'Like the Wideness of the Sea' by Maggi Dawn
In her latest book Like the Wideness of the Sea she addresses the continuing difficulties of the Church of England in completing the process of embracing fully the ministry of women by appointing female bishops. She identifies, rightly or wrongly, that the Church has already decided on this course of action, and much of the agony of the moment derives from a structural inability to move forwards or backwards for reasons few comprehend.
It will come as no surprise to anyone where her sympathies lie, but it would be a mistake to think that there is nothing in this book for those continuing to doubt or struggling with the issue.
She begins by likening the Church's current position to that of the vessel in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from which the title derives. Few will dispute that the CofE is currently becalmed in a place most of its occupants do not fully understand, and most will hope that the analogy holds true when reminded that the Mariner finally finds a way out of limbo by encountering life in an unexpected transformative way.
She usefully summarises both the recent history of women's ministry in the Church and of this particular measure. I suspect that few of us who have an opinion on the issue could actually explain how we arrived at the impasse, and she reminds us that the issue of women bishops flows naturally from the decision to ordain women. For those seriously seeking a way through the problems, familiarity with the route by which we arrived can only assist, not least by ensuring that we do not waste time going over old ground. ‘Those who fail to learn from history are forced to relive it’, so having a readable potted history will help anyone seeking to grapple with a difficult and seemingly intractable problem.
She draws on contemporary examples of agonised waiting such as that of the Hillsborough disaster families, noting from the Book of Proverbs that ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a longing fulfilled is the tree of life’. The purposeful waiting of Advent and Lent is differentiated from institutional lethargy and the deadening effects of what she describes as the ‘deferral of resolution’.
She does not pray in aid Dr Martin Luther King's plea to put behind us ‘the paralysis of analysis’, but writes in a similar vein, and is prepared to consider that if ‘to everything there is a season’, then there comes a time when patient ‘waiting on the Lord’ can and should give way to righteous anger. Both are biblical responses.
God is not neglected. There is an interesting exploration of the idea that our waiting for God is sometimes mirrored by His expectation of us: and as time changes so does context. Whereas once the Church would have been one of many scenarios in which women were under-represented in the highest echelons, we are no longer camouflaged in this way. We stand out, but not in a good way, and that can be both de-motivating for those within and alienating for those on the outside who look in with incomprehension bordering on incredulity.
The Ancient Mariner begins his escape from atrophy when he sees the sea snakes around him which somehow reconnects him with life.
Towards the end of this short book, she explains her own route to ordained ministry which fulfilled the theology she outlines; that nobody arrives at ministry through personal conviction alone but rather through a sense of calling in conjunction with the Church from its separate discernment of vocation. Thus it was that what began as a simple offer of her musical and performance talents to improve the liturgy at her local church was quickly identified to be necessarily fulfilled through ordination, even though that was not an available option in 1990.
That is a useful reminder that not every woman-priest’s vocation is rooted in feminist ambition: some were called ‘by a church to a ministry that didn't yet officially exist’. Her account of the hostility she encountered is shocking on the simplest level of courtesy let alone within a church.
The years in between have been ones where the Church has struggled to retain those who have a problem accepting women’s ministry. Those leavings, real or potential, tend to be open and known, but her story highlights the erosive effect of constantly having to justify a ministry, being repeatedly undermined and needing to live constantly with the sense that personal presence is in some way an offence to the ecclesiastical order.
Many women in the Church choose not to highlight their experiences because ‘nice girls don't get angry’, but it is important to hear that which has often been repressed out of politeness or fear of making things worse.
This is, however no ‘misery memoir, but rather a prelude to her principal theological point. It is not the harm this does to women priests of which she complains, but rather the ‘pinched narrow and mean’ image it presents of God, and of His Church. God is not celebrated in the ungenerous rejection of half His creation.
At this point in her story she resolves to leave ministry, with the blessing of her bishop, and to seek to fulfil her calling away from the constant necessity of campaigning and justifying her place in the Church.
While putting together a collection of part-time jobs to make ends meet, a letter unexpectedly arrives offering her the position of Dean of Chapel and Professor of Theology at Yale University. The new life is in an environment as welcoming, open accepting and fulfilling as the previous one had been tense, suspicious and combative.
One does not need a Masters degree in theology to imagine the conclusions drawn.
She adds to the obvious conclusion the fact that her productivity surged in the absence of suspicion, resisting harassment and bullying. Whatever one's take on the issue, few can deny the debilitating effects of the long attritional process in which the English Church is currently mired.
Inevitably she reflects how her earlier ministry might have fared if she had worked within a similarly affirming and accepting environment, and the lesson for the Church and the under-powered performance of distracted ministries is plain.
She now lives in the kind of environment which she hoped to experience back in the heady days after the first approval of women's ordination in 1992. Inevitably one reflects that if these are the thoughts of one who has successfully passed through the rejection, how must the experience of paralysed process feel for those less confident, less supported, still clinging to hope of resolution.
In her conclusion she grasps the nettle. There is no magic compromise. Either women's ministry is embraced in its fullest form or it should be repealed, and efforts to run a church with polar opposite interpretation will please none and fail. That said, she would be prepared to see some churches allowed to continue to seek the direct ministry of a male priest but the notion of second class of woman bishop is not negotiable for her, nor, she postulates, the growing cohort of women on whose talents the Church increasingly depends.
It is at this point that I would have appreciated her views on some of the theological objections currently outstanding. I can guess what she makes of ‘headship’; I am less sure on ‘sacramental assurance’ and the book might have helped those less versed in the argument.
That is a minor criticism. This is her testimony and it is instructive. Her story ends that sometimes it is more important to take the short-term pain of making a decision than to dwell in deadlock. People will leave whether a decision is made or no decision is made, and she plausibly points out that too legalistic a settlement no longer looks like a marriage but rather divorce.
This is a short book and a good one. Most who buy it will probably be of similar mind to her already; if so they will be emboldened. The unsure may be swayed. Those who can never accept women's ministry probably will not read it, but it does give some indication of what has been lost through the unedifying wranglings of synodical indecision.
Her final charming anecdote is worth waiting for, and I shall not spoil its impact.
(Posted by Brother Ivo)