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Closed Churches and Kitchen Tables – a contribution to the conversation…

My childhood church was built by a team of Presbyterian elders which included one of my great great grandfathers. Some of my earliest memories of faith are in that place: the smell of the aged wooden pews, the vibrations of the huge pipe organ, the stained glass depicting the four evangelists, the whispery touch of my very own hymn book, the rumbling sound of two hundred voices intoning the Lord’s Prayer which to my childlike thinking sounded like God was joining in…

I have continued to have a deep connection with church buildings throughout my life. They have been places of profound solace and encounter especially when I needed that most. Almost every significant event in my life has been marked through a visit to my place of worship. In my years as a priest, nowhere has felt as much like home as the Holy Table where I preach and preside in season and out of season week after week after week. In my five years as incumbent to my parish, I have been astounded again and again at the power of my church building to speak to its community – churchgoers or not – of the God with them, God for them, God in the midst of them. To be asked to refrain from entering my Church, to no longer offer prayers in that sanctuary, to be obliged not to live stream even solitary worship from that familiar altar has been painful indeed.

I labour this point because I think that in the recent controversy about the closure of our church buildings, there can be an assumption that those of us who aren’t howling in protest simply care less about worship or value less the buildings in which worship is offered. I think any such assumption would be over simplistic. I think that there are other factors at play, and I want to offer a few observations from a feminist perspective on the debate thus far.

Protest

The first is to make an observation about who is doing the protesting. The vast majority of “noise” which I have experienced has come from men. And predominantly white, able-bodied, (relatively) powerful men. With every generalisation there will be the exceptions, but I find this trend interesting and it has caused me to ponder why. I wonder to what extent that the experience of feeling marginal is much more difficult to those who have not been marginalised before? Women, people of colour and those ministering with disabilities are much more used to being on the edges of both society and the church and having to find creative and flexible ways to exercise the ministry to which God calls them. They are familiar with the grief and pain of such experiences, but also the gift. So when asked to walk away from the beloved buildings we treasure, despite believing fully in all those sacred spaces are and offer, we are not quite so blindsided as our colleagues?

Private

Perhaps, too, there is something about knowing the value of the “other” spaces. You don’t have to be much of a feminist to spot the public-private/domestic polarisation that emerges in the discourse. Public space is good; private/domestic space is bad. For some reason the offering of communion at a kitchen table is both something to rail at and to mock. The most elementary student of feminist theory will also be aware that the public sphere has historically been masculine space and the private/domestic sphere, feminine, and of course, whatever is associated with the feminine is regarded as being of lower value and status. So my suggestion to those who find the movement of worship into the domestic sphere so gut-wrenchingly offensive is to notice how your gendered biases are informing your reaction. For both women and men, they will influence you more deeply than you think.

Domestic space is not profane. The Gospels are full of Jesus spending time with people in their homes – there are more accounts of the incarnate God in private homes than there are in temples and synagogues. What is clear from the scriptures, and known well by those whose agency and ministry is not always supported in public spaces, is that God is present and active in upper rooms, around dining tables and in living rooms – today as much as once upon a time in Palestine. We despise the activity of God at kitchen tables at our peril.

I would debate how truly it is private either. In sharing services online from my home, the worship I lead is more accessible to many in my community. Hundreds of people have been invited into my living room, study and garden. Hospitality is a huge theme in Christian theology, and the quality of the host-guest relationship is enhanced when the experience is not mediated through a formal, public building. I remember seeing a tweet on Easter Sunday evening from a young man who had found the intimacy of being invited into the Archbishop’s kitchen to share worship – even virtually- a turning point in his journey of faith. The Church does not lack visibility at this time of crisis. It continues to offer prayer and worship publicly up and down the land. It is simply being offered differently.

Feelings and Fear

One of the repeated criticisms of the current restrictions on worship is that the Church will be seen to be afraid. Again, I find this an interesting and gendered perspective. Firstly, if you do not have some healthy fear of a virus which has so far bereaved in the region of 30,000 families in the last six weeks, I wonder if you have been paying attention. Also as a woman, I have not spent decades of my life being made to feel shame at showing fear. Being seen to be weak or vulnerable is not the worst thing that can happen to me. I do not have such a visceral dread of being seen to be afraid.

Fear is quite a healthy and reasonable emotion in certain circumstances. A global pandemic might well be a good example. I am surrounded by people who are afraid. As an ex-medic, I have huge numbers of friends who work in the NHS – these “heroes” have been horribly afraid. My friends who live with significant health problems are very afraid. My teacher colleagues from my church school looking after children without social distancing or PPE are afraid. My neighbours without secure incomes are afraid. If we are the Church for the nation, isn’t it appropriate that we can acknowledge and share in those fears? I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t understand the reasonable fears of this time in our shared lives. Is the Church demonstrating that it understands those fears and takes seriously the need to stay at home – and in doing so, modelling for those without any choice, that their home can be a place of sacred encounter – such a shameful thing to do?

Of course, God tells us repeatedly not to fear but to trust. However, this is not the sort of trust that goes driving without a seatbelt or jumps out an aeroplane without a parachute. It is the trust that in all things, we will encounter a God who loves us and who can work God’s good purposes amongst us. It is the trust that a frightened wheat-thresher might with God’s help become a warrior, that an unwed pregnant teenager might birth the world’s salvation, that a church pushed to the margins by a crisis might find new life and new hope in the experience.

[Of course, those foremost in refusing to acknowledge any fear in our current situation are our political leaders. Vulnerability is simply not an option, and it is this emotionally stunted perspective that pushes a man, two weeks out of ICU, to put on his suit and clap on his doorstep and through ragged breaths to make speeches to the nation. Those who accuse the Bishops of being government “prefects” for supporting the stay at home advice ironically are the ones supporting this deeply unhelpful “heroism” by insisting the Church must not show fear. But I digress…]

Privilege

As I mentioned, I am an ex-medic and still have many links to the healthcare professions. Most of the people I love most in the world are serving in clinics and hospitals around the country. They have few choices about the geographical spaces in which they offer their ministry. They have had to have difficult conversations with family members about how they will manage the risk of passing on infection to their loved ones and what they will do if they become unwell. At this point, I run out of words as I attempt to describe what this feels like.

Against this backdrop, to hear people argue that clergy should be allowed to worship in churches “because they are keyworkers” sounds extremely hollow. I am a keyworker. I have taken quite a few funerals in recent weeks and helped keep a Foodbank open ensuring the hungry of my community are fed. These are things that cannot be done from my living room and so it is vital I have keyworker status. But worship absolutely can. And to use my keyworker status to do publicly something which need not be done in geographical public space – so undermining that already shaky “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” message – feels like an abuse of the privilege. We have a lot of privilege as clergy already. It is a privilege to be able to offer the majority of our ministry from safe spaces. It is a privilege to have influence in our communities. Please use your privilege well.

Finally, this whole blog is really an invitation to – as the saying goes – check your privilege. There will probably be much I have written with which you disagree. That is fine. My ethos is not to be right or to have the last word, but rather offer reflections into a shared conversation. And I think the quality of the conversation would improve if we all examined our privilege, reflected on our unconscious prejudices and made space for the perspective of those whose experience has historically been crowded out.

Lounge Suits…

The staff of Lambeth Palace put great effort into doing many, many important and good things. I know this because I know people who either work, or have worked, there, and so I appreciate they operate under huge pressure, often in the public eye. And of course, the things they get right go largely unnoticed, while the things they get even slightly wrong get trumpeted across social media at the very least. So I feel a little churlish blogging about this, and can only hope my colleagues will forgive me. However, this incident is a helpful example of a bigger issue which we need to examine as a Church.

So, lounge suits. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the first women ordained priest in 1994 have been invited to Garden Parties at Lambeth Palace to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this important milestone for the Church of England. It is a lovely thing to do. Beautiful invitations were posted. Dress code: lounge suits.

It is more than a little ironic that, for an event celebrating the anniversary of a huge step forward for gender equality, women are advised on what to wear in terms of male dress. At least, we assume that is the case – if you Google “lounge suit women” the results are a series of women wearing pyjamas! I don’t think that was the intention…

Of course, it is just following etiquette. For the uninitiated, the gradations of attire go:

  • White tie with decorations (e.g. wear your medals)
  • White tie (also known as “full evening dress”, “tails” or “dress suit” – there are complicated rules about waistcoats)
  • Black tie (also known as “evening dress”)
  • Morning dress (also known as “formal day dress” or “what you would wear as a guest to a wedding”)
  • Lounge Suits (sort of formal but not as formal as the above)
  • Smart Casual (relaxed but don’t come as a scruff)

There are also Highland Dress (where a woman wears a skirt long enough to remain decent while dancing a reel) and Country Clothing (think Penelope Keith in “To the Manor Born”)

Thanks Debretts.com.

You see, until this week, I was the uninitiated. I had never heard the dress code “lounge suits” before. With a mildly cultured Scottish accent, a university education and all the experience that goes with a medical training and almost a decade of parish ministry, I can blag it in most of the social situations life throws at me. But my maternal grandfather was a painter and decorator and my paternal grandfather was a store man. I don’t come from the upper class, public school Oxbridge milieu where “how to put on a complicated formal waistcoat and when to wear one” is part of the education alongside English Literature and Organic Chemistry…

Lounge suits therefore isn’t just exclusionary in terms of gender – it excludes in terms of class.

Bless them, Lambeth couldn’t do right for doing wrong. If they hadn’t said “lounge suits” and said something more sensible like “clericals optional, suggest smart dress and jacket or similar”, undoubtedly someone somewhere would be chuntering about the dumbing down of the Church of England. There would be complaints that to use intelligible English in place of elitist jargon is an insult to both the guest and the institution. As if dignity and beauty are offended by making space for the gift of the other.

I am reminded of a Susan Howatch novel, Glamorous Powers, where the imperious Father Darcy, Abbot General of the fictional Fordite Order, selects between two protégées who are candidates to be his successor. He decided on the one who has breeding. The other, the hero of the tale, is the son of a parlourmaid, and would serve cheap port and young claret to distinguished guests and that would not do at all. To lead this Anglican institution, one had to know How Things Were Done!

However, there is a kinder interpretation of any resistance to change. With the jargon comes rules and clear expectations. (Well, almost – as Debretts devote a webpage to describing each gradation, it becomes clear that things may not always be quite so clear-cut, and judgement and experience will come into play. Notably, the expectations for women are much less defined than for the men.) The caring argument for retaining the jargon goes that my lately-of-the-middle-class self will not experience the ignominy of turning up to an event in the wrong sort of frock. However, such thinking assumes that wearing the right sort of frock matters and that I will feel crushed if I get it wrong.

(Can I gently reassure any so concerned that if I am going anywhere where I am unsure of what the expectations around dress might be, I am perfectly capable of asking. And if I am wearing something where I feel like the bee’s knees and where I have made an effort to honour my host, is it really good breeding to disdain my efforts? Lastly, getting many things wrong would crush me. Wearing the wrong frock is not one of them.)

At times, in the Church of England, whilst proclaiming the Gospel of Christ who taught that the first shall be last and the last first, whilst making all the right noises about diversity of life experience, there seems to be an entrenched belief that inclusion is about helping others to be “as good as the old boys” rather than recognising other sorts of good. There is a benign paternalism that is willing to introduce others to the game. They just don’t realise that all this tells women and those from the working class and people from other cultures and backgrounds is “This is not your game.”

Creating a round table in the Church of England is going to be about more than inviting a few women, people from estates and people of colour to join in the game. It might be about reviewing the game itself. For a game in which the “right” thing to do is to tell a group of brave, faithful, tenacious, pioneering women that they should wear “lounge suits” is very wrong indeed.

Of course, I do understand that inviting others to share the rules is more comfortable than abandoning them. For if we do not retain these etiquettes, well nobody will be quite sure what is the right thing to do. Maybe those who have been raised from the cradle to know when to wear country wear and when to wear medals will be left asking the same questions that face the rest of us e.g. What exactly should I wear to an Archbishop’s Garden Party? Without the rules, it may be a bit more chaotic, a bit more mutual, a bit more creative and we may discover that wearing the “right” thing is a bit less important than we imagine. What matters in the end is that we are clothed in Christ. Which brings me nicely to my final point…

Christianity is a faith in which death precedes transformation and life beyond our imagining. In that spirit, can I suggest that those vestiges of elitist culture which can inhabit particularly the higher echelons of our Church are allowed to die that the Church might truly live. But I am no iconoclast. I also suggest that we can do this in the sure and certain hope that this death will lead to the resurrection of all that is good in this tradition as it makes space for the experience of others. There is nothing to be lost but isolation. There is a better game to be played on the other side.

And people can wear their lounge suits if they want.

Less sympathy please…

Okay, so this post is not about faith, feminism or the church – directly, anyway – but another topic very close to my heart…

Recently, in a brave and vulnerable post on Facebook, a dear friend posted about her recent bout of anxiety. Posts like this are much needed to bring a bit of reality into our idealized online relationships and to end stigma around mental health issues. It is something I have thought about doing myself, but something always stops me. Reading the responses to my friend’s post, I realized what it is.

It’s the pity.

Mixed in with praise for my friend’s honesty were offers of help and expressions of sympathy. Poor you.

Bollocks. I don’t want your sympathy. I want your respect and understanding.

I have had mental health problems on and off since childhood. In my teens, I genuinely thought that I was going mad as I experienced intrusive thoughts and catastrophic ideas. But mental health wasn’t talked about as much in the early 90s so I didn’t tell anyone and struggled on. It was years later, sitting in a psychiatry lecture at university that I discovered that I had been suffering from a variant of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Over the years, I have learned to befriend my dysfunctional psyche. Now my OCD symptoms are a kind of barometer of wellbeing – if they become more than background noise, I know I need to rest and practice better self care. I have had several bouts of talking therapies which have been phenomenally empowering and freeing. Ten years ago, when a combination of life events and natural susceptibility meant I developed moderate depression, I went on an SSRI antidepressant for a few years. It was brilliant and – a little like a plaster cast supports a mending bone – gave my brain a bit of help as it recovered its more usual serotonin levels.

To me, living my life with anxiety is no more of an issue than living with my allergies. It is just part of what makes me me. In fact, I have come to see my anxiety as simply the flip side of my emotional sensitivity and empathy, which if you will forgive a little honest bragging, is something of a superpower. My experiences of mental health problems made me a good psychiatrist. They continue to make me a good priest.

So I really don’t need your pity. Just as Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels, I do everything you do but while battling panic attacks – I deserve your respect!

Last summer, I noticed my symptoms worsening again. I tried all my usual fixes but nothing worked for long. My fab husband kept asking “what are you anxious about?” But the answer was nothing. That’s not how anxiety works. I loved my family and my work. Life was good. But anxiety was flaring up and sucking the joy out of life. Everything was the most incredible effort. Answering an email took the effort it would take to run a mile. I was getting behind with work. My usual grip on life was slipping…

So I went to the GP. She gave me a similar antidepressant to the one I had found so helpful a decade ago, and I have got better. No pity required.

Of course, not everyone has such a good response to treatment. In my time as a psychiatrist, I had the privilege of working with some wonderful patients whose lives were seriously hampered by significant ill health. But they didn’t want your pity either. They just wanted good care, decent treatment and to be enabled to live as well as they could with the illness they were experiencing.

So next time someone shares their experience of mental ill health, please don’t respond with pity. Don’t assume they need your help. Respond with respect, appropriate curiosity and gratefulness for what you have learned from them. And always ALWAYS support our mental health services with your voice and your vote – they are woefully under resourced and do incredible work.

Mental health stigma doesn’t just end with talking about it. It ends when we stop seeing those who experience mental illness as victims or less able or in need of our rescue. So stop it. Now.

Thank you.

Rejecting Us and Them

This was my sermon for Lent 2 – just two days after the heartbreaking mosque attacks on Christchurch, NZ. The readings were Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 where God renews his covenant with Abram and Luke 13:31-end where Jesus grieves over Jerusalem.

Our symbols in our Lent bags this week are tears.  They are sadly appropriate in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, where 49[1] innocent men, women and children were gunned down while simply meeting for prayer.  How often, like Jesus, we want to cry out over the state of the world – our love for it and our despair that it ignores all that makes for peace.

Jesus’ words are particularly raw and passionate in our gospel today.  He knows he is heading to the cross.  Time is running out.  And as he looks towards beautiful and broken Jerusalem, he knows it doesn’t need to be this way.  God never meant it to be this way.  You can almost hear the anguish in Jesus’ voice as he grieves over the state of the city.  How must God be grieving over Christchurch, and all other places of needless violence and pain, today?  It doesn’t need to be this way.  God never meant it to be this way…

In our Old Testament reading, we have a different sort of honest outburst.  Abram, who we later know better as Abraham, has been faithfully following God’s call to travel to the land God has promised to him.  When God appears to him again, he pours out his deepest worry: O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son?  Three chapters earlier, when God sent Abram on his quest, God promised that he would become a great nation and all the families of earth would be blessed through him.  Yet, Abram cannot see how that could ever be possible.  Can you imagine what he is thinking: I am doing everything you ask God, I am doing my best, but really nothing has changed.  Again, I wonder if you can identify with Abram: God, I am trying to be good, to love my neighbour, to make the world a fairer, kinder place, and it just seems to be getting worse.  Help God! We are praying your Kingdom come, but some days it really doesn’t look very much like your Kingdom of justice, mercy and peace around here.  We are trying to stay faithful, but we just don’t see how what you promised can be possible!

Abram waits thirteen years until God fulfils God’s promise to grant him and Sarah a son, Isaac.  When the angels tell Abraham and Sarah that she will soon give birth, Sarah is incredulous, but the angels reply “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”

Of course, nothing is too difficult for the Lord, but that does not mean things will be easy.  At this time in the Church year, we remember that it is not too difficult for God to save the world from sin and death, but it costs God dearly.  The cost is nothing less than everything – God gave Godself to us in Jesus and died for us on the cross.

Now we are called as God’s children to continue God’s work of love, redemption and peace-building in the world.  And as God is with us, it is possible, but it will not be easy.  We too must walk the way of the Cross.  We must be prepared to give up ourselves that others may experience life.

And we live in difficult times.  There are chilling echoes today of the events of early last century.  People are divided, the bullies shout loudest and politicians are leading by fear not hope.  In times like this, you have to be vigilant.

There is a famous anonymous quote about the Holocaust in which six million Jews were systematically exterminated by the Nazi regime.  It says:

Remember, it didn’t start with gas chambers. It started with politicians who divided the people “us vs. them”. It started with intolerance and hate speech. When people stopped caring, became desensitized, and turned a blind-eye, it became a slippery slope to genocide.

Us versus Them.  As Christians, we seek to obey the great commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour, when our neighbour is even our historic enemy.  We follow Jesus who called his disciples to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  There cannot be any Us versus Them for children of God, for we know that every human being is made in the divine image of God.  To be a Christian means refusing to allow anyone to make you think that another human being is not one of us, but one of them.  All humanity is our neighbour.  Every person a person for whom Jesus Christ shed his blood.  They are precious to God and to us.

So, this Lent, make it a discipline to resist the messages that tell us that sisters and brothers of a different political persuasion or religion or ethnic background are Them, something other and usually something less deserving.  What does this mean?  As a worked example, can I ask you to stand against people who speak against immigrants?

Firstly, because it is a meaningless term.  Who are immigrants?  Are they people like me – a Scot?  I kid you not, someone accused me of coming down here and taking local jobs when I started four years ago. He wasn’t joking. Or what about my husband who is a second-generation Irish immigrant?  If he isn’t an immigrant, why is a second-generation Pakistani an immigrant?  Immigrants can be the highly skilled doctor who saves your friend’s life (I worked alongside many of them in my time in the NHS) or the amazing academic who teaches and conducts groundbreaking research at a local university (like my Italian friend, who has been in the UK for over 20 years, has an English wife and two children).  Is an immigrant some of the amazing women I have met through Carriers of Hope, who have come to the UK because life is too dangerous for them in their own country and cannot work because of asylum rules.  However, they now help run a charity for other people in the same predicament?  Are immigrants the Gurkhas who fought for the British army?  Are immigrants some of the Polish mums who come to our Stay and Play group with their fabulous kids and who, with their partners, work so hard and contribute to society?  Are immigrants the care worker who tenderly looks after the elderly person from our family or congregation who needs extra help?

When we break it down like that, people sometimes say “Oh, but we don’t mean THOSE immigrants!”  But all these people – all of us – are immigrants and are affected by the anti-immigrant language which is so commonplace in Britain today.  The vast, vast majority of immigrants are a gift to our country and society (and even the ones who aren’t still deserve our respect) yet they have become the scapegoat for all our problems – the people that some politicians and some sections of the media point to whenever life is tough and they want to distract us from their part in it.  The problems aren’t us – let’s blame them.

Please, please don’t fall for it.  And even more so, don’t stand for it.  If you hear someone badmouthing immigrants, call them out.  Challenge their thinking.  What sort of immigrant are they talking about?  Have they actually met someone like the person they are complaining about or are they just talking about something they read in the news?  Speaking of which, if your newspaper or usual television programme runs articles saying that immigrants are the cause of all our problems, stop buying the newspaper or change your viewing habits.  Now I know that for some of you that will mean breaking ingrained habits, but if Jesus can die on a cross for us, we can change our reading material or switch the channel.  And better still, write and tell your newspaper or TV channel why you have stopped buying or watching it!  Don’t continue to fill your head with Us and Them thinking.

And then there are positive things we can do to end the Us and Them divide.  Be curious.  Be connected. Be creative.  Make a friend who is different to you.  Find out about their culture, politics or religion.  Share yours. Celebrate the things you offer to one another.

There is no Us and Them – only human beings for whom Jesus died.  Human beings made in the image of God, intended to be God’s gift to one another.  Don’t let anyone deprive you of that gift.  Challenging the divisive stories in society today – whether it is in the national media or down the pub or on around a dinner table – will not be easy.  But we have the example of Jesus who shows us that a painful journey can ultimately bring transformation, hope and new life.  And we have Jesus with us, through the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, loving, helping and guiding us.

Remember, it didn’t start with gas chambers. It started with politicians who divided the people “us vs. them”. It started with intolerance and hate speech. When people stopped caring, became desensitized, and turned a blind-eye, it became a slippery slope to genocide.

Keep caring. Don’t turn a blind eye. Love your neighbour even if it hurts.  Tragedies like Christchurch are not inevitable – we can all play a part in making them less likely to happen. Nothing is too difficult for God – or for God’s children with God’s help.  It  may not be easy, but we have Jesus with us, so give it your best and bravest attempt…


[1] At the time of writing.

Reviews, Silence and A Deeper Magic…

Last week, the Independent Reviewer, Sir William Fittall published his decision regarding the publishing of the names of celebrants at Cathedral Eucharist services.

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/wakefield-cathedral-report-independent-reviewer-william-fittall

A grievance had been raised by a member of the congregation at Wakefield Cathedral, Mr Belk, after the Cathedral Dean stopped publishing the names of those who would be presiding at the Eucharist. Mr Belk, who had attended Wakefield Cathedral for many years, could not accept the priestly ministry of women for reasons of theological conviction, and would not attend a service presided over by a woman. He had previously left three services when, due to a last minute change in the published rota, he had arrived to discover a woman was the celebrating priest.

Sir William, with clarity and precision, describes the complaint, the investigation he undertook and quoted both the responses he received and the sources to which he referred. In the judgement he quotes Mr Belk, the Cathedral Dean the Very Revd Simon Cowling, the Area Bishop the Rt Revd Tony Robinson (Bishop of Wakefield and Chairman of Forward in Faith) and Justin Welby. He also quotes sections of the House of Bishops Declaration and the Faith and Order publication on the Five Guiding Principles. The appendices contain letters between Mr Belk, the Dean, the Bishop and Sir William. On the basis of such information, Sir William then weighs the information and makes a decision.

Can anyone spot the problem? The House of Bishops Declaration, under which the Reviewer operates was written to support the mutual flourishing of both those who could not accept the priestly and episcopal ministry of women AND the women called to exercise that ministry. Yet, in Sir William’s review not one woman is consulted or quoted. The voice of women is deafeningly silent.

This is something of a pattern in the cases taken to the Independent Reviewer to date. A basic analysis of those quoted in a review and those who have contributed to the appendices shows that the majority of the voices quoted were male and over 70% of the appendices provided by men (I have not counted appendices where submissions were written by more than one person or where authorship was unclear). In the largest report to date, Sir Philip Mawer’s extensive review of the Nomination to the See of Sheffield, he lists over 100 people with whom he had conversations and again over 70% of those named individuals were men.

So women’s voices are notably absent from the independent review process designed to arbitrate on situations where their flourishing and the flourishing of those unable to accept their ministry are in conflict.

Would a woman’s voice have changed Sir William Fittall’s recent judgement? I do not know. But a woman may have been able to bring a different perspective and highlight different conclusions in the circumstances the Independent Reviewer so clearly y describes. There are three key areas where a woman’s voice may have contributed to the understanding of the situation.

Pain

The Independent Reviewer discusses the pain of being unable to participate in the Eucharist (para 37) and the duty of those committed to mutual flourishing to avoid causing pain to the other (para 38), namely Mr Belk. What his review does not explore is the pain that is experienced by a woman who has her priestly ministry denied. Neither does it explore the pain of women in the congregation who identify with that celebrant and feel that, in some way, their full humanity is lessened when the ministry of a sister priest cannot be accepted. The review describes the different sorts of information that Cathedrals provide including information about preachers and choirs, as if this is comparable data. However, as ordained women know, while the names of preachers and choirs may attract people to worship, the names of presidents have been used to avoid their worship and that is a very different experience indeed. It is painful to know that people have to be provided with information about when you will be behind the altar, so they do not have to experience you there. Would a more evenly balanced understanding of the pain experienced have informed the Independent Reviewer’s response?

Agency

As someone who has been in both situations, I can testify that there is a world of difference between experiencing pain or limitation for your theological convictions and suffering the same because of something beyond your control. The difference is agency. And in the scenario described, the complainant has a lot of agency: he can choose to remain at the Cathedral or – under the provisions made for those who share his views – choose to worship at a Society church. He can choose to walk out at the start of the service if he feels unable to receive or choose to remain and engage with the brokenness and grace that is the hallmark of true communion. He can choose his level and type of pain. His celebrant has fewer options. She must simply be there, fulfilling the role that God and the Church have asked her to fulfill, and be accepted or rejected on the basis of who she is. There is recognition in the Review of the one choice being denied Mr Belk, but not of the pain his ordained sisters must experience without choice or voice.

Neutrality

I feel so deeply for the pain of colleagues who are concerned that on the basis of their theological convictions certain roles in the Church of England may be outwith their grasp. But the reality is that it is only women who are legally barred from ministering in certain parishes. While the Church does not have a great record in its treatment of BAME, disabled or working-class Christians, and I support all work that is being done to rectify this, the truth is that there are no legal barriers to their ministry. There are no legal barriers to my Society or Reform brothers being appointed to any parish in the country. It is only women who have a legal structures surrounding their ministry so that those who need protecting from them need have no fear. Now I have labored this point because we need to be clear that in making judgments based on the House of Bishops Declaration, we are not operating from a place of neutrality. The agreement which allowed women to be ordained priest and then consecrated bishop has inbuilt legal discrimination – as little as possible under the circumstances the Bishops faced at the time, but yet it is there. The scales of justice are not evenly balanced and waiting for the Independent Reviewer to add his evidence, piece by piece to either side. I do not have a sense that Sir William considered this context in his most recent judgement, and think it is something that should be made explicit in every judgement. Again, it may not have altered his final conclusions, but it surely would have made his judgement more complete.

Magic

This is a very superficial overview of the review and the places in which I think a woman’s perspective – particularly an ordained woman’s perspective – would have contributed to a more nuanced and complete judgement. There may be reasons why the Independent Reviewer engages less with women’s voices. It could be because most Church leaders and leaders of para-Church organisations are men – and that raises all sorts of other questions. However, some more nuanced and gendered reasons may be at play: in one report, the Reviewer did invite women involved to contribute, but they did not; in another men had clearly taken the initiative to send the Independent Reviewer their opinions while women hadn’t; and in the Sheffield Review, some contributors asked to be kept anonymous. However, whatever the reason that women’s voices do not inform Independent Reviews, their absence and the need for their input must be recognized.

However, I do not want to be overly critical of the Independent Reviewers, past or present, for they are merely doing what they have been asked to do with expertise, respect and frequently gentle wisdom. And so this leads me to my final point about magic.

Like many of my generation, I loved C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In it (spoiler alert) Edmund betrays his family and the king Aslan, quickly realizing his dreadful mistake. When he is rescued from the clutches of the White Witch, she comes to Aslan demanding Edmund’s death – as a traitor, his life is forfeit. The law is clear. Her case upheld. The boy’s life is her’s. It must be to satisfy the Deep Magic by which Narnia exists.

Aslan offers his own life in the place of Edmund – and his offer is accepted. He dies, and yet the following morning is restored to glorious life. That is because there was a Deeper Magic at work – a Magic that says when one gives their life freely, in love for another, death is defeated.

My point is that the Independent Reviewer works in the realm of Deep Magic – there are rules and facts and evidence to be weighed. It is an important aspect of our life in the Church of England as we consider how to honour the Five Guiding Principles we agreed. However, the decision to open the episcopate to women and the House of Bishop’s declaration came out of a process of relationship, honesty, trust and grace – a Deeper Magic, namely love. It was this Deeper Magic which allowed the Church to take a major step forward, and it only in the realm of this Deeper Magic that the settlement has any real future. Relationship, honesty, trust and grace cannot grow when the reality of the priestly ministry of women is simply avoided. To sit in that place, as people who deeply disagree but who profoundly love, is a place of pain, but also of incredible grace. The Dean argued that he wanted to provide a space “in which mutual flourishing moves from the realm of theological principle to a lived reality” (para 43) – that space cannot be created if they enable people to avoid engaging with people with whom they disagree. Nor, can they create that space, if they tell women that it is reasonable for their presence to be notified to others so such others can avoid them. For me, that is truly “asking too much”. However Deep Magic deals with principle, and it is out of that mindset the Independent Reviewer reports.

In conclusion, my questions as we reflect on the Independent Reviewer’s most recent report are:

  1. How can we ensure women’s voices are heard in decisions and judgments about their flourishing?
  2. How can we ensure that the Independent Reviewer is enabled to operate not just in the principle of law but in the messy realities of love.

Dying to Live…

Below is a homily I delivered describing my vision as Dean of Women’s Ministry. The Gospel Reading for the day was the story of Jesus in Gethsemane…

I spent some time debating whether it was simply too much of a cliché to bring my knitting to a talk about the role of Dean of Women’s Ministry.  Perhaps, there’s a bit of mischievous irony there too.  However, the main reason I bring it is because it makes a point.  This collection of knitted scraps is intended to be a pair of dungarees.  It was intended to be a pair of dungarees for my niece, who is now aged three, but if I get my act together, they may yet fit her little brother before he outgrows them too.  Unfinished knitting projects are such a sadness.  This bundle contains hours of dedicated work, with love and goodwill in every stitch – but unless I finish the task, it will never fulfil its purpose, and that love and work will be wasted.

In our gospel for today, Jesus wrestles with his unfinished task.  For thirty or so years, he has grown amongst the creation he loved into being.  For the last few of those years, he has proclaimed the Kingdom of God in word and action; challenging, teaching, healing, restoring…  It has been hard work – the gospels tell of days spent in ceaseless ministry, too busy for food, and of a bone-weary Messiah so exhausted he slept on through a violent storm.

Yet, he knows it is not enough.  To bring complete freedom to the creation he loves, it is not enough.  To proclaim the fullness of God’s indestructible love, it is not enough.  He must complete the task, and that task will cost everything.  It will cost him his very self.  No wonder he wrestles – is there any other way?  Does he have to die?  He shouts to the heavens, he seeks solace in his ever-feckless friends, but he must face this choice alone.  And by the end of our reading, the decision is made.  He will complete his task.  He embraces his death. 

We know what happens next.  His last hours are so messy, so painful; he dies in abject failure, but… But his death is also his glory.  “It is finished!” he cries from his cross.  The task is complete and nothing will ever be the same again.  After the cross, we live in the freedom and hope of Easter.

So knitting, Gethsemane – where am I going with this?  And what does it have to do with the role of the Dean of Women’s Ministry?

Well, we live in interesting times.  We have made huge progress in enabling the flourishing of women in the Church of England.  With the admission of women to the episcopate, the last explicit barrier to the full participation of women in all orders of ministry has been removed, and we had the joy of seeing our first sisters consecrated Bishop.  Some might be tempted to say “job done” and question whether we even need a Dean of Women’s Ministry at all now!

However, I would counter that we have hardly started.  At this point, I could bamboozle you with statistics, but this is a homily and not a lecture so I shall refrain.  I’ll just share one personal anecdote.  When I was a curate, feeling called to parish ministry, I looked around for contemporaries who could model this way of living and leading for me, to encourage me that this might be possible.  I could find very few examples.  Reading the Ministry Statistics for 2012, I am not surprised, as they tell us that there were just 59 incumbent or incumbent status women under the age of 40 in the whole of the Church of England that year.  That works out at just over one per diocese on average.  I think X was ours.  Men under 40 in incumbent status roles were not exactly common either, but there were 279 of them, meaning that you might be able to find half a dozen in most dioceses at least. 
I tell this story because behind statistics lie people: congregations worried about what it might be like to be led by a woman because a man has always been in charge before; women struggling to identify their call to priesthood because no one else their age and gender is doing that; women hesitating to offer for stretching jobs or roles because of concerns about families or other domestic responsibilities; or leaders hesitating to invite women to stretching jobs or roles because of their family commitments.

The legal barriers to the full participation of women in the ministry of the Church of England may have gone, but the statistics and stories suggest that cultural ones remain.  Until we tackle this culture, we have hardly even begun.  Like Jesus in Gethsemane, we can look back on years of costly, wearying labour, and so much good achieved, but unless we are prepared to finish the task, there is a real risk it could all be for nothing.  And to finish the task, we too have to die.

Dying to sin and dying to self are central themes in the Christian story – both are painful but life-giving processes in true discipleship.  What might such dying look like in the context of women’s ministry?

First, we need the death of the Default Male.  The default male is a phrase coined by artist Grayson Perry to describe the default settings for normal in our society – normal lives are the ones white, middle-aged, middle-class men lead; normal opinions are the ones while, middle-aged, middle-class men hold; what is important or valuable to the agency of white, middle-class, middle-aged men is what is regarded as important or valuable to society.  This is not to suggest that all white, middle-aged, middle-class men are the same, but that people from this demographic will have a cultural and historical locatedness which gives them a particular perspective on life.  This perspective has its own insights and its own blindspots.  There is nothing wrong with this perspective on life either.  The problem arises when it becomes the default setting that shapes our theology, our liturgy and our working practices.  If these are all designed around the preferences of the default male, then most women and many other men who do not conform to this pattern, will struggle to fit and to flourish.

Ending the reign of the default male and allowing his voice simply to be one valid voice amongst many will be a painful process. For those brothers who have never had to consider or question their assumptions – and those sisters who share their point of view, for we are not binary opposites and our experiences overlap – for those brothers and sisters, it will be difficult to surrender the right to automatically be right.  It will be difficult to recognize the need for new ways of being and doing which are not necessary to them.  Yet this is a death that they need to die to allow mutual flourishing.

So, do the men have to do all the work?  Absolutely not, for the Perfect Woman must die too.  Who is the Perfect Woman? Sadly she is not the sassy, business-minded, community and family leader we find in Proverbs 31; she is not the Warrior Prophetess we see in Deborah; she is not Mary flouting societal conventions by putting discipleship over domestic chores…  Nope, the Perfect Woman is a much less biblical construction: the silent selfless good girl, who avoids conflict, recoils from ambition and always thinks of others before herself.  The Perfect Woman has no “self” to die to, as her self is almost entirely defined by the expectations and needs of others.  While this caricature is – like most caricatures – extreme, I would expect it to resonate with many women.  And I repeatedly find that in conversations with women, the spectre of the Perfect Woman impairs their abilities to set boundaries, speak boldly and be all that they might be.

The Perfect Woman sounds a complete nightmare – doesn’t she?  However, the walls that keep us in are also the walls that protect us from having to step out into the unknown, walls that prevent us from being truly vulnerable and being truly seen.  Giving up the stifling safety of the Perfect Woman also has its dangers and pain.  Yet, for women to flourish, she too must die.

A Dean of Women’s Ministry will have a part to play in both these deaths.  She must gently but consistently remind those brothers – and sisters – who share the Default Male point of view that their perspective is just one amongst many and deserves no special privilege.  She must also challenge the concept of the Perfect Women, held by both women and men, and encourage her sisters to be brave and bold and vulnerable.  It will not be easy.  In fact, sometimes it looks pretty hopeless.

But she would do it all in the name of the one who turned utter hopelessness into unending hope, who turned a painful, messy death into indestructible life.  She will do it all, convinced that the glory of God is humanity fully alive; and that women and men flourishing together will better point our world to the source of all life, Jesus.  So let’s finish the task and die – and see all that God will do.