I looked forward to reading this book as I knew that the author of ‘The Accidental Pilgrim‘ would have written more than a moaning diatribe against the treatment of women in the Church of England. And indeed it is so - Maggi Dawn’s prose is a sheer delight for anyone with an ear for language, and I can well understand why liturgy and new liturgical forms are a major part of her ministry. She draws you in with the (unconscious?*) Celtic spirituality of her first paragraph:
The beach is like a liminal space between daily life and the mystery of the deep; the ebb and flow of the tide measureing time in a powerful, dignified way. Like the repeating pattern of the Daily Offices, it seems the same and yet is never exactly the same as the day before; although it is changing constantly, those changes are almost imperceptible to the human eye…Here, then, I find a picture of God that is at once constant yet not static, dependably predictable while my own life unfolds year by year. Summer or winter, the water’s edge is a cathedral in the open spaces, a place…where I can think clearly and catch the whispers of God’s voice.
The book is divided into a brief history of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and the recent attempts to consecrate women bishops; some thoughts on the spirituality of waiting (“I wanted to explore the idea that we are mistakenly urging each other to wait for God while the possibility hangs in the air that God is waiting for us“); and lastly, an account of her own unfolding vocation.
Woven throughout the book are the threads of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Faber’s hymn ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy‘ (see below), with metaphorical insights into the life of the Church which lift this book way above mere political polemic:
Waiting for a moment when the Church will move forward with one mind is, like the Mariner’s ship, an idea removed from reality; the truth is that as long as we wait for complete unity on one issue, we will remain immobilised and parched on the silent sea. We need, rather, to allow ourselves to look for some signs of life, even if they initially seem threatening, to lead us out of paralysis.
A dream deferred and the ‘process of reception‘
In a curious incidence of synchronicity, Maggi Dawn suggests the Church draw inspiration from the wisdom of Gamaliel to: move forward…[by] allowing for a provisional decision to be moved and acted upon (p.18). Meanwhile on 8 February the Church of England announced that eight senior women clergy would be allowed observer status in the House of Bishops. This sounds very much like an attempt to emulate Gamaliel. So either Maggi or her publishers had a quiet word with the powers that be at Church House or the Church is on occasion capable of swift action when it sees the need. Either way, we must hope that this step leads to a concrete outcome.
Her personal story
For reasons of space, I won’t explore here (which the book does) the call to ministry. Instead, we must look at some of the pain that was inflicted on her by the institutional church. There are numerous examples, starting with the leaflet pushed under her door in the first week of theological college: ‘A woman’s place is not at the altar but in the kitchen. Put on an apron, get back to where you belong’. This was 1993. She gives many examples of similar difficulties. You might be forgiven for thinking she must be exaggerating, but sadly I have only to point you to the 207 comments of the (favourable) review of this book on Archbishop Cranmer’s blog to show that nastiness of that kind is alive and well, twenty years later.
Reader, I wept. Much of what she said resonated only too clearly with me, although I did not even seek ordained ministry. I wondered why she used the word ‘disenable’, which my dictionary says is ‘very rare’, rather than ‘disabled.’ But she is right. The Church first of all enabled women’s ministry and then in some quarters has set about disabling those whom it previously enabled. I hope and pray that the chink of light offered by the admittance of “the eight” may grow and illumine the hearts of us all.
Meanwhile, ‘Like the Wideness of the Sea’ also offers us hope and remains a delight to read, you could not wish for a more stimulating companion on the voyage.
* I think it perfectly likely that this echo is entirely conscious and deliberate, but I shall never know. Her book on pilgrimage is full of such teasing invitations to take diversionary paths and the reader is unable to decide whether the author is nudging us or not…