I haven’t yet shared any personal perspective on the women bishops debate in the Church of England. Having now read Maggi Dawn’s excellent short book on her reflections – both theological and personal – it feels a good time to share some of my own thoughts. What follows is a review of the book with my own reflections. Click on the image below to buy the book direct from the publisher (don’t give your money to nasty Amazon!)
The first part of the book is a great description and analysis of the history of the ordination of women in the Church of England. I, like Maggi, felt a sense of call to the priesthood before women were able to be priested in the Church of England. When I was 10 years old I used to imagine running my own church – I’ve only since, after going through the selection process realised that this is quite unusual! Then, I remember the euphoria in the early nineties when women were admitted to the priesthood and I showed an interest by interviewing Sheila in my home parish who was one of the first women priests for a school project at the age of 15/16. Apparently I said to my mother at the time ‘this could be a career option for me now’.
Maggi refers to the excellent article by Sarah Coakley entitled ‘Has the Church of England lost its reason?’ which I think is one of the best theological analyses of the situation you can read. By way of an update, here is the consultation document published yesterday on the next steps in the women bishops process following the ‘no’ vote in November 2012.
I think Maggi’s book is unique in approaching the theological issues involved in this impasse in the church by focusing on the theology of waiting. She highlights, very helpfully, that encouraging people to ‘wait on God’ can be used as a way of silencing opponents:
‘Calling on the church to wait, if that is simply a means of buying time and pacifying justifiable anger, is a mistaken and even destructive use of a spiritual discipline.’ p.37
The book then goes on to explore biblical examples which show that sometimes it is more that God is waiting for us than us waiting for Him to act.
I was relieved to read the section about anger. It is hard for British people, I think, to express anger – particularly in a Christian context. We just don’t know how to do it. The Church of England has been paralysed by a culture of niceness these last few years. Maggi draws on the work of Beckford and writes:
‘A polite and patient spirituality will create a church that waits for heaven, but only a spirituality that dares to get angry and overthrow some moneylenders’ tables will be able to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth.’ p.37
I was horrified to read of the sexism Maggi experienced when she was first ordained and indeed throughout her ministry here in England. I want to take the opportunity to thank all the women clergy in the Church of England for being pioneers and being the ones to put up with so much over the last 20 years – without you I wouldn’t be where I am now, training to be a priest.
I always thought that by the time I was ordained deacon (which, God willing, will be in 2014) that women would be able to be consecrated as bishops. So when the measure didn’t pass in November 2012 it hit me very hard. I cried quite a lot when I heard and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I was telling myself that everything really was fine, I have felt called to the priesthood and the way to that is open for me, and the joy that has brought me has been immeasurable. So why was I so devastated? Is it because I’m ambitious? I don’t think so, I suppose it just feels like, at the moment, for women in the church, our wings are clipped at ordination: you can ‘come this far and no further’. What is really sad is that there is still quite a lot of misogyny and sexism in the church I love. That that I’ve experienced is minor compared to some of the stories Maggi shares (such as being spat on – yes really), but it is still a source of sorrow that this attitude still exists. I’ve heard comments such as ‘women make poor preachers because they have high pitched voices’ (as if no men ever had annoying preaching voices) or ‘that woman in X country is a really bad bishop so we should consider ourselves lucky we haven’t got them’ (as if we’ve never had a male bishop that’s not been very good).
The fact that women cannot be bishops at the moment is hiding an awful lot – it’s giving implicit permission for sexist attitudes to continue and it is holding women clergy back from having a fuller ministry for the benefit of the whole church. Maggi shares that since being in America, in a church context where women are fully included that she has never felt so free to exercise her ministry. So when people say that introducing women bishops will ‘transform the church’ they really are speaking the truth – it really would do that, it would begin to remove the implicit ‘permission’ to make sexist comments and release more blessings for the church than we could possibly imagine.
I commend this book to you, it is frank, not polemical (an opponent of women’s ministry would be comfortable reading it), honest and theologically rigorous. It’s short – I read it in a single sitting and should bring encouragement to all in the church who wish to see her flourishing to her full potential. Thanks Maggi!