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The Experience of Women in Ministry

By Ruth Scott.

The following article is a transcript of a sermon preached at the National Stewardship Advisors Conference at Hothorpe Hall in January 2001. We are grateful to the author for permission to reproduce it here.

It’s not every week that Joan Mason, sitting in the front pew, is hit by a duck flying out of the font. But this was no ordinary Sunday. The trouble began with my tights, or rather my lack of them. In desperation I had to put on a pair of ancient hold-ups, both of which gave out during my sermon, and slithered to rest at half mast. Of course it wouldn't have happened if I’d stayed upright instead of crawling around the nave stage pretending to be a dragon. I was wearing a wonderful mask complete with red and orange crepe paper flames streaking out in all directions. Unfortunately when my sermon ended I couldn’t get it off. In the end I had to tear it apart as the congregation fell about in laughter waiting for their priest to unravel herself.

At least nothing can go wrong with the baptism, I thought. I’d forgotten momentarily that today I was baptising a highly active toddler. With the insight of a mother I’d placed a rubber duck in the font to keep the child’s attention. Unfortunately it also attracted half a dozen other tiny tots who wanted to climb up the font to get a closer look. That would have been fine, if the font had not been a mobile one. I stood there, legs crossed to keep the hold-ups from falling any further, gripping the font as it swayed dangerously, trying to banish murderous thoughts from my mind, and attempting to conduct the baptism warmly, prayerfully and with an air of calm.

It was at this point that one of the little terrorists knocked my service sheet into the water, and, as I jerked it out, Dennis the Duck went flying through the air to his unexpected rendezvous with the rather startled Joan Mason. And they say the Vicar of Dibley is far-fetched!

Making my way to the back of the Church during the Peace I hauled up my vestments and yanked up the offending hold-ups whilst everyone else was either hugging their neighbour or finding the next hymn. Everyone else that is except my Churchwarden who, as I stood in the most undignified position, caught my eye and said, “Things were never this exciting before women priests.”

When I was asked to speak challengingly on the experience of women priests in Church culture, I had some reservations. First, I yearn for the time when I’m no longer asked to speak about women’s experience in the Church, because it will have ceased to be an issue. Second, I’m no expert on the subject. Women’s experience, ordained and lay, is very diverse, and I’m wary of the tendency in Church practice to lump all women together under one umbrella simply because we share the same gender. Labels and generalisations need to be treated with caution. For that reason I must clarify my use of the term, ‘the Church’. I’d like it to mean the body of Christ living out Jesus’ example by bringing good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, release to those held captive, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. But mostly I’m using it to mean those in the Anglican communion whose words and actions limit rather than liberate the word of God, and who are preoccupied by internal struggles for power, often deceptively disguised as attempts to protect the Truth. This is the Church that I see far too often reported in the religious press and secular media, and of which I have some personal experience.

In the light of these points, I'm going to share some of my own experiences as a priest, and consider their implications not just for women, but for the Church as a whole. Lack of space means that I’ll inevitably simplify, and therefore distort, what is in reality far more complex.

The natural-ness and different-ness of women’s ministry

The Sunday service I recalled earlier was indeed an unusual occasion, and what I hear time and again from those experiencing the ministry of women priests for the first time, is how natural they find it. This isn’t surprising. From the moment Mary of Magdala met the risen Lord and proclaimed his resurrection to the other disciples, women of faith have informally exercised priestly ministry, pastorally, prophetically and, using the word in its broadest sense, sacramentally. The ordination of women to priesthood simply recognised in a formal way what women had been doing informally for centuries. For me priesthood is not primarily about position and power, but about personhood, about a commitment to a particular way of being that seeks integrity at all levels. It is about who you are everywhere, and not, like a dog collar, something you can take on and off.

I don’t believe that the priest who works his socks off in the parish to the detriment of his family is a good model of priesthood. I’ve noticed that women priests with families seem less likely to compromise home life to meet parish demands. I suspect that’s why the majority of NSMs (Non-Stipendiary Ministers) are women. Although I was recommended to be stipendiary, I chose to be non-stipendiary precisely because I wanted to be humanised by my priesthood, not dehumanised by it. I didn’t want to end up overwhelmed by work, much of which I had neither the skill or calling to do.

Married women clergy need the church to be a restorative community

I envy Rabbi friends who are employed to teach, lead liturgy, preach, pray, and care for the pastoral needs of their people, and are not expected to be financial wizards, fund-raisers or building administrators. Applying such a model in the Church would require a major shift in expectations. And how could we effect the change necessary to free clergy to work healthily as parish priests without imposing unhealthy patterns on lay people? I note, for example, that changes in the role of women in wider society mean that the informal ministry of lay-women within the Church community can no longer be guaranteed. Far fewer women remain at home full-time, and understandably many Church-going working mothers want their free time to be exactly that - free time. They need the Church to be a restorative community that re-energises them to live out their faith in the wider world, not one that drains their resources still further, or that tries to motivate them through guilt rather than joy. According to John’s gospel the first sign of Jesus was the turning of water into wine at a wedding. It was not about getting people to join a club, or to be religious in the narrow sense of that word. It was an affirmation of life brought about where people were - a sign of the extravagant generosity of the Holy One who calls us to celebrate, not sin. Whatever happened to that vision?

When I was ordained priest I felt I had come home to myself, but I have not always felt at home in the Church. The first time I walked into a chapter of theatre Chaplains in London, I was completely ignored. It took me a while to realise that the Chaplains already in the room didn’t accept women priests, and wanted to avoid contact with me. I find such dehumanising behaviour wholly at odds with my understanding of Jesus. We are called to be catalysts for reconciliation and peace. The first and most difficult task in the process of peacemaking is to bridge the gulf between those in conflict, for while that exists it’s easy to demonise the other and to be blind to our shared humanity. If we foster conflict in our own community by keeping at a distance those whose views run counter to our own, then we can have nothing of worth to offer to situations of conflict elsewhere in the world.

The next experience I want to share with you comes from a recent conversation I had with a cathedral Canon, and a Team Rector, both of them women. A few weeks earlier I had sought out the advice of the Canon, and she’d been extremely unhelpful. We’d exchanged very direct letters, after which I’d suggested that we meet with a mutual friend and try to understand where the other was coming from. It was a good meeting when we both learned that our perceptions of the other were not entirely accurate. Because of my misperceptions I was greatly surprised when, in discussing the discrimination she was experiencing, the Canon said she would consider leaving the Church if she couldn’t counter that injustice. It’s not the first time a woman priest has said this to me. Perhaps it’s inevitable that many of us have come to see a distinction between the institutional Church and the gospel since our commitment to the latter moved us to a ministry that the former, until recently, would not accept, and still finds difficult to accommodate. To suggest that Church and gospel are not one and the same thing is shocking for those who see the Church as the sole mediator of salvation, and yet I believe that God cannot be confined by the Church. I experience the wind of the Spirit blowing where it wills, and far too many Church voices complaining about the draught. Christ is as crucified today by rigid religious attitudes as he was 2000 years ago.

Non-stipendiary ministry is consistently undervalued

To make my next point I need to give you a potted CV. Originally I was a nurse, a midwife and then a Sister Counsellor working in a community with a 48% unemployment rate and all the emotional problems that are heightened by deprivation. I’m also trained in mime and physical theatre and run workshops internationally for various groups such as teachers of children with major disabilities, Church communities, and trainee pastors. After being accepted for ordination I studied part-time on the Southwark Ordination Course, and followed that up with a degree in theology and comparative religion, and an MA in Systematic Theology. I work with colleagues in the Jewish and Muslim community, and I regularly write and broadcast religious programmes on BBC Radio 2 and World Service. For the past eight years I’ve worked part-time in a team of three Churches. Last Year after attending a clergy course at Windsor Castle I was moved to revisit the possibility of becoming stipendiary. I learnt that to do so I would need to do a full-time three-year curacy. Not only that, I would also be expected to give up my inter-faith and broadcasting work, lest colleagues in surrounding parishes wonder what I was up to. Valuing my experience more highly than diocesan policy, I did not feel a curacy was appropriate, and I decided not to go down that path. It seems unjust and illogical to me that, where the Church is concerned, part-time work is treated as invalid, and experience cannot be individually assessed. Since, as I’ve said, women make up the majority of NSMs, it is women yet again who are more likely to suffer from such short-sightedness.

Exploring and embracing new patterns of ministry

Following that experience, and after much prayer and exploration I’ve decided to leave the parish I love, take a leap of faith, develop some aspects of my free-lance ministry, and make space for the wind of the Spirit to direct my course. My three congregations were incredulous that I should be asked to do a curacy, and they feel angry that the hierarchy of the Church are ‘letting go’ of someone whose unconventional ministry they have valued. Of course I’m not an isolated case, and I know that such institutional blindness also leaves many male clergy feeling undervalued.

It is thought that what women priests want is to be able to break through the glass ceiling that prevents us from entering senior decision-making positions. But whilst removing that ceiling is important, women like myself long for the Church to embrace and facilitate new patterns of ministry. You see, whatever our points of overlap, significant differences do exist between male and female rhythms of life, and the ordained patterns of ministry around today are far more suited to men’s shape than to that of women. Many of us question present hierarchical, power-based, workaholic ministerial structures, and favour more collaborative flexible patterns of ministry. For that reason I am not surprised to hear that although women are being offered jobs as e.g. Archdeacons, they are reluctant to accept them. But can change happen if women are not in the senior positions the integrity of which they question? I guess we need women working at the heart of the institution, and also women like myself trying to work new patterns on the margins, and all of us listening to each other and trying to discern the voice of God incarnate among us.

In the story of Elijah, there is great warning for us. God asks Elijah what he’s doing. Elijah bemoans his position. He looks for God in the wind, earthquake and fire - it is after all in the miraculously powerful that he has previously experienced God’s presence. Elijah, fixed as he is with certain expectations about how God is revealed, is unable to recognise God in the sound of thinly sliced silence. So when God asks again what he’s doing, Elijah repeats his first answer. As a result God retires him, telling Elijah to anoint Elisha to take on his mantle. As a Church I believe that we, like Elijah, are dogged by too many fixed ideas, and until we let them go, our capacity to hear God and to listen to people outside our community will always be limited.

Insiders rarely see the whole truth

Perhaps religious rigidity exists because the ecclesiastical status quo suits the dominant group within the Church. It is sometimes hard for those who have succeeded in, or who benefit from a system, to notice its injustices. Sometimes the most important voice in terms of a community’s well-being is that of the outsider, or the person who struggles to find a place within it. Far too often these are the voices the Church condemns, derides or simply ignores. A prophetic, visionary voice can only speak to people in the present if it comes out of the discipline of attentive listening. Which brings me finally to Anna. In the story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, we meet Anna. Her story as it has emerged in my imagination captures many elements of what I’ve been trying to say, and affirms why we, the Church, should embrace whole-heartedly the ministry of women, lay and ordained. I hope that whatever questions I’ve raised in your minds, Anna’s story will lift your hearts.

Anna (Please note: this story is copyright to the author)

The temple is my home. Here I worship and fast and pray. And here also I watch and wait and listen. I have watched many people come and go in the eighty four years of my life. I have waited in many a time of confusion and uncertainty for the word of the Lord to speak the silence of peace. I have listened to the stories of those that pass by, and learnt much of the ways of the world beyond my own home.

Some say I have the gift of prophecy, but I only tell them what they are too busy or too blind to see for themselves. I have found the temple to be a microcosm of the world. Here is life and death in all its beauty and betrayal. In the outer court Jews visiting from far away lands exchange their foreign currency for shekels, and alongside locals who’ve never set foot outside Jerusalem they barter for sacrificial lambs and pigeons. Mingling amongst the stalls are the good and the bad, the hurt and the healers, the young and the old, the wise and the foolish, and I have come to recognise them all. I’ve watched every kind of man, from the hateful to the holy, passing through this court to the inner court where women may not walk. I know the ones who beat their wives and the ones who tread gently in another’s space. I have practised my art of observation over many years and am deceived no longer by the faces that mask the inner man.

And I listen to the women talking together around me. I hear their pleasures and their pains. I have watched their children grow and learnt why some become good and others good-for-nothing. In the heat and hubbub of the temple I step back from life and observe its intricate patterns, and I am content.

It was not always thus. I was a young headstrong girl with a clear mind and an eager heart. I was greedy for life. Always on the go. Never satisfied. My parents wisely sought out an intelligent, handsome and witty husband for me, one who would not curb my irrepressible spirit. We had three beautiful children. Life was very, very good.

And then, quite suddenly, after seven years of marriage, my husband died. One minute I was leaping exultantly through life, the next I slammed full tilt into a wall of questions as hard and unyielding as the stones that enclose this temple. Bruised and battered I tumbled down, stunned, into the depths of despair. My family rallied around and helped me through the darkest times. But they could not give me peace of mind. So many questions without answers. So much unexpected insecurity.

It took me many years to learn that the Wise are not those who have all the answers, but the ones who are open to the questions. That is where creativity has its source, in the void where we must make meaning out of nothing, and find there is substance in the story.

By the time I had learnt not to fear the questions, my children had grown up and gained families of their own. I lived with my eldest son and I felt very much at home, but a husband and wife need their own space, space to be themselves, to sing their shared songs and shout out their savagery uninhibited by spectators. So I started to come here to the temple. Just to give them some privacy. And after a while I found that I liked being here.

Looking back I now see that the pain of my husband’s passing was not only the pain of loss, it was also the pain of labour, forcing me from the womb of security into a world beyond my imagining. And just like a newborn baby I had wailed out my sense of betrayal as I breathed in fresh life-giving air. I have come to see in every ending the possibility of new beginnings, and in every birth the dying that must come if we are to have life. Not everyone understands, but this is what I proclaim to the people.

And this morning I saw it with such clarity that I was overcome with the wonder and mystery of it all. Simeon saw it as well. He and I go back a long way. Together we have passed more Passovers in the temple than I care to remember. Simeon is here almost as often as I am. We rarely speak to one another these days. We have no need to. A look, a gesture, and the intimate understanding of old friends are quite sufficient for us.

When I saw Simeon, holding the baby, tears streaming down his face, I was deeply moved. I knew that in that moment the veil between the Holy One and our humanity had been lifted. Simeon was having one of those “Ah, yes!” experiences when everything comes together with such clarity that you wonder how you could have been so blind before it. I was drawn into his rejoicing. There was something so profound about one so newly born being held by one so soon to die, old and young inextricably linked, birth and death united, hate defeated by love, the Lord made visible in his creation. This is redemption I thought. This is what raises us from the trials and tribulations of life. “Come and see,” I called to those passing by. “Look what the Lord has done for us.”

The Revd Ruth Scott is an Anglican priest and broadcaster, theatre chaplain and much more besides!

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You are reading The Experience of Women in Ministry by Ruth Scott, part of Issue 22 of Ministry Today, published in June 2001.

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