This stained glass depiction of ‘St Swithin’ or, as we call him in Winchester, ‘St Swithun’, is so androgynous (in the Pre-Raphaelite manner) as to be more believably female than male. ‘Her’ rather modest mitre is in becoming contrast to some of the rocket mitres seen on the heads of our more exuberant episcopal overseers, which look as if they might take off for the moon at any moment. (And yes, I do know ‘episcopal overseer’ is tautological – the joys of being one’s own editor!).
Can I make a plea to my fellow members of the Church of England to see our clergy as asexual beings. I am not suggesting, of course, that our priests (including our bishops) should be asexual. As far as I am concerned, their sex lives can be whatever they wish so long as they do not do it in the street and frighten the horses. It is not properly of any interest to me.
The clergy exist to channel God to their congregations, and to channel the prayers of their parishioners to God. They are there to teach us about the life and teachings of Christ. They are there to encourage us to read the bible. They are there to foster the body of Christ in their communities.
If you start from first principles, not by reference to the history of the Church, there seems no good reason why these functions cannot be equally well fulfilled by men or women: to put it bluntly, whether one’s genitalia are external or internal is irrelevant to one’s ministry. I wrote previously about Aristophanes as the original ‘complementarian’. This word has unfortunately been co-opted by those who believe that the role of each sex in the Church is biblically ordained. I suggest instead that God would expect his followers to agree with Marx: ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs‘. Twenty years of ministry by women in our Church is all the QED anyone could need that the distribution of spiritual gifts is not dictated by gender.
I beseech you, Archbishops Council and General Synod, to remember the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, pray to the Almighty, take a deep breath and step out into the future:
I saw no difference between God and our substance, but saw it as if it were all God. And yet my understanding accepted the fact that our substance is in God; that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God. For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us…
And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. ….
In our Father Almighty we have our preservation and our bliss, as far as our natural substance, which we have from our creation without beginning, is concerned. In the Second Person we have our preservation, in wit and wisdom, as far as our sensuality, our restoring and our saving are concerned. For he is our mother, brother and saviour. And in our good Lord the Holy Spirit we have our rewarding and our harvest for our living and our bitter labour, endlessly surpassing all that we desire in his marvellous courtesy from his lofty, plenteous grace.
All our life is in three modes. In the first is our being. In the second we have our increasing. And in the third we have our fulfilling.
The first is nature. The second is mercy. The third is grace.
….The Second, most precious, Person, who is our substantial mother has now become our sensual mother, for we are double by God’s making, that is to say, substantial and sensual. Our substance is the higher part that we have in our father, God Almighty. The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh.
Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. This is how our mother, Christ, works in mercy in all his beloved children who are submissive and obedient to him….
Our substance is whole in each person of the Trinity, which is one God. Our sensuality is only in the Second Person, Christ Jesus, in whom are the Father and the Holy Spirit. In him and by him we are powerfully taken out of hell, and out of the wretchedness on earth, and are gloriously brought up into heaven and blissfully joined to our substance, increased in richness and nobility by all the virtue of Christ and by the grace and working of the Holy Spirit.” (pages 187-189)
“[Christ] Our natural mother, our gracious mother, because he willed to become our mother in everything, took the ground for his work most humbly and most mildly in the maiden’s womb…. Our high God, the sovereign wisdom of all, arrayed himself in this low place and made himself entirely ready in our poor flesh in order to do the service and the office of motherhood himself in all things.
“To motherhood as properties belong natural love, wisdom and knowledge – and this is God. For though it is true that our bodily bringing forth is very little, low, and simple compared to our spiritual bringing forth, yet it is he who does the mothering in the creatures by whom it is done.
The natural loving mother, who recognises and knows the need of her child, takes care of it most tenderly, as the nature and condition of motherhood will do. And continually, as the child grows in age and size, she changes what she does, but not her love. When the child has grown older, she allows it to be punished, breaking down vices to enable the child to receive virtues and grace.
This work, with all that is fair and good, our Lord does in those by whom it is done. Thus he is our mother in nature, by the working of grace in the lower part of love for the higher. And he wills that we know it, for he wills to have all our love fastened to him.
In this I saw that all the debts we owe, by God’s command, to fatherhood and motherhood by reason of God’s fatherhood and motherhood, are repaid in the true loving of God. This blessed love Christ works in us. And this was showed in everything, especially in the noble, plenteous words, where he says, ‘I am what you love.’ ”
The stained glass window depicting St Swithun was made available via Shutterstock under licence. Unfortunately, there are no details of where this window is (can any of our readers help?)
The statue of Dame Julian is by David Holgate and is at Norwich Cathedral. The extract from her writings is of course part of ‘Revelations of Divine Love’.
Finally, if you think this post has echoes, yes you are right. It complements Chris Fewings’ post of 15 July ‘Love Divine, All Loves Embracing‘; that is to say the topics are similar but different.