The Church of England Learns to Put Its Trust in Women

March 20, 1994|By JOHN E. McINTYRE

It was a long time coming.

The General Synod of the Church of England set the process in motion. Parliament endorsed it. The Crown gave assent. So it happened that on March 12, the Rt. Rev. Barry Rogerson, Bishop of Bristol, ordained 32 women as priests.

They were the first of more than a thousand women expected to be ordained as the mother church of Anglicanism follows the example of the dozen Anglican provinces -- the United States, Canada and New Zealand among them -- that have already taken the momentous step.

In the two decades that this matter has been working itself out in England -- movement is cumbersome in an established church -- these women first won admittance to holy orders as deacons. Now they are being ordained priests. Presumably, in time, some of them will be consecrated bishops and will in their turn ordain priests.

Unfortunately, their joy at the fruition of their hopes finds its complement in the chagrin of many who believe that women have no place in holy orders.

The arguments, in Rome as well as in Canterbury, lie in well-trodden ground. Each claim meets its counter

claim -- Jesus picked only men as his disciples; well, so what; Jesus picked only observant Jews as his disciples -- until the benign fog of theological abstraction envelopes the whole question.

One issue, an ugly one, that those abstractions tend to obscure is misogyny, a deep cultural or psychological suspicion and fear of women -- mixed with an outrage at erosion of cherished masculine prerogative -- that breaks out with an emotional intensity that must be witnessed to be credited.

Some years ago, my wife chanted the Exultet at the Great Vigil of Easter in our parish. The chant, a celebration of the Christian Passover, is the prerogative of a deacon, but the Prayer Book provides that a lay person may serve as cantor.

One of the members of the congregation, a brother in an Episcopal religious order, was upset -- not because my wife was not a deacon or priest, but because she was several months pregnant.

His carrying-on on the point may be inexplicable to those of us who like women and enjoy their company, but in time I began to surmise where the emotional charge may have originated.

Anthropologists know that primitive wonder and fear at the female body, which in menstruation bleeds without illness or wound, and which is the source of life, often leads to complicated regulations to ensure "purity."

Judaism, the root from which Christianity branched, took a stern view about the suitability of women in sacred precincts, and something of those attitudes appears to have lingered well into our scientific and secular era.

What else can explain the vehemence, the sheer emotional excess of the men who loathe the thought of women as priests?

A Lincolnshire clergyman, the Rev. Anthony Kennedy, was quoted last week as saying, "I would burn the bloody bitches." (He also flattered himself that what he was uttering was merely "colorful language" and that "many of my parishioners find it hilarious.")

The objections to women as priests matter to those who hold them. Their beliefs are deep, their pain genuine. But to the extent that misogyny may enter into the matter, it constitutes an evil as profound as race prejudice, ethnic hatred or class hostility. It is a thing to be faced.

Some will not. Many Church of England clergy are being received into the Roman Catholic Church, where they can entertain the hope that their attitudes will not be seriously challenged in their remaining spans -- though the pressure is building in that communion, too.

Those who do can expect surprises.

In this country, the Episcopal Church has had women as priests for nearly 20 years -- and the American church has discovered that male priests did not set so lofty a standard that emulation was impossible. In the parishes, thousands of Episcopalians have had occasion to discover that, within the customary human limitations, women as priests are thoroughly able to show an example of godly life.

In England, an age of discovery is beginning.

John McIntyre, an Episcopalian for the past 18 years, is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk.

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