Reflections in Time

One of the reasons I failed to blog last week was the disproportionate amount of time I spent staring at a spreadsheet. Not, thankfully, one that required financial analysis, but a list of women who were ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994, the first year in which that was possible. All 1474 of them. Thanks go to the Crockfords clerical directory, its patient administrators, and my forensically determined Dean of Women colleagues for ensuring, we hope, that the list is accurate and complete.

The other task which eclipsed the blog post last week was the need to gather contributions from friends and family for a birthday speech for my husband; and to scan a selection of photos from the past five decades into an album. Whether poignant, hilarious, proud, embarrassing or just simply happy, a big birthday calls forth memories.

Both the spreadsheet and the party have deepened my awareness of the passing of time. Of those first 1474 female priests, 173 have died in the past 19 years; some died within a year or so of ordination, literally having waited a lifetime for the church to affirm their calling. The rest have nurtured communities and chaplained hospitals, prisons and universities; they have enlivened cathedrals and done pioneering work in places that the church doesn’t usually reach. Next year the Church of England will celebrate two decades of women’s priestly ministry, hence the poring over spreadsheets to gather names.

As the pages of the birthday album were turned and the speech delivered – on a barge on the Grand Union Canal, surrounded by the lights of Little Venice and blessed by an almost-full moon – I was conscious of all the water under the bridge: the school days receding yet vivid in memory, the hedonistic freedom of student life, the seismic family events of love, birth and loss, the classic comic moments and new discoveries shared with friends. Accompanied by the inevitable realisation that we don’t look as young as we did thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, because we’re not.

It wouldn’t be healthy to spend all of our time reflecting on the past: being transported back to those moments that seem as vivid as this one and yet seem to have slipped, like sand, through our hands. As one version of Morning Prayer reminds us, ‘The day lies open before us’*, with all its new potential: and that means this day. But every now and again it’s good to recognise that we are what we are because of what has gone before. In the same way that those of the 1994 cohort who will celebrate together next year were shaped in relationship with the 173 who will not be there.

Except that they will. Because God’s perspective on time has always been a bit quirky, and the past, the present and the future are thrown gloriously into the mix, not only on the days of celebration, but in every moment of our lives.

*Celebrating Common Prayer

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.