I was struck recently by how all the celebratory pieces I was reading about the 25th anniversary of women priests were written from the point of view of those women whose vocations to priesthood were doubted (for many centuries) but then eventually recognised. While I could obviously understand why they were celebrating, the ordination of women was not just for women who felt called to ordination! So I offered WATCH (Women and the Church, the group that monitors what has happened since) a piece on how it felt from the point of view of a lay woman and this is the result. It turned out they’d tried to get a lay perspective but hadn’t managed it, so that worked out very well.
I think much of what I wrote is equally applicable to the current debates on human sexuality. For example, in my WATCH piece I wrote: “Yet the assumption of many people, in the church and beyond, was always that I was fighting this fight for myself. And, much as I deplore the language of victory and defeat, of us and them, it was a fight. I remember a televised debate from All Souls, Langham Place in which one speaker argued that women could not be ordained because of menstruation; this sort of approach made it very clear to me that there was far more at stake here than the role of priest.”
Menstruation: now there’s an area where I can contribute personal experience but also a different kind of ‘expertise’, as I wrote my PhD on ancient Greek menstruation. And why was I interested in the topic historically? Because of my particularly bad experiences of my own body… Yes, it’s circular, even if at the time I submitted the PhD thesis (1985) the ‘personal voice’ wasn’t a thing in classical scholarship so at that point I wasn’t going to say just how personal this subject was to me. Looking back, it was never any stirrings of a vocation to priesthood which made me campaign for the ordination of women; it was the theological moment of realising that it was Jesus’ humanity not his maleness that mattered, meshed with the awareness of how women’s embodiment has been systematically trashed throughout western history.
Personal experience comes in many different forms. As a lay woman who didn’t feel any call to priesthood I had a role in the discussion of the ordination of women, and as a cis-het woman I believe I have a role in the discussion of equality for lgbtiq+ people in our churches. In both situations, there has been a long history of exclusion, and even of doubting the full humanity of some people. In both situations, some of us are invested because of who we are: others are allies. But both are needed. Whether we fight for ourselves or for our sisters and our brothers, we fight on. Ah, that language again: I wonder why we are so scared of it? ‘Living in Love and Faith’: let’s lay hold on the ‘life’ part of that title.
Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy strength, and Christ thy right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.