12 July 2010

Girl Power

I was browsing on eBay UK late yesterday morning. What for, you may ask, Dear Reader? Some snazzy, Chanel sunglasses? A pair of mint condition Jimmy Choos? No, I was looking for a Buildwas alb.

Although it sounds like it might be either this season’s latest Scandinavian fashion accessory, or German low country mountain range, an alb is a liturgical vestment. From the Latin word for “white”, it is the long garment worn by clergy, ministers and lay servers in the church.

I’m in the market for one as the liturgical team of lay person servers at our little parish has grown, and we need an extra. Being a liturgiophile (person who loves liturgy), I volunteered to purchase a new one for myself, allowing the new team member to use the old one.

Could be tricky, as I am a petite, would I find one that would fit? A pleasant surprise -- to find major clerical outfitters, like Hayes and Finch of London, all have sections on their websites for “Ladies Garments”.

What an irony also, just as I finish purchasing a rather fetching pale cream alb from Hayes and Finch, to spot reports of the latest “women bishops” controversy in the Sunday paper. The headline: “Williams ‘humiliated’ as bishops deal is rejected.” (Sunday Times, 11 July 2010)

I admire the Archbishop of Canterbury immensely. I think he is a great man in a very difficult job. Moving the Church – any church – into the 21st C is undoubtedly an enormous task, with considerable challenges.

And, unlike the Catholic Church that seems to approach change by simply denying its existence, the Church of England wrestles quite openly with change and the all challenges it brings.

As I understand it, the deal that Rowan wished to offer was one that would effectively allow opponents of the ordination of female bishops a sort of “opt out” cause, whereby they could bypass the authority of a woman bishop.

The result would essentially create a “church within a church,” with the real status of women bishops being essentially compromised.

Williams is feeling pressure from Anglo-Catholic opponents within the Church who are being openly – and rather naughtily—wooed by Pope Benedicte XVI and his strict, intolerant, Catholic wiles!

A word to the wise for the Archbishop; and perhaps this is just a woman’s take on things, but, as every girl knows, if you’re in a relationship with someone who is unwilling to compromise, who routinely threatens to leave you when things don’t go their way -- and adds salt to the wound by taunting you with prospects of forming a new attachment with a more amenable Italian -- this is not a relationship worth having!

If Rowan Williams were one of my girl chums (let’s call her Rowena), I’d invite her out for a coffee, sit her down over a steaming grande soy latte and dish out some tough love! “Listen, Ro, you have got to let this guy go! He is so not worth it, and you deserve better.”

Flippancies aside, I do believe there are some underlying truths here for this very serious situation. If the Anglo-Catholics want to move on to Rome, let them. As any person who has been through a bad marriage can tell you, sometimes, when something’s broken in a relationship, you can’t fix it.

Appeasing extreme views – in either direction – for the seek of appeasement, to take keep someone from leaving, never works. Church relationships, like any other, must be based on love, and love is all about working together and compromise.

The traditionalists’ stance is philosophical, and their philosophy is not going to change. So, let them go. Let them shake the dust from their feet, and move on.

I understand Rowan’s view that “we should all try and stay together”; and trust me (no disrespect intended) but the last thing I would want to support is a swelling of the Catholic ranks, but, I believe that if one is not happy where one is, than it is best to move on.

I think my local church provides a wonderful microcosm of this idea of compromise. Ironically, I would consider myself a firm traditionalist, though they have certainly lost me on this one. To be more accurate, I am a liturgical traditionalist. My father used to refer to me as a “devout bower and scraper”. It is a badge I wear proudly.

I recently had a rather crackling exchange with a visiting priest, when we landed quite accidently on the subject of liturgy and he said, “God does not need all the bells and whistles.” I paused, and responded quite firmly: “God doesn’t need them, but God certainly deserves them.”

So, yes, it is safe to say my traditionalist streak is firmly ensconced. As such (and I have mentioned this before) I loathe, loathe, loathe, loathe contemporary Christian music. Guitars, bongos, tambourines, drums, and heavens forfend, the insipid words of the trite, little song printed out on video screens for us all to read and follow along!! It gives me hives.

Did I mention I loathe this?

In my sweet, little, village parish, there a small, very English gesture toward this sort of music within our main Sunday service. There is one song in the service that is of the “happy-clappy” variety. (Thankfully, no tambourines or videos screens as of yet…)

Instinctively, at this point in the service, I sigh. I roll my eyes. I try to recall the names of the moons orbiting the planet Uranus, anything but participate in the proceedings.

Tiring of my anti-happy-clappy antics, and my routine whinging about “the happy-clappy moment” before, during and after each service, the ever-wise DEB, had a word with me. “Well, love,” he said. “Here’s what you can do, don’t go to that service, if you don’t like that music.”

How sensible!

It really made me think. There are a few members of our congregation that have actually made that decision, and only attend the completely music-less service at 8:00 AM. I very often serve at that service, and really quite enjoy it. But, I haven’t made the decision to vote with my feet altogether.

Also, I was recently elected to the Parish Council, and one Sunday, just as I was about to roll my eyes in disgust as the choir geared up for their “Aren’t We Modern?” number, I thought myself, “You’re a newly elected member of the Parish Council. You love this church. It’s just one song. Stop acting like an 8 year old!”

That told me.

And frankly, I think a general dose of this kind of medicine would not go amiss.

So – to the meat of the matter. Women leading the church. The traditionalist view on this is based on what they see as the Biblical precedent that: “Jesus did not have any women disciples.”

My response to this is, of course, both flippant and serious. (The flippant always comes first.)

Last week, I gave a Shakespeare lecture in Stratford-upon-Avon to a lovely group of university students from Chicago. One of them asked: “What was Shakespeare’s intention in writing King Lear?” After giving the bog-standard, scholarly, academic answer I am supposed to, I added, “…But you know, we don’t really know. How can we know? None of us were there.”

They all laughed, but they also got the point.

I think the same is true in this instance: none of us were there. And if we could be truly honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we can’t possibly know who all of Jesus’ friends, followers, disciples and eventual church leaders were.

But, Biblical interpretation aside, I think it is far more pragmatic and productive to look at the present. In other words, who are “Jesus’ friends” now?

I have always found it ironic (and infuriating) that Catholic leaders can never get their heads around women serving or leading the Church, when the simple facts are that there would be no Church, or indeed a very small one, without the involvement and dedication of women.

I don’t just mean in a procreative sense, I mean quite literally, across the board (and across the globe) women are the ones keeping the church wheels turning, Catholic, C of E, or otherwise.

Yesterday, I gazed around my village church. In terms of leadership and activity, there is a solid and indisputable female presence. We have two Church Wardens, a huge leadership role, and both of them are women.

In the bell-tower, 50% of the ringers are women. In the choir, 10 of the 14 choristers are women. We have two Readers, one man and one woman. Serving on the altar, our team of four (4) Chalice Bearers and Eucharistic Ministers is 100% female.

What would happen if we all walked out?

And of course, no surprise that the congregation is also largely female. (Typically, and dare I say traditionally, it is the female side of the familial equation who pushes everyone to church, gets everyone ready and there Sunday after Sunday!)

As I sat in my pew, I imagined what my church would look like, what it would be like without its significant female presence. A very different and empty place indeed.

Last Christmas, I had the pleasure – and for me it is a true pleasure – of serving on the high altar at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Our Reverend Cathy was the Celebrant, Reader Anne was 1st assistant, and I was 2nd. Three women gathered round the altar.

Moments like this are not lost on me. Of course, I am always fully focused on my job and duties, but I am also able to stand apart, and observe.

I cannot say fully what moments like this mean to me, both as a Christian and as a woman. It is so powerful and inspiring to watch Mother Cathy, and to hear the words of the Eurcharist being intoned in a feminine voice, a voice that could be my own. My eyes welled with tears as I watched Mother Cathy lifting and breaking the Body of Christ.

It is not lost on me that many lived and died so that a moment such as this could happen; I am also very aware that many lived and died to keep this moment from ever happening. But this moment did happen. And it is a privilege none of us takes lightly.

The moment of the woman bishop in the Church of England will also happen. Stand up for her, Rowan! You will not be standing alone.


Sue Doran said...

You state your arguments in a powerful, common sense way - this should be an article somewhere, seriously. It could change opinions, I think the excellence of the writing cannot be denied.

I am a non-believer myself but the Christian Church is something that I would not wish to see disappear from the UK. At times of grief, I find the rituals of a Christian funeral service comforting, I cry at church weddings and I recognise that given the fact that I am atheist, this is totally at odds and makes me a humungous hypocrite. Sorry about that but I do hope it doesn't invalidate my opinion that you're so right about the way forward on this issue.

Lisa Stone said...

I am laughing out loud at your description of the tamborine factor. I love a broad range of religious music, from renaissance dirges to gospel. But there is a tackiness that comes from forced follow-the-bouncing-ball that gives me the church giggles.

Thanks for your beautiful paen to women as the backbone of so many churches. I pray that more organized religions will allow women to lead from the pulpit as well as where we always have -- from the grassroots, from the pews, from behind the cookie and coffee table.

(BTW, I got here from the new network links from BlogHer.com's homepage. We just implemented them. You've convinced me that they work. Such a perfect Sunday post that I needed to read. Thanks.)