Growing up in a church in the anglo-catholic tradition we had two treats each year. One was going off to visit one of the Sisters who had gone from the parish into a community. So we would go off to Wantage or Clewer or East Hanningfield to see one of those Sisters. The other annual trip was to Walsingham for the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The good thing about this upbringing was that I have no fear of nuns (in fact my devotion to ‘The Sound of Music’ knows no bounds) and a deep devotion to Our Lady. But did this give me a real experience of women?
When I was an incumbent one of the churches in my parish had a lovely statue of Our Lady, in fact a number of lovely statues of Our Lady and we would celebrate each of her Feast Days with real excitement. The procession though the parish on the Feast of the Assumption, with a processional statue borrowed from the local Roman Catholic Church gathered a crowd who shared in that sense of Marian devotion.
I’m writing this blog on International Womens’ Day, a great day for celebrating all that women give to society, community, family, the world and for remembering just how far we have to go in properly valuing all of that. The road to full equality between the sexes is a long one and we are no where near where we need to be. Today is also the day on which Bishop Libby Lane is installed in Chester Cathedral. It’s a great moment in the life of the Church of England and that diocese and we look forward to more women following Bishop Libby into the episcopate.
But I find it hard to understand how people on the one hand can celebrate Mary with devotion and fervour, can value her role in the history of our salvation, as the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of the Church and yet be opposed to women taking their proper place in the church. Visiting nuns and Walsingham each year made me very familiar with women in the church – but these were cloistered women or a perpetual Virgin. I have huge respect for women in religious communities, have huge love for Our Lady but I have learnt not to base my understanding on the true place of women in theology or the church by simply looking at them.
I remember first reading Marina Warner’s book on Mary called ‘Alone of all her sex’ published almost 40 years ago and understanding that by locking our understanding of Mary into her physicality, her perpetual virginity, made her the ‘safe woman’ who men could take refuge in, and the one who had to be the acceptable antidote to so much of what the church finds unacceptable about us being created as sexual beings. It challenged my devotion to Mary then and still does.
One of the most important experiences I have had of women experiencing liberation was during my sabbatical, part of which I spent in India. I was working for part of the time in a Fair Trade project in Tamil Nadu and living with a family in a village. What I saw there was the way in which so much of life depended on women and how such projects enabled women to discover for themselves leadership skills, empowerment, that could make them leaders in their own communities. The women I met were discovering their true self and potential in what was in many ways a deeply patriarchal society. I came back from there convinced that so much in terms of development, justice and rights depends upon women being able to be the people they are created to be and that means men standing back, giving women space, giving women not just verbal support but actual support. It’s about power and how we grasp at it.
In Eucharistic Prayer G in Common Worship there is that wonderful line
How wonderful the work of your hands, O Lord.
As a mother tenderly gathers her children,
you embraced a people as your own.
When we first heard it it was a bit of a shock. Were we saying that God embraced what we had so far seen as merely feminine? Could God be Father and Mother? But why should we even have had to ask the question? Why would we even question for one moment whether what is essentially feminine could be as much at the heart of God as what is essentially masculine? Surely, as those made in God’s image, all we are is found in the face of God. We don’t need to make Mary bear the weight of womanhood on her own and safe womanhood, controlled, defeminised womanhood at that. Mary is entitled to being liberated along with other women and to be known as the strong woman at the foot of the cross as we know her to be. Challenging my own devotion to Our Lady in this way I think has, for me, made my understanding of Mary stronger and more realistic and has helped me to appreacite the gift of the feminine and the gift of the masculine in each of us.
This afternoon I took part in the press conference held in Redcross Way outide the ribbon bedecked gates of the Crossbones Graveyard. It is about to be opened up as a green space that respects the many women buried there, many single women, sex-workers of another age, disempowered and exploited and then effectively ignored by the church of the day. We cannot right the wrongs of the past but we can change how we live now, women and men, together, strong, confident, enabled, empowered. That can change the world and change lives.
God, Mother, Father,
empower us to be the people you created us to be,
men and women,
fully alive and valued.