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On being Woman in the Church

On being Woman in the Church

from Women before God by Lavinia Byrne. SPCK. 1998, pp.97-108.

Women in the Church

If thinking about ministry in general leads to insights into the place of women in the world, the question of ordination centres much more specifically on the place of women within the faith community of the local, national or international Church. In those Churches that do not ordain women we nevertheless have an instant congregation in the form of the parish or faith community of our own home and family. My intention in this final chapter is to look at the way in which women in particular can minister to the formation of those with whom we form faith community. In time, what we do within the domestic Church will have a more general application because it cannot be long before the fundamentalist reasoning behind many attempts to refuse ordination to women in certain other Churches are recognized for what they are - instances of injustice rather than anything else.

This fundamentalism was well observed in a letter written to The Tablet in the light of a recent proscription from Rome: women, we have been told, are not to have their feet washed at Maundy Thursday celebrations because women did not have their feet washed by Jesus at the final supper he shared with his friends. The letter read:

Cardinal Mayer, in his support for the Bishop of Pittsburgh, does not go far enough. He excludes women from the washing of feet in the liturgy of Holy Thursday because Christ washed the feet only of males. The argument against the ordaining of women is that Christ ordained only men. Let us, please, take these arguments to their logical conclusion. Let us exclude women from the Eucharist since at the last supper Christ shared his body and blood only with men.

Letter from Catherine Ivinson of Florida, USA,
The Tablet, 10 May 1986

While Rome fiddles and tinkers, the world burns. And sadly, other Christians who have already ordained women within their communions are tempted to join the fiddling and shop women in the name of some greater apparent good, for instance Christian unity. In a sense, though, this is a separate debate and one that will be quickly overtaken by events.

Images of priesthood

If the presence of women among the ranks of the ordained is to make a significant difference, this time of waiting can be used to explore what we already contribute and the ways in which we are already exercising the priesthood which is ours by right in virtue of our baptism. Women as priests are people whose identity and experience is such that the public expression of what we do within the community of believers is about service rather than servitude. On a recent visit to Toronto I was struck by the ease and friendliness with which people served me in shops and coffee bars. They did not find this service demeaning, and so did not resent giving it. In England we seem reluctant to serve each other and the gospel image of service suffers in consequence. Yet Jesus was content to serve; we are called to freedom not to slavery. God the liberator sets us free from false images of Christian service. But, as is the case with all the false securities we use to cocoon ourselves, these can only be abandoned when we know what they are, where they come from, and when we see where they are taking us.

Amongst such images is the understanding that God has somehow to be placated and therefore that Christian service is a bloody affair. God is a tyrant who demands propitiation, a fickle, elusive being who is always calling us to make efforts beyond our capacity. I heard him described recently as God the lumberjack who calls us through a deserted landscape populated by only the felled trees and ashes of our life and aspirations. His priest presides at this holocaust, calling for more victims, more sacrifice. The altar overshadows the table as the central place of Christian meeting, and Communion becomes a sharing in pain rather than each other.

Another image of God which leads to a distorted perception of Christian service is that of God as judge. The judge is never off duty; his priest, too, is endlessly on the look-out, endlessly concerned to bring people to repentance. The sin of which we are to repent is not our involvement in a world and a political framework that denies human rights, lets half the world starve while the other half stockpiles weapons of hideous strength and sells weak people to the strong. The sin in question is rather our own personal worthlessness, our tendency to fail, our very humanity. This priest sends people down spirals of guilt with the ease with which one creates a centrifugal force by pulling out a bathplug. Yet he inevitably has his eyes closed to issues of justice. He is the priest Jeremiah castigated, the one who cannot see the connection between love of God and love of neighbour. His only concern is to make people realize that God has judged them and found them wanting. Liturgical celebration resonates to the cries of thunder and violence, the table becomes a board to thump and Communion a luxury.

God can be imaged as a bodiless spirit, too, so that his priest is one whose only concern is with the soul and with the quest for higher thought. He is certainly not interested in our anxieties about money and sex and food, or in our desire to make sense of the world in which we live. He cannot serve our basic needs because these are not deemed to exist. Where the ‘spiritual life’ is set up in opposition to the rest of life, strange things begin to happen. We can all think of instances when we have been led to hide from our own experience, when Sunday has been hived off from the rest of the week, the sanctuary from the world and vice versa. The Lord’s table becomes a refuge from reality, Communion a travesty of Jesus’ words about taking and eating his body. I cannot help but notice that it is Julian of Norwich who enables me to hit that idea on the head when she writes, ‘Our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy and in grace, and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life’ (Showings, Long text, ch. 55).

Each of these false images of Christian priesthood is based on an equally false image of God and, in turn, it generates an equally false image of Christian living. For this reason, because these images are so strong and their influence so pervasive, it is useful to understand the mechanism whereby we create them. Otherwise where they are not admitted we assume that we are acting out of principle, and can end up confusing taste with truth.

If the great Christian commandment is to love, the great Christian temptation must be to fear. We fall into fear or envy or pride because we fail to take our baptism seriously. By baptism into the Christian community we are bound to each other in bonds of trust, committed to journeying towards God in a way that precludes hostility and jealousy. Most people live as pagans, in the sense of unbaptized people, for long years after they first receive the sacrament. Appropriating one’s baptism takes time. Appropriating one’s humanity takes time. Learning to live as a human being and member of the human community is not easy. The local faith community of the family is the first place where we start this learning and where our images are first formed. And so I ask in what ways women work there. In any human group what is the place of women? My own experience is that they are people who have listened to me and fed me, they are people with whom I have been free to be vulnerable and free to ask questions. They have not overwhelmed me with the power and significance of their own ideas but have encouraged me to think my own thoughts and to be serious about living in terms of what I have discovered to be true. They have encouraged me when I was depressed and supported me when I was using my gifts and talents.

In contrast, holy mother Church - and each denomination has one - has not always named God particularly helpfully or enabled me to grow to adult status as a believer. In its anxiety to help me identify myself as Christian, the official teaching Church has sometimes spoken of faith as though it were the same as certainty. Yet as an adult, growing, believing person I am always learning to name God more closely and with more love. And if the Church were a real mother instead of a pretend one she would know that faith will inevitably be mixed with doubt, that the experience of believing will often feel like the experience of doubting. Dark nights of faith and clouds of unknowing are part of the Christian vocabulary, so why do I have to wait to be an adult to discover this? The experience of growing to God may be a painful one but it is made doubly so where the Church appears to desire no more than my notional assent.

Faith that is learnt in the home and the family of the Church should image God in ways which demonstrate that development is of the nature of belief. I have suggested that three unhelpful images of God can throw up three equally unhelpful images of priesthood and of Christian living. By starting from the position of the people from whom we learn our images in the first instance, namely women in the home, we could see ways in which a further image may be supplied, one that is informed by this experience.

For this reason I believe it is useful to explore certain understandings that result if one were to take further the premises with which I have been working in this book. The first is that both men and women can know God; the second is that God is neither male nor female because God is mystery. The human language we use to talk about God, like the human language that Jesus used, is always analogous; that is to say God is father and mother and friend and lover and air and fire and wind and earthquake and a host of other things besides. Each of these is only one word, only one human way of trying to say something about the mystery. None is absolute; none can ever make a definitive statement about the nature and purpose and intentions of God. Each is an indication of our conviction that God does wish to be known.

Where Jesus called God ‘Father’, he was identifying God in terms of a relationship and, in the same breath, defining himself as son. If relationships are that central, they must be the cradle out of which our understanding of Christian life and service can grow. The woman priest whose personal faith has been nurtured within a faith community or family where her experience of relationships has been sound is obviously in a strong position to name other relationships in ways that are sound. This business of naming is not a way of saying that the priest’s task is simply to teach. Rather, I have suggested that it lies at the heart of sacramental ministry as well. The woman who creates community in the home and from whom her children learn both how to grow into the family and how to grow away from the family towards other people gives us an image of God who wills that we come to human maturity. The woman who gathers friends around her table to celebrate their relationships and the human events of their lives gives us an image of God who wills that we take each other and our everyday human experience seriously. The woman who listens and who cleans and who cares for the people in her home gives us the image of a God who is concerned with the physical, a God who really will raise us up body and soul as whole people. Again I am not surprised when I find this insight endorsed by Julian of Norwich. ‘For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is our sensuality, for in that same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained by him from without beginning’ (Showings Long text, ch. 55). The woman who goes out to work, whether in factory or school or law courts or operating theatre, is taking with her an interiorized understanding of community, and reminding us that God is at work and at play in our world and in all our human groups.

Where the Church ignores this rich tradition of community-making, images of priesthood as well as of God necessarily suffer. Where this tradition is allowed to speak to our present-day needs, it can counteract the temptation we have to image God as tyrant, judge or bodiless spirit. It can counteract the tendency we have to make a mockery of priesthood in tying it to the placation of such a God. In their place we have imaged in women’s presence in the Church a God who nurtures and empowers, a God who is both life and love. The image of priesthood that is generated from this understanding is of the priest who in turn is called to nurture and to empower; to be both life and love.

The priest who nurtures

While a new image of sacramental practice does well to build upon whatever is best in the old, images of feeding are complicated because food has, at times, been withheld from believing Christians as though we were naughty children. The Jesus who said ‘Take and eat’ (Matt. 26.26) has had his words hedged about with man-made rules and regulations. Or, there again, food has been identified too narrowly with certain activities - called sacraments and not with others. The power of this image is diminished when it is treated as part of a punishment or rewards system. Nevertheless some of our sacramental imagery can be retrieved from a tradition that has seen sacraments as ways in which God’s life can be shared by God’s community, where the emphasis has been on the process of feeding rather than upon the notion of food; on life as sacrament rather than upon sacraments as the only form of life.

The task of feeding people is one that requires dedication, creativity, knowledge. Above all it requires commitment to the growing process, to the notion that what one is doing is nurturing independent life. When the adult of any species is enabled to stand independently from its parents, then has the task of nurturing been achieved. Where nurturing is used to increase dependence and to destroy the growing person’s selfhood, then nurturing becomes a travesty of itself and an image of abnegation. One of the most powerful of eucharistic images we hold from the tradition is that of the pelican. He does not merely feed his young but is ready to destroy himself in the process. If God is imaged as nurturer, then the image is of the nurturer for whom no sacrifice is excessive. Feeding is all, because feeding is about the development of other people.

In this sense the challenge for the priesthood nowadays is to find ways of nurturing that are compatible with the insight that Christians are called to adult life in the faith community. The patriarch, the head of the village community, the devoted pastor of the flock, have to give way to images of a nurturing presence that takes human development seriously. ‘When the big bang comes on Monday,’ I heard a city priest say recently, apropos of the reorganization of London’s Stock Exchange, ‘I hope that people in the business world know that they can count on the support of their priest in the ensuing stress.’ How, I could not help wondering, are they to know that this is the case? Clerical presence is often so static, so tied to certain premisses and not to others, to certain practices and not to others, that how are the generality of nominal or otherwise Christians to know that the Church has any interest at all in what is of real concern to them? I am not arguing for more sacraments here; sacraments for the big bang, for visiting the doctor, for hitting forty or whatever. All that I am suggesting is that there are levels of belief that may require different models of practice and of celebration. At different stages in anyone’s faith journey different ways of meeting the individual believer’s spiritual needs have to be envisaged. A nurturing model of forming people as believers is one that takes these needs seriously because it enables one to separate the feeding from the food. In the past we often gave people sacraments and thought we were nurturing their faith. Nowadays that equation cannot be made and so the function of priests has to be envisaged differently.

Faith formation has to be taken out of the church building and taken back to the place where the rest of our formation happens: the home, the street, the pub and the park. In these places the ministry of women has always been important and our specific role in the formation process recognized. The actual quality of what we accomplish there has to be examined without sentiment, however; otherwise one is back into false images of Christian presence. It is not because we are gentle and loving and long-suffering that our presence is to be valued. We do not represent the triumph of anima over animus.

The quality of this presence has more to do with the fact that our model of engagement is a nurturing one. For cultural reasons we have been able both to own and to share what we are feeling and so have not been forced to act inhumanly. The tradition of interdependent relationships, of friendship and co-operation, is ours by right. The communities of women to which I have belonged have been places where the ability to relate to people has been prized above all else, where a sense of humour is considered essential if one is to grow and to enjoy life, where false piety has been given very short shrift. They have been formation communities in the best sense of the word, and places where the Church has had its greatest influence on me.

The God who empowers

Yet God is more than a God who creates us, God is a God who redeems us, too. The God who is engaged in the human story gives life, certainly, but also loves us through into the abundance of life we call the Kingdom. Priests of this God empower others. In practice, this means that those whom the Churches ordain to serve the needs of the believing community are committed to certain attitudes which, of their very nature, seek to give power away rather than to hoard it.

Initially this means sharing knowledge. Information about the Churches, hard factual information about finances and distribution of personnel, is hard to come by. Further education and theological literacy are only now becoming available in any general sense. Is the God imaged one who seeks to share the divine life with us or a God who has secrets? The degree of openness displayed by those whose function it is to minister to the community of believers says a great deal about their understanding of God. Where people cling to their learning they are clinging to power at the expense of others; where they share information and knowledge they empower others and set them free. What they do with their power can never be neutral. In the same way the language of sharing has to be a language that demystifies rather than a jargon that encodes. Sharing means listening to the language used by the other in order to speak back in words that sound accessible and familiar. Sharing such as this means speaking in lay language.

Additionally, those who are priests can no longer hide behind archaic images of what it is to be a committed Christian. A human priesthood is committed to being a humane priesthood. Anything which demythologizes the pagan understanding behind the formation and maintenance of a priestly caste can be dropped in favour of gospel presence. The quality of lay presence in the world, of women’s presence in the world, is one that can do much to restore an understanding of gospel presence within the Church.

Recently I was asked to talk to a group of young men who were preparing for the sacrament of orders. They came from four continents and represented the pick of their generation. I asked them to reflect on and to identify the qualities they most admired in the people they were conscious of as they prepared for ordination. Each of them admired things such as availability, a commitment to personal prayer, a sense of service and so on. Each of them named another priest as the person who most clearly exemplified these qualities. When I suggested that they then reflect back to me some of the qualities they most admired in their parents, we had a totally unexpected conversation about the place of their mothers and sisters in their development as believing people, and about women in general.

Later this led me to ask myself further questions about the exact way in which the leaven transforms the lump. It is as easy to be sentimental about the laity in general as it is about women in particular. Essentially lay presence is about people rather than structures and institutions; essentially lay presence is about seeking and finding a God who lives within; essentially lay presence is about valuing all the ways in which we journey to God rather than only some of them. Lay people have ordinarily had to face up to the reality of how their sexual responses form part of their faith response more realistically than most clerics - even noncelibate clerics. Lay people have not been able to hide from the need to work out how money should be used as a Kingdom value, or where they stand on political and social issues as easily as most of those whom the Churches presently ordain. Lay people, in general, know what it means to live by the sweat of one’s brow. The God who empowers their faith response is God the redeemer of relationships, of sex, money, work, of pleasure and pain, of a Kingdom which is in the midst of us. This God is given to us in the vision all Christians share in common, the vision of Jesus who calls us to share in all the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection. The Christbearer, whether lay or ordained, is the one who can say ‘I am baptized, I am transfigured, I am taken, blessed, broken and given and, ultimately, I have died with Christ and am risen with him, I appear on the Emmaus road and share the Christian story with others.’ The Christian mysteries are lived out again in the individual woman’s or man’s experience of growing to God.

Where women empower others by sharing this knowledge with them and by engaging in the real practical events of day-to-day living with those with whom we live or work, where women priests in particular minister to the growing life of a Kingdom which is within the world of the known and the familiar, then God is imaged as liberator, as the one who transforms our world and our power structures. For this reason alone a whole priesthood, where named people minister to the life of the community from below rather than from above, is more than one very viable pattern for the future, it is the only way forward.

The model of priesthood that emerges is of priest as servant or deacon to the deep needs of the Christian community, to the need we all have to make sense of our world and our lives in Christian terms. Moreover it leaves me with questions. Does one have to be ordained to answer this calling? Does one have to be ordained for ever? Who does the ordaining: someone from above or the group which is going to be served by the minister in question? These are questions I could not have envisaged myself ever asking in the Birmingham Oratory of my childhood. The Roman Catholic world I looked out onto then seemed set fair to last for ever. It was a world where everyone had a place. Mine was definitely marked out for me in the brass nameplate on the bench in front of me as I gazed with attentive concentration at the back of the priest celebrating amid clouds of incense in the sanctuary. I should have been more attentive to the significance of the fact that the incense made my mother cough and that she led the family in prayer at home. I should have listened to the Bible stories my grandmother taught me - about the importance of tides in the Red Sea and flights of quails from northern Europe. Instead I had to wait until the Second Vatican Council and for permission to start thinking things through in terms of the known and the familiar, in terms, in fact, of the world made by the women - and men - who first formed me.

Role models for women priests

One final question which relates to the present. I asked the wife of a bishop who has been ordaining women for ten years what role models she imagined were available to the women priests of her husband’s diocese. Her first answer was ‘Jesus’. When pressed, she claimed that there are a number of older men whom any young woman could look up to and admire. Neither answer seems totally satisfactory. The first because it is an inadequate description of Christian discipleship; the second because once again it fails to honour the idea that something new is happening in Churches that do choose to ordain women. Something more useful is being said when women are freed to choose other women as role models. In this instance in particular, that lay women should be role models for women priests, rather than the other way round, gives rise to new ways of celebrating and of ministering with which to transform clerical structures and practice.

I am also conscious that most religious communities are communities of women. When we wish to celebrate the Eucharist we have to import a male chaplain to preside at the centre of our liturgical life. In communities where male priests are unable to come and officiate for us, new forms of celebration and, more importantly, new styles of presiding are being developed. These demonstrate that in the eucharistic context, too, there are role models to be examined and followed. The experience of many groups of women, as well as of individual women, is reflected in a friend’s comment on what happens in her community when the priest oversleeps. ‘We have our own Eucharist and have found that the rite for celebrating with the sick is the one that best meets our needs; you see, there is no president in that and so we can just sit round and take it in turns.’

If I return to the words Mary Ward wrote in 1615, ‘And it will be seen that women in time to come will do much,’ it is because I believe that we are living in the time she spoke of, that this is the day of salvation. Increasingly, as I speak with and listen to people, women and men, religious and ordained, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, people from the Free Churches as well as people from no named Church at all, I am conscious that we are witnessing the kind of groundswell of popular feeling that is the mark of the Spirit’s presence and activity in the world. The Spirit who brooded over the first creation and who now broods over her new creation reminds us that we are at present living with chaos. The waters are not untroubled, but a new way is clear where it is recognized that ‘male and female God made them. In God’s own image they are made’ (Gen. 1.27). We are called to the glory of finding God’s image within and of enabling others to recognize their own glory, too.

To return to my own beginnings: I choose to end with the experience of Thérèse of Lisieux who wrote from the heart of French nineteenth-century ghetto Catholicism:

To be betrothed to you, Jesus, to be a Carmelite, to become, through my union with you, a mother of souls - surely that ought to be enough for anybody? But somehow, not for me. I seem to have so many other vocations as well! I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr . . . I want to be a priest.

(Autobiography of a Saint tr. Ronald Knox (Fontana 1960), pp. 183-4)

She died at the age of twenty-four and herself observed that this was the age at which, in other circumstances, she would have been ordained. There are other women with the same desires, the same sense of vocation; women who are instances and places of where the city of God is. What will the Churches do about this?

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