I was struck today by a topic of conversation on a discussion forum, it was to do with the image of women in Christian ministry, particularly the Anglican ministry.
A lot of people training part-time to become Anglican priests are retired, or older and only working part-time. It makes sense as they are often training for non-stipendiary (unpaid) ministry and are people who have other means to live on. Someone described a lot of the women who are training as seeming like ‘dinner-ladies’… and it wasn’t meant as a compliment to their caring manner or good way with children.
In addition to this there was a reference to a fictional character on Facebook, called ‘Revd Agnus’. Having looked her up, and read her pages, she is a slightly amusing but undeniably unkind caricature of an elderly, uneducated, well-meaning lady; who thinks ‘Jesus is lovely’ and considers herself part-time priest and part-time lollipop lady.
These two things made me think about the sort of women I know who are entering ministry. Of those who I know who are training for Lutheran or Reformed ministry in Europe, they are young, intelligent, vibrant and naturally attractive. Of those who are training for Anglican ministry, many are indeed older and less obviously vibrant, they are evidently faithful and hardworking, intelligent and caring but not always in the prime of life.
And I then thought about my friends who are Christians and female -and about my own vocational path. Very early on (I would have been about 25) I was sent to see a vocations advisor and the topic turned quite quickly to how people can sometimes misdirect the love and longing that they feel towards God; into an infatuation with their priest: this sort of transference is also well-known in psychiatry and counselling. Did I know this, the advisor asked and how could I see myself coping with it?
At the time I just addressed it sensibly, I was aware how people could mistake heavenly love (agape) for more earthly love (eros) and how it was important to live with our libidos and not suppress them but make sure they were managed appropriately -I ended up talking about my (very handsome) husband!
Since then I have wondered how many young women, visiting male vocations advisors or older female vocations advisors, have been judged as unsuitable because of appearing… not enough like a dinner lady or brownie pack leader, and too much like a very real human being…
It made me think -is there some massive hang up that some people have, when Eve really does love God more than she loves Adam. I’m not saying that I don’t find people attractive, I do -but not even my relationship with my husband means more to me than my relationship with God… and this should be absolutely fine in Christian circles – but again and again I realise people seem to mind; some elderly women look at me as though I were an adulteress when I find that I am training to be a priest and am also married. And that’s just the elderly women in Church.
If I had studied psychology I expect I would have all sorts of good reasons to hand, why this should be -but I haven’t. I can only surmise that their anger is in part to do with percieving me as ‘having my cake and eating it’; or to do with their own feelings of self-repression/ self-sacrifice to their partners…
The reaction of old and young men who disapprove is usually somewhere between total denial and bafflement. Either way my vocation seems to cause almost physical pain to some groups of people, and the looks that pass across some faces as they twist their minds to get to grips with what kind of abherration of nature I might be – makes me utterly grateful that I am just being obedient to God -since I think he is often all that stands between me and a hefty slap in the face. Really very scary.
But I wouldn’t want to help it. I love my husband and baby more than any other people, and I love people generally… but I love God more. I just do. I love God most.