Reclaiming Nuns for God

St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen
St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen

Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy  to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).

When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?

Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?

I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.

In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as  odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.

Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.

There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?

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Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?

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Filled with Awe and Great Joy

The Resurrection of Christ
Michelangelo: Sketch of the Resurrection

After the splendour of the Easter Vigil we now have a quiet hour or two when we can reflect on what the Resurrection means for each of us. All three synoptics tell us that it was the women going secretly to anoint Jesus who were the first to hear that ‘He has risen from the dead’. In our very male-dominated Church, it is easy to forget that women were (and are) apostles of the Resurrection, called to ‘tell the disciples and Peter’ what they have seen and heard. To be an apostle in this sense, to witness to the reality of the Resurrection, to proclaim it fearlessly, is indeed to be filled with awe and great joy.

May you have a blessed Easter.

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Thirsting for Life

John 4 is one of my favourite gospels. I love the feistiness of the Samaritan woman, the way in which she engages in dialogue with Jesus, neatly side-stepping some awkward questions but responding to him with generosity and increasing frankness until finally she can set off to tell everyone about him. There is such energy and vividness in the way in which the evangelist presents a quite complicated theological statement. One can have great fun tracing the significance of the five husbands, the five baals, and different elements of the story. Yet it was not this that made me think as I read the gospel at Vigils this morning but the simple fact of Jesus’ thirst.

The next time we shall hear of Jesus’ thirsting will be as he hangs on the Cross. Thirst is worse than hunger: a more insistent, more urgent need. The idea of God thirsting for our love so intensely that he is prepared to give the life of his Son is deeply shocking, enough, surely, to shock us out of our complacency. No? The sad fact is that we have heard the story so often, seen the image of the Crucified One so frequently, that we have become a little deadened to its impact. This morning’s gospel is all about life. Maybe we need to listen to it with fresh ears.

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Catholic Women Don’t Preach

They blog instead. Or, I daresay, they lecture their spouses occasionally, if they are married, or their communities, if they happen to be nuns (we call it “giving a conference”). Dr Johnson, as everyone knows and some regularly misquote, thought that a woman’s preaching was very like a dog’s standing on its hind legs, remarkable but not necessarily done well. Having listened to the preaching of several Anglican and Methodist friends, I have to dissent from the Great Cham’s opinion on the surest of all grounds, that of experience. Some of the most brilliant preaching I have ever heard has come from women. Why is the Catholic Church so iffy about allowing women into the pulpit?

Partly, we know, it is because of what the Catholic Church believes about the Mass (which is where most preaching occurs) and the sacrament of Orders. It is quite wrong to see this as an equality issue although it is sometimes presented as such, by those who wish to uphold the status quo as well as those who wish to attack it. I don’t think “equality” really comes into it, but what we believe about the Mass and Orders may affect perceptions in other areas. For all kinds of reasons, women in the Catholic Church are still seen primarily as wives and mothers, even if they are neither or have many other roles in addition. We don’t usually define men in terms of their being husbands and fathers (although American Catholic men seem touchingly ready to define themselves that way). The argument from complementarity works well on paper but is less convincing in action. I have a sneaking feeling that some of those most passionate in its advocacy are secret admirers of the article on “woman” in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. (I read it, entranced, at the age of eleven and have wondered ever since whether it would be possible to meet such a being.)

Blogging is a low-cost way of addressing an audience and many Catholic women, including me, have taken to it with delight. It doesn’t need an imprimatur (remember them?) or a sacrament or anything in particular to validate what is said. I do believe that anyone claiming to be a Catholic blogger should take the trouble to find out what the Church actually teaches before launching into the ether, and I hope I’m scrupulous in that regard, though that is for others to judge. The trouble is, I am still haunted by Dr Johnson’s little joke. Am I preaching when I jot down my posts, musing aloud in public (which is what I like to think) or performing some kind of verbal acrobatics? Doughty dame or dancing dog, who knows?

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Women’s World Day of Prayer 2011

Map of Ivory CoastLast night I could not sleep. Trying to pray failed to cure my insomnia, so I fell back on listening to the World Service. A report from Ivory Coast shocked me. A woman described how a group of about 5,000 unarmed women had gathered to march in support of Alassane Ouattara. As they began to do so, tanks appeared and at least six women were gunned down by the security forces (the woman speaking claimed eight were shot, including one pregnant woman whose womb was ripped open and another whose head was blown off in front of her). This morning, that report is not even mentioned on the front page of the BBC news web site. To me, that is eloquent both of the quiet heroism of many women and their “unimportance”.

It is ironic yet strangely fitting that the news should reach us today, which is Women’s World Day of Prayer. Had those Ivorean women been hurling sticks and stones, I suppose the story might have been more newsworthy, but they were defenceless, in a part of Africa no one except God thinks about very much or very often. Today huge numbers of women throughout the world will be gathering together to pray, and the prayer of all will be one with the prayer of the powerless and “unimportant” in every age. I believe such prayer is powerful with God. Perhaps the death of those women in Ivory Coast may help bring about the political change which no amount of diplomatic dealing or violence has yet been able to do. I certainly hope so.

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Equality is not Fairness

Yesterday Eunice and Owen Johns lost their appeal in the High Court. They had wanted to become respite foster carers but a social worker at Derby City Council had expressed concern at the couple’s opinions about homosexuality. In the words of Mr Johns, “We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

In giving their verdict, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beaton said that while Christians in general might well make good foster parents, people with traditionalist views like Mr and Mrs Johns might well not. (I suppose we should ask the fifteen children the Johns fostered back in the 90s about that, but it could be a bit radical, to look at the evidence.) Anyway, breathtaking though the judges’ assessment of Christianity may be, what is really significant is what followed. The court said that while there was a right not to face discrimination on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation, equality of sexual orientation took precedence. In other words, the law is to be interpreted according to secular values. In part, that seems absolutely right; in part, it seems very dangerous, for it will mean that Christian opposition to euthanasia, for example, will have no value in law. Conscience will count for nothing.

Today we expect to hear that charging lower insurance premiums for women drivers (who cause fewer accidents and are therefore a lower risk than men) is discriminatory and contrary to our laws about sex equality. In the name of equality, therefore, premiums for women will go up, and premiums for men will go down; but the nature of the risk will not change.

Both these cases concern equality, and nothing could demonstrate more clearly that equality is not the same as fairness. I don’t know the Johns, but I have a feeling that there may be questions that are not being addressed or which have not come out in reporting of the case. Respite care is not the same as long-term fostering or adoption. It is a valuable service that comparatively few are able or willing to offer. While one applauds Derby City Council’s determination to find the best possible foster carers, one wonders whether in this instance it has not sacrificed children’s interests to a theoretical position on equality. Similarly, in the case of car insurance premiums, equality in one area must mean arbitrariness in the assessment of risk in others. Certainly, I shall be challenging our insurers to explain how they assess the risk I pose (not many male nuns around, I think).

Sometimes we work hard to achieve equality and forget that fairness is also important. I may not be alone in wondering whether our copious equality legislation isn’t producing a society that is harsher and less fair than it ought to be. What can we as Christians do about it?

Update
Since writing the above I’ve realised that many will think I am criticizing the High Court opinion about the Johns or taking issue over the suitablity of the Johns to be foster parents. I am not. I am using their case to discuss our assumptions about equality. I don’t think the Johns should have taken their case to court in the first place, but that is just my opinion and does not affect what I am trying to say about equality and fairness.

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Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church

A thoughtful question posed in a comment to yesterday’s post (Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility) is my reason for writing about this subject. I hope that what I say will stimulate reflection and debate, and that the debate will be conducted with sensitivity. The last thing I should wish to do is cause pain to those who have been raped or who have suffered an abortion.

First, a few words about myself. Long ago, before I became a nun, I used to play an active part in Life which, at that time, had a very clear and simple response to abortion. Essentially, we said that people had to have a choice and the only way that a real choice could be offered was by ensuring that anyone who was pregnant had somewhere to live and all the support needed to bring her child safely into the world. Many of the people we tried to help were deeply afraid: of violent partners, hostile parents, their own inadequacy to cope with parenthood. We provided ‘safe houses’ and on-going help.  I can recall only one woman who said she had become pregnant because of rape, but I’m sure there were others, and probably instances of incest also. I state this because one very good question is, ‘how much do you know about the subject?’ and in my case the answer is ‘very little, but possibly slightly more than some others’.

Next, we need to consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It starts, not with a negative, but a huge positive: all life is sacred, and in the case of human life, that life begins at conception. This teaching is based on scripture and natural law. The problem with natural law is that not everyone believes there is such a thing, i.e. a self-evident truth which is accessible by reason and is not dependent on religious belief. If you are prepared to give the time, one of the best accounts of what Catholics believe is in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life). In section 60 the pope says, ‘From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth…[M]odern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be.’ Read that, and then read what obstetric textbooks say about the beginning of human life. The fact that the viability of life outside the womb is being pushed further and further back seems to me to underline the fact that the answer to the question ‘when does life begin’ is susceptible of only one answer: at conception.

The Catholic Church is entirely consistent in its attitude to the sanctity of life. As Donum Vitae puts it, ‘It is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ (That’s also a reason why the Church is unhappy with capital punishment: there have been so many instances of innocent lives being taken.) We simply don’t have the right to take innocent human life; and that’s something that allows of no exceptions or we get into the business of valuing one life more than another. A child conceived by rape is still a child and has as much right to life as a child conceived by loving parents; so too does a child who has some physical or mental deformity. Our value as human beings does not depend upon our being perfect according to some arbitrary standard imposed by other human beings.

So, we come to the distressing case of someone, woman or child, who has conceived because of rape. Do we say, ‘The circumstances are so awful and the suffering will be so great that abortion is allowable’? or do we say, ‘This is terrible. We must do all we can to help the woman and her child, and go on helping, because there are two lives here and both are sacred’? The Catholic response is the second. Please note that it has two parts.

It says first of all that rape is a terrible wrong inflicted on another. One of the problems we face in western society is that rape has somehow been trivialised. No one I have ever spoken to who has been raped would agree that rape is trivial. That is a message we need to get across loud and clear, and I’m not convinced that the Church has done a very good job on that. Secondly, it says that there are two lives to be considered and we do not have the right to choose between them. On the whole, the Church has done better with that, but it has not always stressed sufficiently that its teaching makes other demands on the Catholic community. If we are to uphold the Church’s teaching about abortion we must also uphold her teaching about the duty to help and support those in need.

I am sure that this post will seem harsh to many. I have not been in the situation I describe and do not know, from the inside, what it is like, but I still believe that what I have written is true. Sometimes when Catholics talk about abortion they give me the shivers. What comes across is the moral absolute, not the reverence or compassion which should be an integral part of it. There are no easy answers to hard questions like those posed yesterday. We have to live with that and do the best we can. Pray today for all who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy — and dig deep in your pockets and your compassion.

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Saying Sorry is not for Wimps

Many readers of this blog probably sighed with relief when they heard that Britain’s state-owned woodlands are not to be sold off to the private sector; but I wonder what they made of the curious political tit-for-tat that followed the Environment Secretary’s announcement. I thought myself that Caroline Spelman handled a difficult situation with dignity, even graciousness, and was particularly struck by the absence of fudge in the way she began her announcement, ‘I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today.’ That is not what, sadly, we have become accustomed to hearing from some of our M.P.s. Even more interesting, though, was the way in which she countered an accusation that she had been ‘humiliated’. Whatever her private feelings on the matter, what she said was straight and to the point: ‘I’m sorry . . . One of the things we teach our children to do is say sorry. It is not a humiliation; it is my choice.’

Why do we think that admitting one is wrong and saying sorry is humiliating? Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in history, some of the most dreadful wars, owe their origins to someone’s inability to climb down and say sorry. We all know the kind of apology which is no apology at all and merely provides the one ‘apologizing’ with an opportunity to run through all the resentments that led to the explosive situation in the first place. But a genuine apology, made simply and humbly, is utterly disarming. Few have the courage to attempt that, and I have to say, at the risk of annoying my male readers, that women tend to manage it better than men. Perhaps because we cannot physically exert our will on another, perhaps because we are better at reading emotions than many men, we don’t find it necessary to maintain our position in the face of the evidence. We can concede without feeling defeated.

Jesus of Nazareth was one man who knew how to handle an apology. On Fridays our thoughts turn naturally to his Passion and death on the Cross. I am trembling on the edge of heresy when I say this, but I think his death is not only the occasion when man said sorry to God for all the sin committed by humankind, I think it is also the occasion when God said sorry to us and bowed his head before his creature, not because God had ever done us wrong but because the way in which an apology is accepted matters, too. Saying sorry is not for wimps but for the brave of heart and truly loving.

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Cracking the Code

How about a little light-heartedness to start the week-end? We all love being let into a secret, so today I’ll give you a little bit of nunspeak and what it really means. Please note: you are advised not to try these at home. They only really work in monasteries and among people strangely attired

“in your abundant leisure” = I know you haven’t a moment to spare and it’s probably hopeless asking, but . . .

“in case I die in the night” = I want you to know that I put something in the oratory/library/attic (delete as appropriate).

“I was in the prayer of gentle drift” = I feel asleep during  prayer time.

“by virtue of holy obedience” = I’m pleading with you.

“Dear Sisters” = there’s been a disaster somewhere (probably in the kitchen).

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