Where do you find feminist religious inspiration when you need it? Sometimes the answer is hidden in plain sight. So it was for me at school. For I was involved with a number of social transformations at my local secondary school, including being part of the first year of the historic admission of females. This not only seemed a self-evident justice to me, but it was also a personal saving grace. Indeed, in my final two years, I was part of otherwise all-female classes for most of my subjects, bar one other male assigned student (in religious studies). Also, to the initial chagrin of some, our 19th century grammar school (founded in 1863 out of the medieval charity created by Thomas De Aston, a 13th century monk) two years later finally fully joined the modern world as a 'comprehensive' school: merging with the local 'secondary modern' school, whose pupils were traditionally divided from us by the selective examination known as the '11 plus'. At which point school 'houses' suddenly appeared, under the names of the well-known local Lincolnshire worthies Tennyson and Wesley; the explorers (Joseph) Banks and (Matthew) Flinders (actually much better known in Australia than in their homeland); the fearsome Hereward (famed indigenous resistance fighter against the Normans), and, more mysteriously, (Anne) Askew. Happily I was placed in her house, but who was this, to us, unknown woman? Sadly, I never really found out then. On asking, apart from guessing that she was the 'token' woman in the list, we were told she was martyred at the Reformation. 'Great', said most of the boys: 'not only do we not get to be associated with a fighter like Hereward, or at least an intrepid explorer like Flinders, but we get landed with a woman, and one whose claim to fame is being slaughtered.' Even the girls had sympathy with the latter affirmation. Yet, had we been given a richer explanation, we might have had a very different viewpoint. For, of all the Lincolnshire icons, it is arguable that Anne Askew was the greatest of all. She was not just a type of freedom fighter (like Hereward), an intrepid adventurer of the new (like Flinders and Banks), a poet (like Tennyson), or a model of renewing spirituality and freedom (like (the) Wesley(s)). She was all these in one, and she did it all as a woman to boot...
Taken seriously, Christian spirituality really is extraordinarily queer. This is hidden by widespread modernist narratives and assumptions, both secularist and Christian 'mainstream', and also, still more, biblicist and fundamentalist, Sadly, such restrictive approaches try to squeeze the tremendous historical diversity of scripture, tradition and religious experience into various Procrustean beds of ordered, ideological, understanding. Yet the control of spiritual bodies, like queer bodies, always proves elusive, even to the most subtle and determined of subduers and butchers. History is indeed full of horrendous tortures and amputations inflicted upon such bodies. Ultimately however they can not be wholly suppressed. They break through in ways which are life-giving and surprising, if sometimes highly ambiguous and constrained. Certainly this is true of medieval bodies, not least those of female mystics: perhaps above all represented in Julian, or Juliana, of Norwich. For it is not an accident that the 14th century Julian has been 'rediscovered' in recent decades by those seeking fresh perspectives on spirituality, gender, God, and the renewal of being. In her we are drawn from our tombs of suffering and despair into subversive possibilities of new creation.. Not for nothing is she thus perhaps the greatest of all English spiritual teachers...
Jim Thompson. our lovable bishop who ordained me deacon in London's East End, used to say that not a week went by without him wondering why he was still in the Church, and yet not a day or two without experiencing something of the amazing gifts which come with being a priest. I thought of this when I was reminded this week of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ordination of women measure in the Church of England's General Synod. Writing in the Church of England Newsletter this week, Emma Percy, Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) in the UK, commented pertinently about the joys then, and the achievements and frustrations since. As she reflects:
It is now 25 years later, almost half of my life, and the young people I work with have never known a Church of England without women priests... (now) part of culture appearing in TV, adverts, novels; both fictional and real examples. Yet, tensions over the role of women still continue in the church... The debates around women bishops meant that the church’s continuing uncertainty about really welcoming women into all orders of ministry was played out for the wider world to see. Sadly, this means that many younger people think the church is out of step with gender equality.
25 years on I rejoice that the church has benefited, and continues to benefit, from the priestly ministry of so many women. I rejoice in the ministry I have been able to have. I hope that we can continue to encourage women to serve in this way and that the Church of England will find ways to truly celebrate the momentous decision made 25 years ago.
Those are memories and reflections with which I concur. It is a mixed bag. Indeed, as my first grandchild comes to be baptised (in Christ Church Gosford) tomorrow, and in the wake of the Australian postal vote on marriage equality, it leaves me pondering: what will be the shape of the Church in another 25 years?...
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.