In God’s Image … All of Us

I should have known it was foolish to write about not being busy. I haven’t given up on my pursuit of spaciousness and ‘time wisdom’, but it seems to be three months since I last found the time to write a blog post!

However, I can’t let this week pass without a huge ‘shout out’ for the Church of England as celebrations take place of the twenty year anniversary of the ordinations of the first women priests.Twenty years which were preceded by decades of struggle on the part of those men and women, lay and ordained, who consistently and courageously held out a new vision for the church: a vision of the possibility of priests of both genders, together reflecting God’s image in the world. Twenty years during which the ongoing un-recognition of the full gifts and potential of women has caused many people to slip away from the church uncounted by the institution, but deeply grieved by many who remain. Twenty years during which the ministry of ordained women priests has built, inspired, shaped and enlivened countless communities and congregations, and people and places that might otherwise have remained untouched by the church’s mission.

This Saturday, 3rd May, at 1pm in Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey, people will gather to celebrate these two rich decades and to honour those whose courage and tenacity made it possible, whilst lamenting the loss of those who have felt compelled to walk away, and remembering friends who are no longer with us.

At 2.15 we will set off to walk to St Paul’s Cathedral, where at around 4.30pm the Archbishop of Canterbury will greet everyone from the steps. The cohort of women who were ordained priest in 1994, together with representatives from all the dioceses of the Church of England, will go into the Cathedral for a service at 5pm. The Eucharist will be celebrated and – via a live link to a screen in Paternoster Square – the crowd outside will share in the thanksgiving and celebration and will also be able to receive communion.

If you’re free and can get into London do come and join us for the walk or in Paternoster Square. As a gathering of women and men of all ages, lay and ordained, from diverse ethnic, social and cultural communities, we will reflect the breadth, vibrancy, generosity and grace of the God in whose image all of us – all of us – are made.

Distracted by Envy

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about envy. This is not a new theme for me: which is a sad and sorry thing for someone with so many blessings in her life to admit. I don’t envy people’s smartphones, or holiday destinations, husbands, houses, handbags or lack of thread veins (actually that last denial is probably a fib). But I envy their gifts, skills, social capital, spheres of influence; and of course their impressive Twitter following and blog statistics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sufficiently conflicted to genuinely rejoice in other people’s achievements and successes whilst simultaneously wanting some of what they’ve got. I’m energized by the new wave of younger female clergy who are articulate, well-educated and formidably able. Yet I do sometimes envy their confidence. I love to see women of my own, mid-life generation, beginning to occupy senior roles with a combination of gravitas and refreshing new perspectives. I absolutely do not want their jobs: I would much rather be part of the way in which they are equipped and encouraged to get there. Yet I do sometimes envy their achievements.

There are, of course, people who are so (enviably) comfortable in their own skin that they can rejoice in other people’s successes without even a slight twinge of ‘wish that were me’. But there are also many, I think, who share my tendency to the distraction of envy.

I think it’s time we got a grip on it. Even if it’s only a small part of ourselves, and a deluded one, that thinks it wants to be someone else, it distracts us from the unique and wonderful project of exploring our own God-given gifts, strengths and opportunities. It disables our thinking and our doing. It diverts us from the things-about-the-world-that-only-we-can-change-for-the-better.

None of us has the same combination of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience as another. We have access to different places. We relate to different issues and individuals. Our passions and interests, our social background, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen, our particular competences and strengths and, yes, our fragility and mistakes: all of these things put each of us in an entirely unique position.

So we do need to accept that God is calling us, not to be someone else, but to take the heady risk of becoming truly, madly, deeply, all that we, and only we, can possibly become.

The Rare Fruit of Courage

We’re in a difficult place in the Church of England right now – and we’ve been here for quite some time. In fact, the desire to be a ‘broad church’ has presented its particular challenges right from the beginning. It has also produced the rare fruit of creative partnership between people of different theological traditions, nurtured by a shared distaste for exclusion.

Of course some people leave this church of their own accord. But we would genuinely rather that they didn’t. Difference is embedded in our DNA and we prefer to nurture it and ask what it might teach us, rather than uproot or suppress it.  And so the worldwide Anglican Communion is essentially a remarkable network of friendships, held together by the knowledge that God’s children are nothing if not diverse.

Here in England the difficult place in which we find ourselves is one which involves identity and validation. The majority want to make an unequivocal statement: that God is calling out women to be bishops, bringing to the role their gifts of discernment and creativity, of vision and pastoral sensitivity, of leadership and wisdom. But we also want to encourage the ministry and calling of those with whom we radically disagree on the theology of gender. We want them to be able to thrive as well.

The question is not and never has been: should provision be made for those who dissent from the majority view? The question is: how should such provision be put in place? How might it be made real and reliable without undermining the primary decision to consecrate women as bishops? Should it be framed in legal instruments and, if promises are breached, protected by recourse to law? Or might it be achieved through statements of gracious intent, requiring considerable trust from those relying upon them?

There has been a lot of water under the bridge. Groups and individuals on every side of the argument have at times behaved badly – or at the very least carelessly – towards one another. The soil in which trust might have been tenderly cultivated has instead been littered with obstacles to growth. Understandably, some now argue that the ground is irrecoverably infertile: that only legislation can save us from one another.

But the House of Bishops has spoken again in fresh tones, offering a new vision which, crucially, will challenge all of us at different points. The proposal is for a published framework of expectations regarding the promised provision, coupled with the innovation of an independent monitoring process to ensure that those expectations are fulfilled. Not legislation, but rigorous accountability, both moral and procedural.

This offers us the sort of space in which, if we wanted to, we could continue to relate to one another as partners in God’s Kingdom, willingly embracing our mutual accountability. We could walk together in genuine relationship, actively enabling one another to flourish. It would require not only trust but profound courage: far braver to live alongside one another without the sterile protection of law, relying instead on grace, human decency, and the ability to handle one another’s vulnerability with tenderness.

It’s a way of relating that is as risky and wise, as profound and edgy, as spacious and intimate, as deep and as wide, as the Church of England itself. It could lead to new discoveries about the God who longs for the time when we might show the world that we love one another, and are therefore capable of loving them too.

If not now, then when? Surely we have the courage to try.

(This is a personal perspective and not the ‘official line’ of any group or network with which I’m associated.)

Grownup Girls & Shot Silk Sisters

The truth is, I don’t really cut it as a girls’ girl. I’ve never been to a gym session or an exercise class with my mates; when I run, I run alone, partly because I don’t have enough breath to chat at the same time.  I’m not in the habit of meeting up with female friends for in-depth group analysis of our current relationships. And the last girls’ night out for which I spent several hours prepping my hair and nails was at college in the late 1980’s.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m blessed with a glorious array of women friends who inspire me, love me and make me laugh a lot. They probe me with the right questions at the right time and in the confidence of easy friendship share their insights, vulnerabilities and achievements. But with the exception of some lovely school-gate friends these grownup girls are all over the place – geographically, not emotionally – so I’m far more likely to be found in the company of one or two women than hanging out with a whole bevvy of them.

Except, that is, when it comes to my day job. Which happens to be for the Church of England: an institution which is struggling to make space for grownup girls to flourish. My work on gender-related issues means that I get to hang out with various crowds of richly talented, deeply intuitive, wonderfully creative, wickedly humorous, ever-resourceful women-of-the-cloth: vibrant, finely woven, shot-silk, cashmere-soft, leather-luxurious, lycra-edgy, tough as hessian cloth.

An amazing spectrum of women who throughout the church’s struggle to welcome, embrace and deploy them have remained passionate in their love of God and quietly but wonderfully competent in their living out of the Gospel in the world. And still they do that, and will do so, no doubt, for as long as it takes and thereafter.

In that sort of context, getting together with your mates – as part of a big crowd or a small one – really matters. Because it’s there that you remember how normal and normative it is to be a woman. It’s there that you see why an institution which doesn’t have women working alongside men in all the high places and all the far corners, at the centre as well as on the margins and everywhere in between, falls so tragically short of its potential. It’s there that you find the language to begin to express what is missing, and what goes wrong, when women are not fully encouraged to flourish.

It’s there that you look round the room and know, with all your heart, mind, soul and feminine intuition, that God created grownup woman, and saw that she was good.