Betty is a prime number

BETTY IS A PRIME NUMBER BETWEEN 17 and 23 – a retrospective and a warning call.

Let’s include Thomas Cranmer in our session:  Let us pray.

God, foreasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may, in these and all things direct and rule our hearts. Amen

In November, 1992, I was waiting with crowds of women deacons in Dean’s Yard in Westminster, in London.  On that day, the legislation was passed at General Synod in Church House enabling the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England.  I was able to join in the celebrations there.  I rang Terry who was back in Armidale with the news that we had won.  It was four o’clock in the morning in Armidale!

But what had we won?  We’d won the battle to change the legislation.  But had we won the hearts and minds of people?

This year we’re celebrating twenty years of the ordination of women to the priesthood in this diocese.

Today we’re going to look back to the discourses of resistance to women in the priesthood twenty years ago, and ask to what extent women’s priestly ministry is being accepted twenty years on.   I did a PhD study twenty-five years ago analysing the discourses of resistance.  I wanted to know why people in the Church resisted the idea of woman as priest.   I’ll tell you a little about my study and then ask where are we now. Some women priests will help us to come to some understanding of where thinking is at the moment.

I wonder how much you managed to hear of the talk during International Women’s Week in early March.  It showed that women are a very long way from equality on the world scene. In fact, at the National Press Club lunch in that week, powerful women speakers warned that we seem to be going backwards in the move to equality. There is still underlying, unrecognised, often unconscious gender bias in the minds of men and women.

We were given stunning statistics such as,  70% of the world’s poor are women.  And women own less than 1% of the world’s property.

So if that is the situation in the world, where are we in the church?

I want to share with you something that happened at the early week-day Mass on Ash Wednesday this year, at the Cathedral.  One of our faithful parishioners who has moved out to near Ipswich came in to this early Mass.  She must have had to leave home at 5.30 to get to the Cathedral in time.  This morning the priest was a woman.

Our faithful communicant did not make her communion.   She’s an intelligent woman, quiet and thoughtful, but even today, twenty years after the first ordination of women to the priesthood in this diocese, she cannot receive communion from a woman priest.

There was a male priest in the congregation and it was suggested that he could communicate her, but she wouldn’t. She can’t cope with a woman consecrating the elements at communion.

When a woman priest on an earlier occasion, caringly offered her communion from the reserved sacrament, she refused that too because there were no guarantees that those hosts hadn’t been consecrated by a woman.  (Both those women priests are with us today.)   This happened in February this year.

If she were our only problem it would be bad enough, but what if she is not.

The situation has of course changed from the scene twenty years ago.  At the time of my study we, in MOW, and others, were struggling, as I said, to get church legislation changed so that women could take their places as priests in the Church of God.   And we met the opposition that I will outline briefly to you in a moment.  That battle is won.  The legislation was passed long ago. Women are furthering the kingdom of God as leaders of parishes all over the world in the Anglican Communion.  And we have three women bishops in Australia now.   But has the opposition gone? Have we won the hearts and minds of people.

During my study I published,  ‘Fit for this Office’, in 1989,  just in time to stand side by side with David Wetherall’s  ‘Women Priests?  In Australia?’ at the synods to come.

It may have made a difference.

It has the heartfelt stories of women deacons such as Peta Sherlock, Barbara Darling,  Angela Carter,  Ruth Mills and dear Elvie Frazer.  Elvie was Deacon-in-Charge on Flinders Island in Bass Strait.  She had to wait each month for a priest to fly in from Tasmania to consecrate a mountain of hosts and jugs of wine to last four or five weeks of reserved sacrament Communion.

In the 80’s, I met Alison Cheek who was an Australian who was in the controversial Philadelphia eleven, ordained in America in 1976.   When she came home to Australia, of course her priesthood was not recognised by the Anglican Church in Australia. I remember being at a National MOW Council meeting in Melbourne at the time, and a group of us met with Alison  around a coffee table,  in someone’s lounge room and had an ‘agape’ meal at which she presided. What an inspiration she was for us!

I stayed with Alison in Boston.  She arranged for me to interview Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.  She was, then, Assistant Bishop in Boston. What a formidable woman.  She was black, smoked cheroots and so had a gravelly voice, was divorced and wore Chanel suits.   Betty is a prime number…

She told me she was not popular at the administration of the Sacrament because she would not give the Host to anyone until they looked her in the eye.  It often made for a long communion process.

The diocesan offices had a long line of photographs down one hallway, of bishops in chronological order and there at the end was a woman, Barbara Harris, in rochet, chimere and pall!

I worked with Ann Loades, when I was a visiting fellow at St Chad’s College in Durham University in 1991.  She was one of the great writers and exponents of women’s ordination – up there with Rosemary Reuther and Elizabeth Fiorenza – and I learnt a great deal from her.

They were some of the great experiences I had while doing my study. But this is a research seminar, so I will tell you a little about my research.  And ask what progress we have made in the last twenty years.

The research I am going to outline to you shows that there were, in the late eighties, in the church, ingrained anti-women attitudes that had no anti-men equivalents.

The calibre of the women who are being ordained is certainly helping to change those attitudes. And many of you have had little or no experience of opposition because of gender.  But let’s be aware of the attitudes of some people (not all) twenty years ago.  And let us ask ourselves how much have attitudes changed in the past twenty years.

In my study into the discourses of resistance to the ordination of women, my two theory bases were semiotics and discourse analysis.

I surveyed 28 parishes in 7 dioceses across Australia. 644 parishioners responded.

I also lead 4 group discussions in 4 parishes in different states.

I had hundreds of verbatim responses from the discussions and the questionnaire. We have time for only a few of them.

All the parishes used had women deacons, and at that stage the biggest group of 14 parishes was in Melbourne diocese. Even then, although the deacons agreed to take part in the survey,  they had misgivings.

They wanted to be priests. They wanted to keep a low profile and not rock the boat, and none would take the responsibility of distributing or collecting the questionnaires and sending them back.  The respondents had to do that themselves.  So the fall-out was considerable and 644 was only 51% of the number distributed.

Even then, in 1989, 70 – 80 percent of respondents in my study had no problem with a woman being a priest. But the other 20-30% had real problems. I did a poststructuralist analysis and deconstruction of the discourses that came through in the responses, and part of this was the analysis of the semiosis. I will briefly explain these terms, but you will realise that a brief explanation often leads to borderline inaccuracy.

Semiotics is the study of signs – the study of how we / often unknowingly, / send and receive messages in our everyday communication with each other.  One important aspect of this signalling is the way we signal to each other in language and the other is how we send and receive signals in our environment.

Part of the signalling through language is the use of metaphor.  We use metaphor to make meaning real.  Metaphors make us notice.  They bring similarities together.  They signal to us. We say ‘Ben is a cold person’, and we know that in most contexts ‘cold’ does not refer to degrees Celsius. It refers to emotions.  The metaphor works because we make the mental leap across the comparisons.  ‘You must be born again’, is a baptism metaphor that poor Nicodemus struggled with. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is a caring metaphor that the church works hard to make meaningful to congregations who have no experience of sheep.

‘The Lord is my psychiatrist’, although a caring metaphor, doesn’t work at all.

In just the same way, when we say ‘Betty is a prime number, it doesn’t compute.  No matter how much interpreting, evaluating, discarding  and refining we do in our minds it doesn’t work.

Can you see that for some people, ‘woman is priest’ was, and perhaps, still is, a concept that just does not compute.  For some people there is no coherence or similarity between what they conceptualise about women and what they conceptualise about priests; just as there is no coherence or similarity between what we conceptualise about a person called Betty, and what we know about prime numbers.

In a moment, I’ll tell you some of the responses in the discourse analysis of my thesis and you will see this mismatch working.

Semiotics (signalling meaning) can operate in other ways to form attitudes and opinions.  An easy example is the up/down signalling in life.  Heaven is up. Hell is down.  Up is good.  Down is bad.  Her spirits soared. She was feeling down.  We look up to them, but we look down on them.

In most churches, the altar is three (or more) steps up, the pews are down.  The priests, once all male were up; the people, mostly women were down.  This subliminally signals the superiority of the priest.  They are up, closer to God. They are men.

Women used not to be allowed into the sanctuary even to arrange the flowers.

How easy it is to slide from up, closer to God, to good; and down, away from God,  not good. The subconscious effect is strong in some people.  And it was all regularly signalled to people in the church in the years before 1992.

So that, very briefly is semiotics; signalling in words and environment.

The other research method I used was discourse analysis. Discourse is a way of speaking ourselves into being (text) and being spoken into being (context).  We are who we are and we think the way we do because of the discourses that have surrounded us and constructed us.

One researcher used the landscape as a useful way to explain the positioning of people by the discourses within a social system such as the church. Any landscape changes according to the position of the viewer.  A mountain may have trees on it on the south but bare crags on the north. Two people coming into that landscape from opposite directions looking for accommodation for the night would have opposite reactions. A person viewing the mountain from the south would say it was a pleasant place and cheerfully move towards the village for accommodation.  Whereas the person viewing it from the north would deny this, saying it was dry and bare, and, because they can’t see the village, would despair of a bed for the night.   We can’t blame either of these people for their thinking, given their positioning,  but if they were on the phone to each other there could be a serious argument.   Also, their opinions and feelings can change as they move into the landscape.

Seasons affect landscapes, too.  A person describing a landscape in winter will be at odds with a person describing the same landscape in spring. Age can affect how we see things.

But usually in a heated discussion people don’t make their positions clear or make allowances for difference.  Without the recognition of differing positions there is great difficulty in achieving meaningful dialogue. This was happening in the women’s ordination debate.

Kevin Giles, a great supporter of Women’s ordination, said, in an article in Church Scene in December 1989;

In some fifteen years of seeking to engage my Moore College friends in a genuine debate on the biblical teaching on the status of women, I have never succeeded. It seems I can never get a hearing….Usually I am ignored, often attacked, but never answered in any way to the point.

The landscape that concerns us here is the issue of the leadership of women in the church in the position of priest.  People view this landscape from their different perspectives – where they have been in their Christian journey, what they have been taught, the experiences they have had, what they have read, what they do in the secular world, how old they are.  Are they evangelical, liberal or Anglo-Catholic in their theology?

We found twenty years ago that this different positioning caused an impasse in the debate.  People didn’t take in to account that those with whom they were debating had been constituted differently and had different realities from their own.  They were using the same words – priest, ordination, power, leadership, womanhood, – but imputing different meanings and those differences remained unsaid.

So confusion can reign if people assume wrongly that they, and the person with whom they are speaking, are operating from the same discourse.  Remember these people in my study had been brought up in a church that was completely ruled by men. And they were coming from a position in a society   that had not moved far in gender equality.

In just one example from my study we can see people standing in different positions in the landscape of the Communion Service.  The same liturgy, the same words and actions.

In response to the question, ‘Would you feel comfortable with a woman saying the Consecration Prayer in the Eucharist?’ one respondent said: As she is supposedly representing Christ at the Consecration she cannot fully do so because of her gender.  Whereas another respondent said:   The priest is not putting himself or herself in place of God at the moment of consecration.  How interesting that the first respondent had been so constituted by her communion ‘landscape’ that she saw the priest as representing Christ. But the second person was constituted quite differently by the communion landscape.

In many parishioners’ minds the priest was an icon of Christ, and Christ’s maleness was not debateable. This posed great problems for some to put a woman into the role of priest.

So, discourses form us.

People are spoken into being by the discourses available to them.

People can be constituted only by the available discourses.  This is what gave us hope twenty years ago.  As women were ordained and took up positions as parish priest, the whole discursive field was going to change in the parishes.  People who had formed their opinions because they had never witnessed a woman as priest would now have this discourse and semiosis available to them.  Has it worked?

The shift from the metaphor of priest as father to a replacement metaphor to suit a woman is just one of the paradigm shifts that was asked of people in the church.

One of the questions that dominated twenty years ago was ‘what will we call her?’  Mother Agnes sounded so monastic. And besides, mothers and priests did not share attributes.  In the dioceses that I surveyed, congregations were used to calling the priest ‘father’. Fathers are men.  They no longer saw it as figurative.  They saw it as truth.  The symbol became the thing symbolised – it became the reality.  Priest as mother did not work – Betty is a prime number… .   There is at least one woman priest in this diocese who is called ‘Father’.  Does that work?

The newspaper cartoonists of the eighties had a great time with the issue!

But this was only part of the male metaphor that congregations had to change when women were ordained.  Most of us here are old enough to remember how unthinkingly we regarded God as ‘heavenly Father’ – a male domain that it is very difficult for concepts of womanhood to break into.

And the hymns we sang, Stand up O men of God …O brother man hold to your heart your brother.

Congregations were asked to ‘fight the good fight’ – a male image of battle, contest, attack, defeat, strategy.

Much of this has changed. Some people are learning to disown the patriarchal discourse in the church and are striving to substitute for it a more inclusive discourse.  Have you noticed, ‘Together in Song’ has ‘alt’ at the bottom of many hymns.  Much sexist language has been removed from the Prayer Book. At the Cathedral, in psalms and prayers we often alternate him/her as pronouns for God, and the word God is repeated in sermons rather than use a male pronoun.  People don’t even know that they are being nursed into an equality discourse.

I’ll just outline some of the forming discourses in the church that came through in the responses in my study.

I won’t spend valuable time on the tradition/history discourse.  Such things as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas who taught that  ‘women are misbegotten males’ and Gregory V’s maligning of Mary Magdalene, and Gregory IX’s declaring that women were not made in the image of God, and the horrors of the Malleus Maleficarum. They are all outlined in my thesis. It is difficult to comprehend the dissonance in the Middle Ages between the holiness discourse with women saints and the evil discourse  that all women were witches; and the dissonance between mediaeval misogynist discourse and the mystic, God-as-Mother discourse of people like Julian of Norwich and Bernard of Clairvaux.  People would have had to hold in tension opposing discourses and still experience themselves as coherent and rational. This could be seen happening in my study.

Perhaps the overarching discourse was that of gender and gender roles in life. For example, in the discourses of ordination and priesthood the male semiosis was all pervasive.  The signalling of the line of vested figures in front of the Archbishop at an ordination was male.  It was unthinkable that one of those figures would be a woman, with long hair, ear-rings, lipstick and perhaps high heeled shoes. Betty is a prime number…

Some parishioners have been taught, either overtly or incidentally, that the priesthood goes back in a long, male line of Apostolic Succession to the 12 apostles, who were all men (pace Mary Magdalene), and to Jesus who presided at the last Supper. One respondent said, The priest to me represents Christ at the last supper. Leonardo da Vinci has a lot to answer for.

And a 40 year old male said, Christ was male. Unfortunate but fact.  This man would be in his sixties today.  I wonder if he has changed his attitudes? 

Within the gender discourse, the discourses of domesticity and motherhood were strong, often alongside a patriarchal discourse.  Many of the older women in my study had been spoken into being by a domestic discourse.  They happily did the flowers, made the tea and scones, led the Sunday School. They’d always done this.  They’d invested all their lives in this sort of service. No wonder they resented the women upstarts who wanted to be priests.

The Bishop of Ballarat at the time, John Hazelwood, in an article in the Australian said ‘the priesthood has sacramental connotations that have always belonged to males in the same way as motherhood has belonged to females’.   Let’s deconstruct this for a moment.  Does the Bishop mean that there is something in the sacramental nature of priesthood that requires male biology?  Because there is certainly something in the motherhood discourse that requires female biology and he has juxtaposed the two. He says, ‘… in the same way…’.  He is slipping between discourses and this is where poststructuralist analysis can help us discern what he is really saying. St Bonaventure is reputed to have said, ‘A woman can no more be a priest than a man can have a baby.’ Saints, too, can slip between discourses.

A woman seeking a position as parish priest was seen as unfeminine and abrasive by those operating in a romantic, or evangelical, fundamentalist discourse. The decadence in society and the decadence in the church over the last – say – 100 years is partly this breakdown in the patriarchal society said a woman in her 40’s. Here we had a woman who could not cope with change and who needed the security of having a man in charge.  I wonder how she feels now.

I was surprised by the discourses of fear and evil, reminiscent of those examples I gave of the Middle Ages: one woman said, I don’t like women priests, they are evil creatures (!)  Here we have ancient memory of moon goddesses, Vestal Virgins, human sacrifice, priestesses. And there was a great fear of how the beloved Church would change if women were allowed to be priestesses. That word was used to frighten. Priestesses are contrary to God’s purpose for his church was another astonishing incorrigible proposition. (It was surprising how people claimed to know the mind of God.)  And even more astonishing someone said, An ordained woman represents  the religion of the Goddess  – not the God of the scriptures.  A woman seeking a position as parish priest was seen as evil and witch-like by those men and women operating in a discourse of evil.

One of the women priests I interviewed in Boston told how she was accused by a woman parishioner of being a witch, because she had been successful in her ministry and the woman could not explain it any other way.

After seeing a television report of a MOW protest outside Synod a male respondent said,   I saw a few of those hysterical birds and saw middle-age problems.  There are two discourses here: firstly, the discourse of hysteria to frighten. The hysteria discourse is linked in people’s minds with insanity and witches and it is used only in relation to women. And the discourse of trivialising.  This is a very powerful discourse for putting people down.    We’ve all heard the meat pie comment.

In the fear discourse, one respondent said that the idea of women as priests ‘verged on blasphemy’.  Blasphemy itself is a discourse – a way of speaking that dishonours God.  A blasphemous statement is not sayable in the serious discourse of the church.  To say that particular talk is blasphemous is to silence that talk. It is a powerful use of discursive control.

The headship discourse was strong in the theology-bible-and- liturgy discourses. Women were accused of wanting status and power in the Church. All of the reputedly Pauline repressive texts about women obeying and keeping silent were brought out.

One woman said that if a woman’s husband was not as clever or spiritual as she was, she was to make him appear to be so.

Another woman said that she had lost her father and brother and had never married so whom was she to lean on if the priest were a woman.

–                –            –            –            –            –            –            –            –            –            –            –            –

This is only a very small sample of the responses in the various discourses.  But remember they are from the 1980s, not the Middle Ages. There is a copy of my thesis in the library here at St Francis so if you are interested in the whole study you could consult that.  I’m just giving you some of the more worrying responses that came through in the answers to the questions.

These responses in all the discourses show great human needs in people that really often have little to do with theology and liturgy.  Can we assume that having achieved our goal of the ordination of women to the priesthood that these needs have gone away?  Or are being met? How can we find out?  Do we care?  Is there anything we can do about it? Is it best to let sleeping dogs lie?  It would be so interesting, 20 years on,  to have another study to see where we are.  But would such a study be counterproductive? The people closest to these questions are the women clergy and I’m going to hand over to them.






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