Friday, 8 May 2009

Revolution in the Church

On Wednesday I was lucky enough to take part in a revolutionary event - a woman Bishop celebrating Communion in the ancient Abbey at Tewkesbury for the first time in history. To many, this will seem totally unexciting - even boring! However, to anyone who takes an interest in the history of the Christian movement, it is extraordinary, especially to any woman who has had any involvement in the process of social change commonly known as 'Women's Lib' (which is actually all women, as those have gone before have created freedoms for us in the present that we tend to take for granted!)

Because of an accident of birth and geography, I grew up in the Anglican Church, (though I spent nearly 30 years as a 'Quaker') and can easily remember a time when the idea of women being ordained was virtually heretical. The role of women in the church was of cleaners, flower arrangers, cooks and general dogs bodies - granted, the institution couldn't survive without their contribution, but give them the right to stand in the place of Jesus' disciples? No chance! Men were the authourities in society, and that was that. Granted, by the time I was born, women were no longer regarded as the property of men (by most people in the West, anyway) but they were still regarded as of less value, power and importance - as they still are in many pockets within our society. When I divorced my first husband, it was under much freer, more female-friendly, laws, which respected the relationship between women and their children, and their right to run their own lives and take responsibility for themselves. Only a few years earlier, I would almost certainly have lost custody of my daughter, and had to prove appalling misdeeds on my husband's part - instead of a few years of living separately being allowed to demonstrate that we were incompatible. It was not necessary to be overly antagonistic towards each other, to slag each other off in public and fight over our daughter and money - a certain amount of that happened, but that was about personal pride, not a result of the way the law was set up, as it had been, to disempower women so that men could get their own way.

We still have no women Bishops in the UK, but I believe it is inevitable, and look forward to time when women represent a serious proportion of the upper hierarchy of the Church of England. Not because I have an axe to grind, but because I believe women are particularly well suited to Pastoral work. The Church was created as a political body, it's structure was developed in a patriarchal context, long before women had the freedom of choice that birth control gave us, before medicine and science enabled the majority of women to be fairly certain of surviving childbirth on a regular and reliable basis. The New Testament, as it has come down to us over the centuries, is a carefully censored collection of writings, chosen to support the views and interests of the men running the church in the first few centuries after Jesus' lifetime, and to help empower them in the social context of their times. Even so, careful reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus himself was certainly no denigrator of women, even though his formally chosen disciples are recorded as being men, the place of women in his life was clearly important, and he valued their contributions, and respected them deeply. There are many examples of a generous attitude to women, and several individuals were obviously as close to him as his disciples, not to mention more faithful to him! Many contemporary writings were suppressed, and some are beginning to surface and expand our picture of Jesus and his followers, showing that his teachings have been interpreted in a mind bogglingly wide range of ways and truth is a very slippery commodity!

Many have a perception that women who gain power in the Church are pushy, out for power and kudos, to oust men, have chips on their shoulders . . . . etc, etc! Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves of El Camino Real, in California, was clearly none of these. Obviously she is a very capable administrator and communicator, but she is also, pretty, soft-spoken and clearly has great compassion. No doubt the medieval monks of the Abbey's early days would have been spinning in their graves at the idea of a woman Bishop, let alone one celebrating the Eucharist in their Abbey! But I like to think that some of them were as wise and compassionate as bishop mary, and will have rejoiced, instead, at this evidence that the truth of Jesus' teachings and his love and compassion continue to spread 2 millennia after he trod this Earth. Communion on Wednesday evening was a welcoming and moving occasion, I was privileged to be part of it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

An Example to the Planners

In 1981 my life got fairly turned on its head - I met my present husband (yes, he had several predessors - well, they didn't actually die, but the marriages/ partnerships did, painfully) I won't go into too much detail (too embarressing) but I ended up unexpectedly staying with him in his little 2-up 2-down terraced cottage in Hay-on-Wye for 10 days or so, leaving my usual life behind for awhile. I don't need to tell you that was only the beginning, but not only that, we now can no longer keep away from Hay, it's like we are attached by an insistent elastic band.

Therefore, inevitably, we spent Easter in the general environs - he can't get enough of the nearby mountains, I can't get enough of the creative buzz in Hay, so we do both. Hay is a thriving town in the Marches of Wales and England, built on a commanding crag above the river Wye, surrounding a castle that dates back to Norman times. Only recently has it suffered the stifling hand of Planners, so it's a complex of wandering alleys and lanes, full of tiny, character-full buildings and people. It just added bits on to itself as the residents needed or wanted, thus creating a community that works, rather than a Plan that doesn't! (No, I don't like 'Planners', how did you guess?) Anyway, being a rural town, out in the sticks, it was suffering a bit of a crisis in the 1970s, as there was less and less work to keep the population going, and it was bleeding people to the cities. Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . . . in this case a second-hand bookseller with a gift for publicity, by the name of Richard Booth. His ideas for publicising Hay, and thus his business, were legion, including crowning himself King of Hay, and declaring independence!

Today, Hay is known as 'The Town of Books', has an annual Literary Festival sponsored by The Guardian newspaper and is one of Britain's prime tourist destinations - well done, Richard! Though some of the original residents still feel it's all a bit much, and who can blame them, at Festival time, or Bank Holidays, even residents can find it impossible to park! Not only are there more bookshops than you can shake a stick at, the tide of visitors has brought a following surge of small (and not so small) businesses to service their other needs, so there are wonderful places to eat, shops full of clothes to die for, and craft and gift outlets galore, as well as a rash of antique shops and B&Bs. But the town remains a true community, and the new shops have not been allowed to shove aside the butcher, baker and greengrocer, let alone the deli!

This is beginning to sound like an advert for the British Tourism Board, or whatever they call themselves these days! Seriously, it's an example of how towns can thrive in any economic climate, and the multinationals and Planners have nothing to do with it, it's all about individuals sticking to their own knowledge of what is right, and putting it into practice. Hay still supports, and is supported by, its surrounding rural community, and the world beats a path to its door. Is anybody up there listening?

Monday, 6 April 2009

On the 4th of April, 2007, I fell from the step of our new motorhome and completely destroyed my right elbow. The recent 2nd anniversary of this life-changing event set me thinking about anniversaries, and how we, as individuals and as a society, adjust to dramatic changes - especially in this current time of economic uncertainty. It seems to me (from the perspective of 62 years of a well turbulent life) that it is very hard to make rational, considered decisions about the changed situation, unless one lets go of one's previous sense of identity and beliefs about reality - this may seem obvious, but this means grieving for the self, and world, that has passed, and we seem, on the whole, reluctant to do this. Western, particularly Christo-centric, society seems very unwilling to face the end of anything, to let go of what has been (be that life itself, or merely a possession) and move on into a new context for being.

This 'letting go' is what grief is for, but we seem to regard grief as embarrassing, a weakness that we should not be subject to if we're 'real adults'. This attitude is more than the British 'stiff upper lip', as we Brits are not alone in this phenomenon, it is part of Western discomfort with uncertainty, a deep-seated social insecurity that has seen us comforting ourselves with more and more 'things' to make us feel safe, and an ever increasing effort on the part of those at the head of our society to control as much as possible. This is, of course, a complete waste of effort and resources - as they say in the classics 'stuff happens' and we just have to find a way to come to terms with it. Grief, unresolved, can be very damaging to those who refuse to grieve and let go - not just for people who have died, but for anything lost irretrievably that was valued. Some years ago I was briefly involved with a wonderful organisation called Cruse, with helps those who are berieved to deal with their losses. Though brief, my experience was enough to show me how vital it is to recognise one's loss and to grieve for it, I saw many stuck in fear, indecision and depression because they could not, or would not, face their loss and feel it - and let go of what had been lost, instead of trying to carry on as though nothing had happened.

Over the past 2 years I have been discovering (a) how much of my previous identity relied on my ability to do things, reliably and with skill, and to be independent, and (b) how different my picture of myself now has to become. I still struggle to let go of much of my previous picture of myself - in my head I am still the capable cook and provider, but my body tells me otherwise. I may still have all the knowledge, theoretical skill and body knowledge, but I can no longer put much of it into practice. Now I have to rely on the support of others to a degree I am still enormously uncomfortable with, I can no longer simply prepare vegetables, put things in and out of the oven - some days I cannot even spread butter on a slice of bread! To woman who has not just run a household and brought up 4 children, but run cafes and guesthouses, this is a big shock! In addition, I have always made things - sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery . . . . . this requires dexterity and strength I cannot now rely on, and while i still do as much of it as my arm allows, I keep finding myself up against challenges where once I would have done the job almost without conscious thought. I am still grieving for the 'Me' I once was, and groping for a new 'Me' that feels like someone I can live with. This new 'Me' is not just a struggle for me - I am now no longer the person my husband, my children and my friends thought they knew, the ground has shifted underfoot for them, too.

Sometimes i just need to sit and weep for who I used to be, who had so many skills that she took for granted and now has to find replacements for - many would be uncomfortable with this, so I tend to do it alone, those i love, and who love me, have their own grieving to do, and their own adjustments to make - not just with reference to me, I don't mean that, but changes in their own lives - promotions, job losses, family break ups and reformations etc. It's hard to let go of what has been treasured, or simply taken for grated, for a long time, but we cannot control much in life, really, it's appalling arrogant to believe we can. All we can truly control is how we deal with what happens to us, and much of that is about letting go and grieving for the space that is left behind - then finding something else to fill it! I love the truism 'If you love someone/thing let them go - if they come back, they're yours, if they don't, they never were." It's important to recognise that very little is ever truly ours, and to let go freely, and be open to accept whatever gift life offers next. I'm not sure what life is going to offer next, i am due to have a replacement elbow fitted, will that lead to a return of some of my dexterity and strength, or a return to greater pain and debility? I don't know, but I'm ready to tackle either - though I won't deny I'm scared, It would be foolish to go forward in life with my eyes shut, just as it would be foolish not to grab opportunities with both hands - and to do that, I need to let go of some of the ideas/things I no longer really need.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Drive along Memory Lane

Once, when I was young, we had a succession of spectacular vintage cars, not because my mother was a collector, but because old cars were all she could afford! The first was a much-loved 'sit-up-and-beg' little Austin7, made in the 1930s, driven in the early 60s and costing us the grand sum of £13, saved up in pennies in a jar. It may have been elderly, but it was reliable and economical, and often left more modern cars behind, climbing the hill from central Canterbury to St Edmund's School, near the present University, where my mother was the Headmaster's secretary. Where the sprawling University of Kent now rules was then rolling farmland, giving a stupendous view of the city below. Eventually, that little treasure succumbed to age and was replaced by another elderly, but classy, vehicle. We had a magnificent Riley mini-limousine, I recall - which we managed to leave standing on my little sister's foot, I recall, while attempting to get it started when the battery was dead. We didn't notice, but after a few moments of standing gasping (it was a VERY heavy car) a little voice piped up "Please can we push it a bit further?" 'Why, Lou?' "It's on my foot." Such a brave, self controlled little girl. That one ceased its working life when my stepfather drove it into a lamp-post, and the abused engine fell out.

I had thought little about this remarkable series of grand vehicles recently, until, walking along the river side on Monday, I spotted a sadly decaying car in one of the fields that the path passes through. I immediately felt tears spring to my eyes, and my stomach lurch, could it be? Yes, it was one of the most special of that series of memorable vehicles, a Jowett Javelin. The Jowett was solid as a mountain, sleekly stylish, with its swept back lines, and kitted out with lustrous leather seats and glowing walnut woodwork. Travelling in it, I felt like a film star, and was proud to turn up at my boarding school (where there was some considerable status/style competition) in such a grand car - ok, it wasn't modern, like most of the other parents had, but it was clearly an aristocratic vehicle! It was such an unusual car, that, even in those days, there was a club for Jowett owners, to which we belonged, and through which we met some charming people.

Jowett made a small range of cars, but each design was special, and as well as the Javelin, there was a sports car, the Jupiter, the design of which can now be seen as the fore runner of most of the sports cars that petrol heads now aspire to. Like the Javelin, the lines were sleek and spoke of speed even when the car was stationary, It, too, was solidly made, with leather upholstery and gleaming wooden fittings. It was a 2 seater, with a rumble seat in the boot, and a classic luggage rack on top of the boot. Our friend had a red one, kept in immaculate, polished condition, and he was the perfect owner for it, being young, handsome (a bit like Tab Hunter) and charming - he was the embodiment of a young girl's dream! He made the end of my schooldays a triumph - rather than leaving me to catch the train as usual, he came down to Brighton in the Jupiter, posed out front where all the girls could see, and swept me into his arms when I appeared! He handed me gallantly into the passenger seat , then heaved my trunk on to his shoulder, fixed it to the luggage rack, sprang into the driving seat and drove off with one arm round my shoulders. For a lonely, buck-toothed and socially crippled teenage girl, it was a dream come true!

Seeing this poor, disintegrating Javelin in the field brought it all back - what a big hearted, understanding hero that young man was. I'm ashamed to say I don't remember his name, which shows I'm not fight to kiss his feet, but he gave me a heck of an example to try and follow.