Thursday, 20 June 2013

Women Priests: The Next Generation

Yesterday, I came across an article I had nearly forgotten, written nearly 10 years ago by myself and two contemporaries from theological college. We were all contacted by the web editor of Anvil and asked for permission to put this online, so you can read it here:

 'Women Priests: The Next Generation'

As I read it, I was once again back in the JCR at St Johns College Durham, where we had this conversation. I could hear the laughter, feel again the shock of realising at theological college, where we had gone following our vocations, that we weren't universally accepted, remember the steely sense of determination. Now, I mainly feel just tired: just as we knew those who had handed the baton over to us were feeling then.

Our naivety strikes me most strongly. It is rather damning, I think, that the most striking difference between now and then is that it is inconceivable now that three young women could go to theological college and not all be aware of the strength of feeling against women's ordination in some quarters.

I remember being pilloried in New Directions (the magazine of Forward in Faith) once for saying in an interview that I hadn't realised some people still didn't accept women's ordination until I got to theological college. But its true, and it was a widespread experience. Those of us who had our vocations nurtured in our early twenties back then, by definition were in places where women's vocations were accepted and valued. Our wider experience of the rough and tumble of church misogyny and the full range of theological viewpoints (and no, I am not necessarily equating the two: think Venn diagram) came later.

And back then, there was little overlap or encounter between those of different persuasions. It is no secret - it has been openly discussed in New Directions - that the aim of Forward in Faith and the PEVs at that point was an almost entirely separate parallel church organisation.  It is perhaps a good sign that conflict is more open now: it means we are at least speaking to one another honestly.

We were realistic, I think, about the likely timescale of change. I said then that I hoped to see a few women bishops in 20 or 30 years time: that would be 10 or 20 years from now. That is still achievable, and in fact now seems rather a modest aspiration.

But it is worrying how little has changed. Much of this article could have been written last year, not nine years ago.

The issue that because women can't be bishops, they are often passed over for jobs that they are perfect for but which are seen as 'promotion track' (not by us, but by the bishops filling them), has been intractable for much of the past decade. However, there is some good news here. This has suddenly begun to shift in the last year, as the prospect of women bishops seemed imminent.

The fact that so many women (compared to the recent past, not as an overall percentage of posts) have suddenly begun to be appointed as Archdeacons, for example, suggests this analysis was spot on. As the prospect of women bishops comes closer, all women clergy are freed to be considered for the whole range of posts on their own merits. It is no longer seen as a wasting a career development opportunity to give a senior or specialist post to a woman, though other barriers of course remain. This means that women are freer to follow their vocations, which will of course - as for men - only rarely be to the episcopate.

The other thing that it was good to remember on reading this article again, was the sense of communion that we three had despite our very different church backgrounds. This was partly one of the delights of Cranmer Hall as a theological college that didn't require you to self-select by churchmanship on entry: by its very nature, as the only college in the North East, it had a broad entry and cherished this as a gift, as it still does.

But it was quite startling to read myself as saying quite clearly 'I am a Liberal'. In a way, that seems perhaps the most anachronistic line if this were written today. Churchmanship positions have become so entrenched, cultures so oppositional, that it is hard to remember feeling proud and happy to self define as a Liberal.

When did we start to be so afraid of what other church parties would think of us that we started to fudge our identity? When did liberalism become the churchmanship that dare not speak its name?After the Reading debacle perhaps?

Yet in its absence, the balance of theology has been destabilised, and a certain rigour in seeking intellectual clarity has been lost. We could see this clearly in some of the disgracefully theologically incoherent speeches made in November.

In November, I joined Modern Church. It is in some ways a very dated organisation, but liberal theology needs a voice. I will be writing on what modern liberalism is for their journal, Modern Believing (of which I am now on the editorial board), at the beginning of next year. Seeing this piece of history has reminded me of why that is important.

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