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>Setting the Scene by Christina Rees adapted from 'Voices of the Calling', edited by Christina Rees.

Setting the Scene

by Christina Rees

adapted from Voices of the Calling, edited by Christina Rees.
Published by Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2002, pp. 3-30.

In the Assembly Hall in Church House, Westminster on Wednesday, 11 November 1992, there is a tense hush. Synod members have returned to their seats after voting by walking through different doors. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is in the Chair. He clears his throat and asks the Synod to listen to the results of the voting in silence. It is nearly 5:00pm. He reads: ‘House of Bishops, Ayes 39, Noes 13; House of Clergy, Ayes 176, Noes 74.; House of Laity, Ayes 169, Noes 82. There being the required number of votes in each House, I declare the motion carried.’

Up in the press gallery there is a muffled squeak: a female journalist throws her arms around a Synod member who is standing by to be interviewed by the BBC. A frisson of excitement runs through the vast room. Unknown to Synod members, the news has reached the crowds gathered ‘Outside in Dean’s Yard, and there people cheer and burst into tears and singing. Inside, the Archbishop of York calmly takes the Chair, and business continues, with voting on various Amending Canons and on the Financial Provisions contained in the Measure. It has happened: history has been made. Women will be priests in the Church of England.

Ten years after that decisive vote in General Synod is a good time to reflect on the past decade, and to hear from some of the women who went on to become priests. Some of the first women priests were members of that Synod and cast their votes that day. Others were in Dean’s Yard surrounded by the group of jubilant supporters. Some listened to the result on radio, or watched it later on the television news. All had been waiting, some for many years, and they knew their lives would be changed, one way or the other, by the outcome of the vote.

Overall, not just those in the Church, but many others across the country celebrated. The Church was alive after all! It could follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. It was relevant. It could change. It valued women.

It is perhaps this last point that took so many, inside and outside the Church, believers and agnostics, by surprise. Women who had not been into a church since childhood, broke down and wept. Men, upon hearing the news, choked up, overcome. Inevitably traditionalists in the Church felt dismay, but many others felt extreme joy, a sense of new possibilities, of hope, of something deep and profound that had been realigned. Women, especially, tell of a new sense of feeling accepted, of feeling affirmed - a sense of worth. The Church could bring - and be good news.

The year before the vote Monica Furlong wrote a book about women and power in the Church. She observed that ‘most of us began the campaign with fairly simple ideas about what it was we were trying to do, and only gradually perceived the enormity of it. Attempting modestly to catch a small fish that is, to get women ordained -we were astounded to discover that we had got Leviathan at the end of the line, that unwittingly we had reached into the very depths of the malaise not merely of the Church but of society itself’(Monica Furlong, A Dangerous Delight, SPCK 1991, p. 11 ). I am very aware, as are many of the contributors to this book, that we are still discovering the true nature of that Leviathan.

Almost exactly a year to the day after the vote on women priests, General Synod passed an Act of Synod that is without historical precedent. The Act allowed for the creation of a new kind of ecclesiastical creature - the flying bishop. These men would be deployed to provide episcopal support and pastoral care for clergy and laity who could not accept such care from their own bishops. They would be a pastoral extension of the diocesan bishop. These special bishops were to be known officially as PEVs, Provincial Episcopal Visitors, visiting with the permission and blessing of the diocesan bishops in both provinces of the Church of England.

Further, PCCs could vote to place their parishes in the care of a PEV under a new resolution, Resolution C. The two Resolutions, A and B, in the Women Priests Measure did not provide enough ‘safeguards’ for some of those opposed to women’s ordination. It was not enough to be able to refuse to have a visiting woman celebrant or a woman incumbent; a new Act was needed to ensure that traditionalist clergy would not have to minister alongside a bishop who was in favour of women priests, and who may have laid hands on a woman to ordain her, thus becoming ‘tainted’ with irregularity.

Very quickly, bad practice flourished in new ways under the Act. A woman priest was offered a post in a parish, only to be telephoned three days later by the bishop and told that she ‘hadn’t got the job because the church warden wouldn’t work with a woman’. The convictions of one opposing church warden were permitted to overturn the decision of the parish as a whole. Would this have happened with no Act of Synod? A retired priest refused to take a service at a nearby church because a woman had celebrated at the altar. Would this have been catered for without the Act of Synod? In one diocese, the bishop gave permission to traditionalist clergy to conduct their own services at the diocesan clergy conference, an event supposedly designed to bring the clergy of the diocese together for thought, prayer and worship. In another diocese, a male priest was approved unanimously by a multi-parish benefice that included a traditionalist parish, only to be asked at the last moment not to take up the post because one of the flying bishops had alerted the parish that the man was not opposed to women priests. There are many other similar tales.

I wrote in my submission to the Review Group set up to see how the Act was working, that, in spite of all these stories, ‘if I were to name what I believe is the greatest harm done by the Act, it would be the creation of a new climate in which it was felt to be permissible to discriminate openly against women and to voice clear prejudice against women. Much of the ministry of the flying bishops is a tacit acknowledgement that the Church of England still colludes with a debased view of women.’

Not only does the Act provide for ‘pure’ hands to minister to those who do not accept the priestly ministry of women, it has also developed into providing untainted hands for those who do not accept the ministry of male bishops who ordain and work with female colleagues. Judith Maltby comments in her chapter in Act o f Synod - Act o f Folly? ‘at no point in our history has the endorsement of comprehensiveness ever resulted in the creation of an extended or alternative episcopal system’ (Monica Furlong, Act o f Synod - Act o f Folly?, SCM Press 1998, p. 51 ). Judith goes on to observe that ‘your bishop can deny the resurrection, the Trinity, and the incarnation; he may be a racist, liar or thief - but no one will offer you a PEV. But if he ordains a woman to the priesthood, you can call in a “safe pair of hands”’ (Act o f Synod -Act of Folly?, p. 56).

The Review Group, chaired by the Bishop of Blackburn, produced its Report in 2000, to be debated in Synod in July. News leaked that the bishops themselves had rejected a first report as being too much of a whitewash. The Report that emerged was still a whitewash: almost all critical references to the Act had been expunged. The hundreds of letters sent in describing discrimination and bad practice had vanished from the final Report. Anyone new to the scene who read the Report would have come away with the distinct impression that the Act was a jolly good thing doing sterling work in keeping the Church together following women’s ordinations. The only really beneficial effect the Report had was to debunk the use of the phrase, the ‘two integrities’. People could hold differing views about women with integrity, but, of course, it was a nonsense to speak of ‘two integrities’. Apart from that helpful clarification, very little else described the true attitude towards the Act. The tone of the Report and its implicit editorial stance suggested a Church that was reluctant to accept women’s priestly ministry.

The Revd Valerie Bonham, speaking in the debate on the Report in General Synod, voiced her concern. ‘Now we are being called into question, not just by those who in conscience cannot accept our ministry but by those very bishops who have encouraged us, affirmed us and ordained us . . . That is incredibly undermining, not only of us as priests in the Church of God but of us as human beings made in the image of God’ (Report of Proceedings 31/2, P. 1 18).

When Dr Helen Thorne wrote up her study of the first women priests in the Church of England, she concluded that the Act of Synod is deeply harmful to women on a practical, emotional and spiritual level. The Act of Synod, and the provision of alternative Episcopal oversight, are offensive to women because they legitimise women’s exclusion and create a form of sexual apartheid by creating areas in the Church where women’s ministry is unacceptable. Emotionally, women are damaged by the constant sense of rejection, unworthiness and the abusive behaviour that the Act can generate. Spiritually, the Act fosters a theology of ‘taint’ whereby a man’s ministry is made void through his association with a woman priest In a binary, dualistic view of sexual difference, the Act legitimises male spirituality, whilst it denies women’s acceptability before God and denigrates their ministry . . . The Church cannot maintain its theological integrity, nor can it be a credible voice in society if it fails to rid itself of this divisive legislation. (Helen Thorne, journey to Priesthood, CCSRG Monograph Series 3, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Bristol, 2000

Nerissa Jones and others make the point that by ordaining women the Church sent the message that it stopped thinking of women as lesser creatures. Ordination is not, and should not be, necessary to determine or affirm the goodness of men or of women, but by ordaining women there was the strong sense that women were being affirmed and accepted as women in a new way.

The dissonance between the theologians and the holy men of their day who contributed valuable thinking to the developing understanding of the Christian faith, but who, at the same time, produced comments about women which revealed a debased attitude towards half the human race. Inability to distinguish between Christian teaching and doctrine and culturally determined views has produced a faith that, so often and in so many places, implies a view of women human beings as lesser than male human beings.

The typical response I get as I travel around England speaking to a wide variety of groups, organizations and institutions is one of outrage: how dare women be treated in such a way! How dare the women and those who believe that women should share in the ordained priesthood put up with it! How dare the Church get away with such demeaning and discriminating behaviour!

After one lecture at a university, during the discussion time, a young woman in the audience kept on asking questions, the type of raw questions that I, and most people who have worked in and around the Church for some time, have ceased to ask. It was refreshing and somewhat shaming to realize how much we now accept, and how appalling and unacceptable it all seems to someone who has not been enculturated into the Church of England.

Even when I speak at theological colleges to people who, one might suppose, should know more about the Church than most, I often encounter an uncomprehending audience once they hear of the Act of Synod, the Financial Provisions in the Women Priests Measure, and even Resolutions A and B.

The next step, ordaining women as bishops will be a sign to the Church and the rest of society, and do not think that society is not watching and waiting for such a sign, that women are valued as much as men are valued. Of course, it will be perhaps another generation or two before women are deployed primarily for their gifts and experience, without a disproportionately heightened awareness of their sex.

We need to think carefully about what we want. Do we want a church that has females doing what males have been doing for centuries, or a church that is willing to become something new as it incorporates a fuller humanity, a more well-rounded perspective and experience?

In time, the concept of a God who we say we believe is neither male nor female, and who we say we believe includes both our femininity and masculinity, will be more genuinely understood and accepted. The strong resistance to, even fear of, inclusive language should moderate over time as people see women presiding at the Eucharist, taking part in Maundy Thursday footwashing services, and in all the other roles traditionally taken only by men.

Ann Nickson experienced a moment of insight as she took the role of Jesus for the long Palm Sunday reading from St Matthew’s Gospel. ‘As a woman, reading those words of Jesus, suddenly I understood for the first time why the thought of a woman at the altar is so problematic for some; at the same time I realized why it was so important, not just for women, but for all human beings, that a woman should stand before God at the altar. That because Christ shared our common humanity as women and men, because his cry of forsakenness sums up the cries of all the God-forsaken men, women and children throughout the world and throughout the ages, that same common humanity as women and men should be presented to God in the Eucharist.’

Women will have to continue to stand against the particular demons that attack the feminine in this culture: low self-esteem, the necessity of being ‘nice’ above all else, of being pliant, always accommodating, self-effacing. Women are already having to get accustomed to being considered unreasonable when they stick up for themselves or for their ideas, of being called overbearing when they take an equally active part in discussions and meetings with their male colleagues, and of being considered hard when they respond to situations and people with a degree of firmness and decisiveness.

Christine Farrington recounts the story of receiving an Easter card this year from her suffragan bishop with a cartoon of five men and one woman seated around a table during a meeting. The chairman is speaking: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’ Christine comments that the fact that her bishop could send her such a card gave her great hope!

One woman priest I know, very senior in her diocese, was having a private, professional conversation with her bishop about two other ordained women in the diocese who were in danger of falling out with each other. During the course of the conversation, the bishop became visibly irritated with having to deal with the particular pastoral issues between the two clergy. He burst out, ‘People wanted women ordained, and this is what we get!’

With so many men it seems to be a head-heart divide. Bishops who ordain women and other male priests who are supposedly in favour of women’s ordinations, do strange things like appoint a ‘Forward in Faith’ Diocesan Director of Ordinands, or ask women not to touch a certain man during an ordination service, for fear of ‘taint’, or collude with a whole list of discourteous, offensive and harmful behaviour. The weaker sex, it seems, is routinely expected by the Church to shoulder much greater burdens of discrimination and bad treatment, while showing a much greater ability to forgive, absorb, build bridges and rise above such treatment. In short, women are expected and are relied upon to exhibit much greater personal, spiritual and psychological strength.

John Saxbee reflects that ‘perhaps we will only be fully a whole and healthy church when a woman priest can go ill, or astray, or slightly dotty without women’s ministry as a whole being thereby diminished - as if male clergy didn’t just occasionally fall victim to these all too human experiences!’

In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Church began to tackle its own racism. The then Bishop of Stepney, John Sentamu, now Bishop of Birmingham, was an advisor for the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, and he presented a report to the General Synod. The Church admitted that it was institutionally rascist, and put into action a programme of racism awareness training, starting with the Archbishops’ Council. Some of the questions asked in regard to the Church and racism are also relevant when asked about women.

Is the Church a place of haven for women? Is the Church modelling best practice in treating women with respect and honour? Is it including women at every level of its life? I believe that the Church will have to undergo a similar programme of gender awareness training if we are to combat effectively the insidious and pernicious presence of sexism still active in our Church.

Eradicating sexism will bring a new experience of wholeness to both women and men. Rosalind Brown makes the point that by having women priests there is already a new dimension for the people of God. ‘We can forget that the ordination of women gives a reciprocal gift to men: the gift that was previously exclusive to women of receiving priestly ministry from people of the other gender.’

In contrast to the walls imagined by Peter Geldard, precious walls destroyed by ordaining women, Philippa Boardman reminds us of the radical inclusivity in the book of Acts, an inclusivity that transcended walls of division. The ordination of women has already broken down some walls that divided people, and women’s priestly ministry has begun to draw in many who had previously felt themselves excluded by the Church.

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