Break this stained-glass ceiling

 — July 6, 20026 juil. 2002

Last weekend, taking a brief respite between bouts of ‘Bread of Heaven’ and the national anthem in our exhaustive school end-of-term ceremonies, I dived into a paper and turned on the radio. Bad mistake. I was assaulted from two directions.

First, in a seemingly authoritative survey, a quarter of Church of England clergy and nearly one in five of the laity say that even now, eight years after the first women priests were ordained, there ‘should not be any women bishops, anywhere’. So the old horror of an oestrogenated ministry still lurks strongly within that Church, despite the shake-out when herds of outraged clergy and miffed laity defected to Rome over the issue (their worries about transubstantiation and papal infallibility strangely vanishing overnight in their greater worry about women in cassocks).

I was just trying to take this in, when on the radio news they casually mentioned that seven Catholic women, including hot-shot theologians, had been illicitly ordained Catholic priests aboard some boat on the Danube. ‘It is a protest against doctrine and church law which discriminates against women’, they say, and Archbishop Braschi, described by the newsreader as belonging to a sect ‘not recognised by the Vatican’, says the appointed time has come. No! It is a ‘simulated ordination’, thunder the Austrian bishops. I turn back, in hope of respite, to the Anglican story. But oh, dear me, here is a C of E spokesman trying to cool the issue by saying that women bishops are not an immediate concern because ‘the Church is still discussing the theology of women in the episcopate’.

Still, after eight years! I blink. I shake my head. No, it’s all still true. After a minute or two I begin to wonder, with a treacherous flip of the heart, whether perhaps I have been wasting my time all these years being an unfashionably Christian journalist, bleating a defence of the various Churches. Maybe, in the face of such malicious irrationality, I should give up defending the central, glorious irrationality of faith altogether. Perhaps things would be more peaceful and rational and gentle and humane over in that corner with the unbelievers.

I just don’t get this clerical worry about women — I never have. I have tried very, very hard. I went to the General Synod in 1992 and listened to every word of the long debate from the gallery, notebook in hand. I furrowed my brow during a discussion of the proper meaning of ‘a head’ in the biblical passage about the husband being the head of his wife and Christ the head of the Church. I giggled with relief when one speaker stood up and asked all the men present when, precisely, they had last personally managed to exercise this ‘headship’? I heard a rallying cry from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, who was impressive in this role; I looked with fascination on the group of women who argued passionately against their sisters being ordained; and watched with sympathy those bishops who were so disturbed by the notion of women priests — yet so troubled by the arguments — that they abstained from the vote and stayed praying instead.

And I really, really tried to see the argument against women priests. I never have. I see why they didn’t exist before: the priesthood grew up during eras when women were subservient, often little more than chattels and livestock, and European Christianity happened to firm up during a period when a culture of physical revulsion at the biological power of women had an unhealthy hold. I studied that Middle English anti-sex manifesto ‘Hali Meidenhad’ at university, and read of theologians who dismissed woman as <i>saccus stertoris</i>, a bag of filth. Indeed I have since heard eerie echoes of those texts, for more than one respected cleric — after a drink or two, and mistaking me for a sympathiser — has said things like, ‘How could one take communion from a woman who might be menstruating’? Leviticus has a lot to answer for.

But I still don’t get it. I know what I think a priest is; and, in a world where women take their place according to their abilities, I do not see that a woman cannot be one. Degrees of sanctity and quality of behaviour hardly enter into it: Mother Julian of Norwich, or several good nuns of my acquaintance, frankly knock spots off your average middling parish priest when it comes to blazing, transparent personal holiness.

Public respect might once have come into the equation: if women were indeed regarded as chattels, dominated by men as a matter of course, I suppose that their ability to speak with authority and stand in Christ’s place at the altar might have been compromised. But we’re not there any more, are we? Priests stand at the crossroads of eternity and their current temporal society, so they ought to represent both. Oughtn’t they? Where is the theological basis for saying that women can’t be priests even if they’re prime ministers and doctors and police chiefs and theologians and sea-captains and psychiatrists’?

Oh, all right. Leave that. Let us move on to the Anglican worry, about having lots of women priests but needing to ‘discuss the theology of women in the episcopate’.

Go on, then, discuss it. I dare you. If your Church has accepted that women can be ordained, then why can’t they also ordain’ If they can baptise and marry and give Communion and preach and stand at the altar, why is it theologically necessary to place a stained-glass ceiling over their heads? If I were a woman with a vocation, I would be tempted to walk away in silence rather than let this go on any longer.

I suspect that hundreds have done precisely that. For the longer a Church denies the society it lives in — not the sins of that society, but its strengths — the weaker that Church grows.

Posted: July 6, 2002 • Permanent link:
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Transmis : 6 juil. 2002 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Tablet

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