to be a member of the Movement and even took part in an overnight vigil outside Lambeth Palace. My sister was highly amused at spotting me on Breakfast Television! I met Myra Poole for the first time at that vigil. She was to be a founding member of ‘Catholic Women’s Ordination’ some years later.

In the meantime I had survived school and an assortment of part-time jobs before I did my training as a psychiatric nurse. Around this time I continued to go to Mass every Sunday and also took a more active role in the parish. The issue of female altar servers was still there for me, but I had volunteered to be a reader and was asked to be among the first group of Eucharistic ministers commissioned for the parish. I was also asked to represent young people on the parish council. Not everyone appreciated my strong viewpoints, particularly on women’s ordination, but I responded by making sure I did a lot of reading around the subject and kept myself well informed about developments. We had a very active local Council of Churches (now known as ‘Churches Together’), and there were opportunities to participate in ecumenical events and visit other local churches. I particularly enjoyed visiting churches where women were active members of the ministry team. I still make time in my busy schedule to visit other churches from time to time and feel that we cannot place enough importance on the work of the ecumenical movement. For me ecumenism is about trying to understand rather than trying to change; about recognising diversity whilst promoting dialogue.

I wish I could have been there in Dean’s Yard on November 11 1992, when it was announced that the Church of England General Synod had voted in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood. However, I was several thousand miles away sweltering in the heat of a college in Lusaka, Zambia, where I was working as a VSO volunteer. I had taken my short-wave radio into work with me, and was at my desk listening anxiously when the results came through on the BBC World Service. I was delighted for my Anglican sisters, but couldn’t help feeling a bit sad that we as Roman Catholics still had to wait.

People at home thought of me and it was fun to receive so many British newspapers. The tabloids excelled themselves with headlines such as ‘Vicars in Knickers’, but thankfully my dad had the presence of mind to send a wonderful cartoon from The Guardian which occupied pride of place on the wall of my house in Lusaka for the next eighteen months. It was about this time that I had been thinking seriously about my future. I was enjoying my work in Zambia but could not, and did not want to, stay for ever. I had applied to a number of universities, received some offers, and eventually decided to go to Edinburgh, because it appeared to have a particularly good Department of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology. The Anglican women would soon be ordained, but some of us had a long wait ahead of us. I decided the waiting time would be put to good use. I had written some years earlier to a wonderful Roman Catholic priest, Fr John Wijngaards, after reading his book: Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? He wrote back to me and said that we must believe that women’s ordination will come, and he said it was important to prepare myself academically if I felt that ordained ministry could be my calling. I took his words very much to heart at the time, and thought about them as I accepted the offer from Edinburgh to read for a Bachelor of Divinity degree.

Catholic Women’s Ordination (CWO) was officially launched on March 24 1993. I missed out on the launch as I was still in Zambia, but I became a member and was determined to get involved as soon as possible. I moved to Edinburgh in October 1994 to start my degree, and one of the first items of mail I received was a CWO newsletter. In it was an item about the Edinburgh group, along with some dates and addresses for meetings. I had obviously made the right decision to come to Edinburgh! As it happened I was able to get involved at a very exciting time. Earlier that year the Scottish Episcopal Church had voted to ordain women to the priesthood and the first ordinations were scheduled to take place in December. Obviously CWO wanted to give these women our support, and I actually got involved with the group as they were planning their activities for the day. The ordinations in Edinburgh were to take place on December 17 1994.There were to be fifteen women and two men, and, as it happens, the only candidate I knew was one of the men!

Our plan was that we should have a short service of prayers and readings outside St Mary’s R.C. Cathedral before processing to St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Everything went according to plan, even though one of the clergy outside the Catholic cathedral told us in no uncertain terms to get our banners away from ‘his property’. We duly moved the banners, continued our service and processed to the Episcopal cathedral where we could not have received a warmer welcome. The Very Reverend Graham Forbes, Provost of the cathedral, came outside to welcome us, and was even happy to pose for a photograph! We had expected to remain outside during the service, but the Provost ensured that seats were found for us. I had a lump in my throat throughout what was really a very moving ceremony. I don’t often recommend watching ‘the video’ of anything, but in this case I certainly would. I could have listened to Bishop Richard Holloway’s wonderful sermon over and over again. The press did not ignore us and we got some really encouraging publicity. It was a marvellous day and we were fired with enthusiasm to do something similar on a regular basis.

Some of the CWO groups in England had started to hold monthly vigils outside their diocesan cathedrals, and we felt this was something we could also do. We chose Thursdays (late night shopping in Edinburgh – more people around), set Thursday June 1 1995 as the date for our first vigil, and issued a press release. A multitude of reporters, photographers and late night shoppers turned up to watch us get absolutely drenched as the heavens opened for one of the heaviest showers Edinburgh had seen in months. However it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm (no pun intended!) and on the first Thursday of every month, even if it falls on New Year’s Day, we continue to hold our vigils, remembering named and unnamed women who have contributed to the church and the world over the centuries. These have ranged from Mary Magdalene to Mary Seacole. We wear something purple to symbolise our mourning for women’s lost and rejected gifts. We sing, we pray, we keep silent and we think of our foremothers who have been such an inspiration to us. It’s not always easy to keep the vigils going, especially during the summer months when people are on holiday, but we always seem to manage. Once a year, on the Tuesday of Holy Week, we hold a special vigil to coincide with the Chrism Mass during which the holy oils to be used over the coming year are blessed and distributed, and the clergy of the archdiocese renew their promises of ordination.

The campaign does bring its challenges. I have been writing letters to the Catholic press for many years: not just about women’s ordination, but on other related issues such as ecumenism and inclusive language. For my troubles I have received in the post a number of anonymous letters – not always polite – along with an assortment of ‘right-wing’ journals. I don’t know whether reading these publications is meant to convert me. Being fairly open-minded I would probably read them if the senders had the courage to say who they are.

For some reason, those opposed to women’s ordination often seem to think it is perfectly acceptable to be rude to people like myself. I have had people who barely know me demand to know what kind of books I read and whether I go to Mass. Even priests have made unpleasant jokes at my expense. One or two have even asked me why I don’t just become an Anglican. At the Chrism Mass last year, I was handing out leaflets to people entering the cathedral. I offered one to a woman who took it, ripped it in half and almost flung it back at me. She was so angry, but the incident made me feel sad. I put the torn pieces into my pocket and kept them for several days. I just couldn’t stop wondering what it is about the issue of women’s ordination that brings out so much emotion in people. Does ripping a leaflet in half make someone feel better? Is it fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of what the hierarchy might think? I don’t have any answers but I do think a ban on discussion contributes significantly to the problem. Surely it would have been far more helpful if the Vatican had said it did not feel the time was right for women’s ordination at the moment, but that it is important to keep discussing the issues, the ethics and the theology.

CWO is one of many organisations throughout the world campaigning for women’s ordination to Roman Catholic priesthood, but the issue is wider than just that of ordaining women. We need to acknowledge the importance of all ministry. As a child I thought that being an altar server was ‘more important’ than giving out the hymn books. I no longer allow myself to be conditioned into thinking in such a way. In fact I would argue that we are all called to some form of ministry within the church. This may be the ordained ministry of priest or deacon, or it may be the ministry of making the coffee after Mass. We have become very good at creating hierarchies within ministry instead of acknowledging the unique and special gifts we each have to offer. The most valuable gifts any priest or minister possesses are those of encouraging, enabling and affirming all members of the church regardless of their particular calling. I often think of elderly people who are no longer able to get to church, yet pray every day for the parish and all its members. If that is not ministry then I don’t know what is.

There are different forms of ministry which clearly belong to the historical tradition of the Christian church. At Easter 1996 a conference was held in Stuttgart entitled: ‘The diaconate: an office for women in the Church? An office which does justice to women?’ The conference resolution asked the bishops to seek canonical permission from Rome to allow them to ordain women as deacons within their dioceses. The call for women to be admitted to the diaconate is certainly growing and it is one that CWO actively supports. Those who feel called to this kind of ministry have been asked to join the International Network for the Diaconate which is based in Germany.

CWO is a small (but growing) organisation with a huge remit. We believe it is important to achieve a forum for examining, challenging and developing the present understanding of priesthood. For me, this certainly means supporting the International Network for the Diaconate. It also means supporting other forms of ministry, campaigns for inclusive language, and the ecumenical movement. Here in Scotland, CWO has become involved with the Network of Ecumenical Women in Scotland (NEWS), which is a committee of ACTS (Action of Churches Together in Scotland). The committee comprises representatives from each of the ten member churches of ACTS, along with those of several co-opted groups. CWO applied to become a co-opted group, and most of the NEWS membership welcomed our application, but there were those within ACTS who challenged the validity of our organisation. The matter was discussed at length by people in high places before we were eventually offered observer status. Naturally, we were disappointed that obstructions prevented us from joining our sisters on an equal basis, but we know that observer status is a start. We are grateful that NEWS and ACTS acknowledge and respect us as an organisation.

Closer links have also been forged with the Movement for Whole Ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church (MWM). The women and men who belong to MWM have been through a similar struggle, and we really value their friendship and support. It is also very important that CWO members throughout Scotland are able to keep in touch with one another: membership stretches from Hawick to Inverness, and many folk are quite isolated – particularly in more rural areas. CWO and MWM have been able to hold meetings together.

There is a shortage of priests – there can be no doubt about that. We are constantly asked to pray for vocations, and rightly so, for the statistics make grim reading. I recently spoke with a friend who lives in a more remote part of Scotland. Her town has no resident priest, and she talked openly about the difficulties encountered because of this. A quick glance through the Catholic Directory shows how many priests are looking after two and even three parishes. Some communities are not able to attend Mass every Sunday simply because there are not enough priests. Isn’t it unreasonable that many priests suffer from stress caused by overwork while at the same time the church does not seem to be able or willing to explore other types of ordained ministry? Are people to be deprived of the sacraments because there are not enough single, celibate men to administer them?

I am still a campaigner for women's ordination even though I am no longer a member of CWO. There are many others like me, some of whom also feel that they personally may be called to ordained ministry. Unlike the men, we are not even given the opportunity to undergo a process of vocation discernment. We have never given up on the church. Many of us are active members of our parishes: serving as readers, coffee makers, musicians and in so many other valuable ministries. For our dedication we are told that we do not have the right even to discuss issues which we feel are important for us and for the church. I will continue to study, to pray and to protest. This is the waiting time. Perhaps the sequel to this chapter will bring the good news that my waiting is over.

Helen Blackburn, 1999

Overview Signs of a Vocation A woman's journey Steps to take Answering critics Writing your story
Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?

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