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.