“I gave a talk recently in Winchester about women and Christianity. It was for a general audience and so I’d used as the title of the talk not a Bible verse or a line from a saint. It wasn’t even themed on Mary Magdalene or a feminist theologian. My text came from the Hollywood star Mae West, who memorably said “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”.
It is a secular expression of a spiritual truth I think; that human beings move between innocence and culpability, perpetrator and victim as easily and delicately as a flake of snow.
I don’t intend to rehearse the history you all know, but for women, particularly women in religion, the movement has historically been one way and permanent. In this church, consecrated in 1684, as in churches throughout this city, women have lived and died listening every Sunday to preachers tell them they are responsible as Eve’s inheritors, of all the sin in the world.
In the UK in our own day however, I don’t think this is the primary problem for Christian women. From a position of historic exclusion, things have moved quite rapidly for women in a large range of areas of public life; politically, socially, and even in religion. In the UK now, the only areas of public life from which women are excluded are those protected by organised religion and, my main point this evening, women in the church are often stuck between the myths that are told about us, even those we sometimes tell about ourselves. Historically the place of women in Christianity has been polarised by the two Marys; virgin or whore. And in the debates about women and ordination, a similar, less sexualised but no less powerful polarisation happens; we are either heroines or witches, either cast as potential saviours of the Church of England or a symptom of all that is wrong with it. Complex myths, stories and assumptions are at work here and the debate as it is currently couched has often got stuck.
And like many of you, I have given many talks on this subject over the years; we have made our case, we have developed our own liturgies, we have done our own Bible interpretation, we have legislated, discussed “concessions”, we have drafted letters, crafted motions for synods at every level. Some of you will have been involved from the MOW days and will have been sending letters, now emails to your elected representatives both church and state for over 30 years.
But we meet now, twenty six years after women were ordained deacon, and six months after the General Synod rejected the legislation to consecrate women . And I want to say, before anything else, what I have heard many of you say: that we are tired. We are tired of the row, tired of the endless meetings, committees, synods, tired of hearing the same words not only coming from the mouths of those opposed to women’s ordination but from our own mouths. We are tired of seeing the disappointment in the faces of those opposed to our ordination, when they wish with all their hearts that we were not here and that that the church could be as it was.
There is, it seems to me, what we might call a stuckness of spirit – that the new Archbishop of Canterbury is attempting to unstick by using professional mediators, trained to ask different questions, trained to get us to name what it is in our guts that gives us hope but what also grieves us.
After the vote last November, I and I heard this from many others, was surprised by the strength of my feelings. I was told of the result on my mobile phone in this courtyard in the rain, moments before the beginning of a large service at which I was preaching. Sadness, some feelings of humiliation, and, dressed as I was in my cassock and surplice ready to process into church, stuck in a bewildered loyalty to an institutional church that had detonated its credibility. I like many of you ordained and lay, heard this news, cried briefly, and walked back into church again. And over the past months, some very difficult things have been said that have their roots in very difficult feelings and reactions.
I was challenged by a woman who has been part of MOW for years; after years of campaigning, she wanted to challenge us because the church had not been transformed as she’d hoped. Had all that work been worth it, she wondered aloud?
I was challenged by a priest in a Deanery Synod debate because he genuinely believes that if legal separation is not afforded him to ensure sacramental security, then promises made to him at his ordination will have been broken and while he couldn’t bring himself to blame me personally publicly, the blame was undoubtedly there fuelling his distress.
It seems hard to find the taboo breaking, transgressive, poetic soul of Jesus of Nazareth in the points of order, the agendas and debates.
The Christian Church has for centuries had a problem with ungoverned female energy (Marina Warner Six Myths for our time p7). It is a feature of all world faiths that part of the apparatus of religion pertains specifically to women and their treatment and behaviour. As an agent of social control, Christianity in the West has been effective in developing sets of behavioural rules to control women’s energy and sexuality.
Because of this, Christian women have had a mountain to climb. From our invisibility in the Scriptures to the clear teaching of their responsibility for sin, there have been limited options for women to find ways to express their faith in Jesus Christ and their passion for making the world a better place. In reality of course, in contradiction to St Paul, women have always taught men: mothers have taught their sons the Lord’s Prayer, and have within the home, often been the prime arbiter of right and wrong when guiding their children. Women have therefore exercised power in a hidden and unacknowledged way. It is the role of women in public religion that has caused these reflections. Professor Sarah Coakley has commented that the ordination of women and therefore the presence of women at the altar celebrating the sacraments has caused a cosmological disturbance. (Transformations Conference Lambeth Palace 2012). Something new is unfolding and our theological task is to continue to reflect on what that newness is, and what it teaches all of us, lay and ordained, about God and the world.
For our theological reflections to have roots in spiritual reality, then it has to start not with us, but with God.
First, in a recognition that for every person, male, female, lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, black brown white our identity is not primarily located in our relationships with each other – which are secondary, but in God’s relationship with us.
Another reflection that follows from this, particularly with reference to our gender is that our identity is embodied. As the former Archbishop noted in his Theos lecture of 2012, we notice that our bodies are different from one another, that they wear out, and that we are going to die.
As a result of our noticing our gendered bodies, we are called to accept difference, to expect change and expect death.
Does this give us a way into a theology of gender that recognises difference, expects change over time and accepts death, and that knows ourselves to be ourselves only in relation to others when we know ourselves to be ourselves first in relation to God?
After vote last November, I discerned a collective desire to have a “duvet day”. The impulse after an event like that is to put our head down, hunker down, don’t engage; go and do something that I can see what it’s for.
This means too that we move from bafflement – I don’t understand men/women – through tolerance – I accept that you’re different and we’ll agree to disagree – through to respect – still implying distance but with more emotional commitment – through to attentiveness.
I as a woman see this man, different from me, exercising usually more power than me, as first of all someone in relationship with God, before he is in relationship with me. As Rowan has commented elsewhere, the meaning of the incarnation can be described as the revelation that another person is someone from whom God cannot bear to be parted. Primarily that.
Discussions about gender in the church induce weariness because the discussions are so narrow, and are freighted with our fear about who we are, who the other is, and how far we are expected to go to accommodate their difference. They are also freighted with a history of exclusion, sometimes prejudice dressed up as theology, and a frustration with the church structures that persistently seem to be creaking and grudging in their celebration and acceptance of women in authority. Some of the tiredness is because we are in deep waters here, and the murky mixed motives that are always present when power is part of the equation, can confuse and misdirect our energies.
But theologically, alongside social change, I want to suggest that the need for our half-changed world to change further is urgent. Men and women have their vital and different roles to play in imagining this change. Because the prize is very great. Today, the traditional Christian categories of virgin and whore do not have to confine or define modern female scientists, philosophers, mothers, theologians, plumbers, company directors and this is a cause for rejoicing for proponents and opponents of women’s ordination alike.
One of the main points of contention it seems to me is whether the principle of justice is applicable in this debate. Supporters of women’s ordination say yes: and it’s true to say that for most people who live their lives without reference to organised religion (the majority of people in the UK) this is also the case. An innate sense of “fairness” leads most people to say “well if they want to, why shouldn’t they be able to. After all, we’ve had a woman Prime Minister and the Head of the Church of England is a woman”.
Opponents will address this issue of justice with the adage “equal but different”. That it is not about whether women are equal to men or made in the image of God: of course they are: but this has no bearing on whether or not we should be ordained or consecrated bishop.
This is a fundamental mis-communication and is why, when those supporting women’s ordination make analogies across other campaigns, such as the anti apartheid movement, or the civil rights movement, such fury is provoked from opponents who do not want to be cast as allies of those who opposed heros such as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King.
I understand this reticence on behalf of those who do not believe women should be ordained: and I’m very wary of the potential for self righteousness among those of us making our kind of argument. I’m also wary of the dangers of self understanding as a persecuted minority that is just under the surface for any of us (most recently articulated by George Carey whose observations I think were insulting to Christians who really are persecuted in countries like Nigeria and Iran.)
But I want to say unequivocally that justice is a theological issue. Fairness, the value much loved of politicians, is, to be frank, not so much, but justice is. This doesn’t mean “sameness” or “wanting to be included” or even, to borrow a phrase from the Northern Ireland peace process “power sharing”, although all of these motivations make an appearance of course.
Women bishops are the presenting issue at the moment but it is about much more than this; it is about the liturgical proclamation of a new future in the celebration of the eucharist. The just relationships rehearsed at the eucharist are nothing less than the foretaste of the heavenly banquet; the inauguration of the mysterious “basilea” , the kingdom, or new realm of God. This is highways and byways theology where all are welcome and each member of the body is able to fulfil their God given role in that body. The argument I’m making is that because of the incarnation, unless we believe in imitation rather than discipleship, there is theologically no category of humanity, based on ontology, that should be restricted in the way that women are currently in the Christian church.
So without intending any insult to those who oppose our presence in the church, I have no shame in drawing inspiration from Rosa Parks, who when she refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man in Alabama in 1955, said “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in”.
And I pray too that the rather bewildered loyalty we have talked about tonight turns into something more healthy, and that our collective desire to hunker down and leave it all to someone else is not the last word.
The call of the new future is, in the end, an expression of deep and living hope, which is described by the American theologian Walter Wink in the most wonderful way and with which I end this address. This is why we must organise, and show up to meetings in the evening after a long day. This is why we have to encourage one another because the church, as we saw from the public reaction after the vote last year, is a signifier, a lightning conductor still in a secularised society, for the deep hopes implanted in humanity for a better and more just world.
Hope imagines the future and then acts as if that future is irresistible.
May it be so.”
WATCH (Women and the Church) is campaigning to see women take their place alongside men as bishops and at every level in the Church of England. This requires the removal of current legal obstacles to the consecration of women as bishops. WATCH believes that the full equality of women and men is part of God’s will for the Church and for the world, and reflects the inclusive heart of the Christian scripture and tradition. This speech was taken from it's website.