Women in the Church – Thoughts from a Laywoman

8th November 2011 - by Ellen Teague

Ellen Teague
Ellen Teague


A talk given by Ellen Teague on 3 November 2011 at the Sacred Heart Church in Bilton, Rugby, as part of their series of talks ‘Living Faith and the Future of the Church’.

These are some of my sisters in the Church in Britain:

Pat Gaffney and Valerie Flessati, whose work with Pax Christi and on peace education over several decades has enhanced the British Church’s link into World Peace Day and promoted new initiatives such as peace gardens and a peace truce around the period of the Olympic Games.

Josephine Siedlecka, who founded and runs Independent Catholic News almost single-handedly. A web-based news service set up ten years ago, it now receives nearly four million hits a month.

Mary Colwell, who has worked tirelessly in her diocese of Clifton and at national level to bring environmental justice onto the Church’s agenda in this country.

Rosemary Read, who has given enormous time and energy to Justice and Peace work in her diocese of Nottingham and at national level. Rosemary is now chair of the National Council for Lay Associations.

Anne Peacey, Ann Kelly and Maureen Matthews of the National Justice and Peace Network, who promote networking between dioceses and Christian agencies on J&P issues.

Sr Pat Robb, a sister of the Congregation of Jesus for more than 40 years and a qualified midwife, she has supported refugees and displaced people – often running emergency camps – in many crisis areas of Africa. Now living in East Anglia Diocese in Britain she has been a prison chaplain and a chaplain to asylum seekers, as well as supporting action on climate change.

Yes, the Church in Britain has involved some fantastic women – women whose appeal for a project in the Dominican Republic led to the formation of CAFOD 50 years ago; the National Board of Catholic Women who gathered from around Britain last month in London to examine the legacy of Vatican II; the women who have run Catholic Peoples’ Weeks which offer families such a great opportunity to explore their faith. I could go on all evening about women who have given their lives to building up the Kingdom of God, inspired by their Catholic faith, and very often working on a voluntary basis or with minimal renumeration.

But I have been asked to highlight the problems women face in the Church and the possibilities. Let’s look at problems first.

Are we beyond the days when the women were the tea makers, the ironers of Church vestments, the Church cleaners? I am going back 30 years when I recall a parish AGM where I picked up the courage to ask if the invitation in the parish newsletter to ‘ladies of the parish’ to come forward to clean the Church before Christmas could be extended to the men of the parish as well. The parish priest at the time retorted, “Its not every man who can shake a duster”. You can guess how I responded: “Well all the more need for them to practice!” I don’t think such a notice would appear now. But I have experienced problems as a woman at a variety of levels in the church…and here I am going to be deliberately vague: the conference liturgy planning group which had been meeting in the six months lead-up to have its arrangements caste aside at the weekend itself by the bishop presiding at the final Mass; turning up to a diocesan group that had spent a year setting up a J&P Commission and about to draw up a job description for a fieldworker, to be introduced to the priest who had been quietly appointed to the job between meetings; being told I was invited onto a high-level Church committee because women had to be represented but finding that I had limited power once there.

But let me focus on the gender issues that are structural and are causing scandal within and without the Church.

I’ve felt very privileged to serve the Church in many capacities but I have plenty of personal experience to show that women still are often outside the inner circles where key decisions are made. And when I say inner circles I am not just talking about clerics. Very often key diocesan financial and properties resource people, for example, are men. In all this I wouldn’t just blame men for letting gender inequalities continue. So often a woman has said – “I am so pleased you spoke up and challenged, I wouldn’t have dared!” And in cases where women I know have been treated unjustly by the Church they have generally preferred to go quietly, even signing silencing clauses, and leaving clericalism unchallenged. But the fact that the higher echelons of the church are male preserves – generally male clerical preserves – gives scandal. Let me explain….

In the summer I visited a relative in the US who hasn’t engaged with the church since she left Ireland in the 1970s. As we approached the weekend I asked her about the location of the nearest parish for Sunday Mass. She derided me for my commitment to an institution which she saw as institutionally unjust because it was ruled by men only. I put the case that women do have some power but could hear myself in my knee jerk defence of the Church saying things I didn’t truly believe…. “many church organisations and Catholic schools are headed by women and they have power”; “but the Church has completely changed since the 1970s”. She was outraged that in this day and age only a man could be pope, and by the cases of sexual abuse of children covered up by the Church. She even accused me of being complicit in propping up an institution that should be allowed to decline. She didn’t even know as much as I did about the depth of scandal in the US church where bishops have left known sexual predators in ministry, transferred them around a diocese, to other dioceses and even out of the country in attempts to protect a religious institution’s image rather than the children. Or that lay review boards have frequently been overridden by the male hierarchy and promises of openness and transparency not kept. She wasn’t aware that the issue of whether clerical celibacy is part of the problem has largely been dismissed by church authorities.

There is plenty of evidence that clericalism rules at the Vatican. I felt incredibly disappointed earlier this year when somebody I knew from her time at CAFOD, Lesley-Anne Knight, had her appointment to serve a second four-year term as Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis in Rome blocked by the Vatican. This is an incredibly insightful woman, who recognised the significance of climate change for development before it became top of everyone’s agenda, who was planning to put Food Security – particularly the promotion of sustainable agriculture – at the top of the Caritas agenda in her second term. In her gracious farewell speech in May she urged her successor – a man – to continue to work towards a more equitable balance between women and men in the leadership of Caritas organisations. And added: “We should not forget that lay women make up a huge proportion of Caritas workers. They deserve respect and recognition. My appointment as the first woman Secretary General in 2007 was a courageous step. You know that we can do the job – only fear, misogyny and prejudice stand in your way.”

Women have little say over Church resources. Take property, for instance. In my neck of the woods a decision was announced recently to sell a major pastoral centre – and when I visited the following week I learnt that this had come as news even to people who worked there. I had used the site regularly for three decades but there was no opportunity to give an opinion before the decision was taken. I’ve been thinking about the centre this week with the news that the M25 is 25 years old. Gravel from that site was sold to build this motorway and women I know who were based there 30 years ago complained about the destruction of an orchard and surrounding countryside which eventually became a massive landfill site. They weren’t listened to then and little has changed. A few years back a senior church figure admitted in a TV programme that he favoured centralised decision making – presenting a fait accompli and then fending off the short-term flack. Well the complaints may be short-term but the hurt people feel can last a lifetime and be picked up by a younger generation of Catholics. This doesn’t mean holding a grudge, but feeling let down by a church to which we women are essentially intensely loyal.

Then there’s the area of women’s labour. It is well-known that nuns are often regarded as cheap labour, but what about lay women. I read an interesting story this week in the US newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, about an Indian woman – Virginia Saldanha – who went from working with marginalised domestic workers to becoming head for ten years of the Women’s Desk of the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. In all that time she received only an honorarium for her work, despite being a widow with children to raise. She left the post two years ago with the following observations. When her desk looked into the issue of domestic abuse it was accused by hierarchy of supporting marriage breakups. She felt the institutional church failed to recognise that earlier women were silent victims of violence in the home, and that the time had arrived when women refused to be silent and carry “their cross” to save a marriage without men taking any responsibility. She also complained of obstructions put in the way of the Women’s Desk holding a meeting for dialogue between women theologians and bishops. “I felt my work moving downhill” she said and left. She did feel the work would continue at the margins of the church because there is a lot of awareness about women’s rights and status by women who still regard the Church as their home.
The key point of contact of women with the Church is the Mass but many of us have problems with the new liturgy – the whole top-down process of it for a start. Ten years in planning, but still we are not using inclusive language. When I attended Mass on All Saints Day I simply didn’t say every word of the Nicene Creed, but will today’s young Catholic women put up with this? Why can’t we move to using words that do not alienate and exclude when this can be done so easily?
Well a fundamental issue is patriarchy – where the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to the organisation. In his book, ‘The Dream of the Earth’, the eco-theologian Thomas Berry expressed concern that the four great influences on human history have all been patriarchal establishments: the classical empires, the nation state, the modern corporation and the ecclesiastical establishment. The impacts have involved more than denying power to women. The world as a whole has suffered as it has failed to give weight to feminine perspectives and experiences.

I am going to say more about failing to respect feminine insights but as I highlight specific problems I’m going to suggest that I am moving into the possibilities for the future of the Church. Firstly, I’ll highlight the role of prophetic women who have explored the mission of the Church despite repercussions from the male hierarchy.

Sr Elizabeth Johnson, for example, is currently on sabbatical from her position as a professor of systematic theology at Fordham University in the US. Her book, Quest for the Living God, drew praise in many quarters when it first came out for sketching new understandings of God based on various contemporary intellectual currents, including political, liberation, feminist, black, Hispanic, interreligious, and ecological theologies. However, the Committee on Doctrine of the US Bishops’ Conference says the book reaches many conclusions which are “theologically unacceptable”. Well what has Johnson said that is unacceptable? She argues that all-male language about God perpetuates “an unequal relationship between women and men,” and thus has become “religiously inadequate”. She says that contemporary scientific discoveries concerning the age, size, dynamism and interconnectedness of the universe are prompting Christians to see creation not merely as “an instrument to serve human needs” but rather as a reality enjoying “its own intrinsic value”. She suggests that “human practices of consumption, pollution and reproduction are wreaking terrible damage on our planet’s life-sustaining systems of air, water, and soil, and the other creatures that form with us one community of life”. She invites religious orders to “contemporise our vows in light of eco-spirituality and response to climate change”. Johnson argues for seeing the Cross not “as a death required by God in repayment for sin,” but rather “as an event of divine love” and as the price paid by Jesus for his ministry – a price, she said, still sometimes paid today by religious women and men in different parts of the world. When the objections to her book were reiterated again last week by the US Catholic bishops she commented: “We in this Catholic Church continue to live by patriarchal values that, by any objective measure, relegate women to second-class status governed by male-dominated structures, law, and ritual”.

Sr Joan Chittister is another US religious whose thoughtful writings have much to offer the Church. A Benedictine Sister of Erie, she is a best-selling author and serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organisation of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. However, she is banned from speaking in Catholic churches in some US dioceses. She recently criticised those dioceses in her country denying girls the opportunity to become altar servers, despite official church acceptance of female servers since 1983 and the long-established practice in churches everywhere. The idea that women are to be “seen and not heard” is fast becoming “neither seen nor heard” she reflected. “From where I stand”, she recently wrote in a newspaper column, “it is clear that the church already lost a good proportion of one generation of women in the last 25 years and is now willing to lose the next one to reassert its maleness”.
I’m not going to get into the controversial issue of women’s ordination except to say that I find it strange to be asked to pray for vocations when many vocations that are forthcoming – and who is to say they are not God-given – are completely ignored by the Church because they are not from men. And we’re not supposed to talk about them either. Just a few days ago human-rights lawyer Helena Kennedy said at a meeting at parliament to discuss women priests that she abhored the idea that discussion of women’s ministry is forbidden by Rome. When Joan Chittister was invited to attend a Women’s Ordination Conference in Ireland in June 2000 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Consecrated Life wrote to her superior of the Benedictine Srs of Erie, Sr Christine Vladimiroff, asking her to keep Sr Joan at home. Sr Christine declined to do so and her statement explaining her reasons for disobeying the Vatican is a most extraordinary document. It was “out of the Benedictine tradition of obedience,” she said, that she formed her decision. The Vatican notion of authority exerts power and control out of a false sense of unity inspired by fear. Benedictine obedience and authority, on the other hand, are achieved through dialogue between a community member and her prioress in a spirit of co-responsibility. Obedience has a higher meaning than merely following orders from a legitimate superior. “Sr Joan Chittister, who has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for fifty years, must make her own decision based on her sense of Church, her monastic profession, and her own personal integrity. I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing.” She continued: “I do not see her participation in this conference as ‘a source of scandal to the faithful,’ as the Vatican alleges.” I think the faithful can be scandalised when honest attempts to discuss questions of import to the Church are forbidden. Sr Christine pointed out that Benedictine communities, “were never intended to be part of the hierarchical or clerical status of the Church, but to stand apart from this structure and offer a different voice; only if we do this can we live the gift that we are for the Church; only in this way can we be faithful to the gift that women have within the Church.”
I am with Sr Christine that a healthy Catholicism embraces dialogue and women like Srs Elizabeth Johnson and Joan Chittister should be listened to. One of our home grown feminist theologians, Tina Beattie, commented recently:
“There are more women theologians and biblical scholars today than at any time in history, and yet not a single one of these has ever been quoted or cited in any papal document, nor are they consulted in the formulation of the church’s doctrines and teachings. There are thousands of women’s religious communities around the world led by strong, educated women which have yet to gain any effective representation in the Vatican – indeed, in the midst of the sex-abuse scandal the men in Rome have still found time to launch an investigation into women’s religious communities in the United States, in order to weed out those guilty of what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls a “feminist spirit” and a “secularist mentality”.
Just last week I attended a talk in London by Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, who was speaking at the AGM of a prominent climate sceptic think tank without any censure by the Church which takes a different line to his views. During question time he mentioned in passing that it was a pity there were so many vocal “ecologists and feminists” who “fail to put Jesus at the centre of their mission”. Well, I like to think I have a tendency towards both but Jesus is definitely at the centre of my mission.

Concern about Justice in the Church has been a hot issue for at least 40 years. November will see the 40th anniversary of the 1971 Synod of Bishops – Justice in the World. Many Justice and Peace organisations throughout the Church are inspired by this document which said all those years ago: We … urge that women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and likewise of the Church’. The document went on to say: ‘We propose that this matter be subjected to a serious study employing adequate means: for instance, a mixed commission of men and women, religious and lay people, of differing situations and competence.’ Irish theologian Donal Dorr said recently, “As far as I know, this document of 40 years ago is the only major statement issued from Rome which addresses seriously the issue of justice in the Church itself. I find it quite shocking that the proposal of a mixed commission was never taken up and is still hanging in the air.” Of course, Catholic environmentalist Barbara Ward fed into that document. A new version of it has been produced by Pax Christi, the Columbans and the National J&P Network, and will be available any time now. I suggest we revisit it and consider its recommendations again.

I also see hope that the hierarchy recognises that women must be in church structures. The Directors of the Catholic Education Service and the Catholic Social Action Network are just two of the women involved at a high level in the Church in this country, although I see that the first has just announced her resignation. The National Board of Catholic Women is a consultative body of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales – meaning it has a role within the structure – and I truly hope that they are indeed consulted, often and seriously.

I work with the Columban Missionary Society and am very proud of their model of working which recognises the value of women’s work and insights. I and a Chilean lay missionary woman, who runs the Columban lay mission programme in Britain, work alongside Columban priests on our Columban website. We are fully resourced for our work and given responsibility. And as we reflect on missionaries around the world, names like Jean Donovan and Dorothy Stang are like shining lights which inspire us all.

I saw possibilities during the pope’s visit in September 2010 when the work of people at all levels of the Church and both genders worked together to make it a success. I know Catholic youth workers were very involved in the Hyde Park Vigil I attended and the young people surrounding the pope were young lay women and men, as well as clerics. I will freely admit that when Pope Benedict entered the arena I was cheering along with everybody else and felt a tremendous sense of community as we all prayed together on that warm late summer evening. There was a sense of great love and the spirit of God holding us together.

I urge the Church to follow up by bringing women more into decision-making processes at all levels and giving as much resourcing to the mission of the Church as to maintenance. Catholic mothers, for example, want far more opportunities for their young people to get involved in the Church and perhaps employing more youth workers might be part of this. What about giving more space to the prophetic voices which will help shape the Church of the future, and generally giving more resources to adult formation which will nourish lay women and men. This study series here at the Sacred Heart is a very exceptional example of adult formation! Women do support the parish model but the fact is that thinking Catholic women give perhaps more energy to Catholic groups outside it, where they are more likely to have their faith developed and their skills recognised. Parish councils don’t have teeth, in my experience, and laity in general won’t engage seriously unless they feel they are able to make a meaningful contribution.

I love the Church enough to stay with it, despite its inconsistencies and, yes, its hypocrisy in relation to women. John Chittister puts it so well:
“I stay with the Church as a restless pilgrim not because I don’t believe what the church has taught me, but precisely because I do. I believed when they taught us that God made us equal and Jesus came for us all. I believed in the Jesus they showed me who listened to women and taught theology to women and sent women to teach theology and raised women from the dead. So today I believe that the church, if it is ever to be true to that same Gospel, must someday do the same. It must commission women as Jesus did the Samaritan woman, listen to women as Jesus did the Canaanite woman, raise women to new life as Jesus did the daughter of Jairus. I stay in the church because there is nowhere else I know that satisfies me in what the church teaches us to seek: a sacramental life that makes all life sacred, a community of faith that celebrates life together, the proclamation of the image of God alive in each of us, the contemplation of truth that makes life meaningful.”