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‘Like The Wideness Of The Sea’ by Maggi Dawn

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…

10 comments on this post:

M said...

I can recommend this book

Laura Sykes said...

I’m so glad you liked it too 🙂

15 February 2013 22:58
15 February 2013 22:48
Brother Ivo said...

As the author of the similarly favourable review of Ms Dawn’s book on Archbishop Cranmer’s website may I clarify that it was His Grace’s wish to have this interesting book reviewed but I was free to write as I saw fit.

As one of the most read religio-political websites on the net, the blog attracts many many readers most of whom do not post comments. It is quite right that the issue of women bishops is controversial and my review attracted its full measure of ” the good the bad and the ugly”.

I was surprised to see the comment count had risen to a surprising 207. It is the highest in recent days. Some of the posting was as shocking as the comments Ms Dawn describes in her book: it probably does us good to see first hand what women priests all too often suffer in silence.

Many of the comments were multiple posts by the same individuals and things went off topic at the end. As such it would be unfair to regard them as representative of the readership as a whole and certainly does not imply approval by His Grace or I: quite the reverse.

I wanted to ensure that readers here should not be misled either about the book or the blog by the numbers alone. We engage with all comers on a daily basis, some of whom are not the finest examples of Christian charity. We do this – so you don’t have to.

Lay Anglicana said...

Brother Ivo, I am happy to record that your (“Archbishop Cranmer’s”) review was indeed favourable. I have amended my text to make this clear. I endorse what you say about those making comments – I think most of my readers will realise that, in addition to the serious comments on your blog, you attract your fair share of ‘trolls’ (as do the Guardian, Telegraph and Spectator – it is a hazard of blogging, I fear).

16 February 2013 07:09
15 February 2013 23:08
Brother Ivo said...

I see that you link to the ArchBishop Cranmer comment section. Might I ask that you similarly link to the review itself in order that readers can fairly see how the blog itself reviewed the book?

Lay Anglicana said...

Brother Ivo, I apologise for this. When writing my post I could not see how to make a permalink to the blog post as opposed to the main blog (usually a click of the title provides this). Trying again this morning, I found the permalink at the bottom of the post and have now corrected my own.

16 February 2013 07:03
15 February 2013 23:12
Laurel Massé said...

A professional singer I know lost her position in the choir of a great cathedral here in America when a new Director of Music came in and, citing tradition, eased out or fired the paid female altos in favor of males. So, for me, though the clip of the choir of St. Paul’s is lovely, your choice of it to accompany this particular article carries a certain irony I am certain you do not intend.

Lay Anglicana said...

I am sorry to hear this story. As you say, the irony was unintentional although, had I thought of it I think the point is worth making that it is not just women priests in the Church who have a hard time, it permeates throughout.


St Paul’s does at least have one female alto on its dep list I think (see eg

05 March 2013 22:15
18 February 2013 14:47
18 February 2013 14:07
Marcus said...

I’d add that many of the difficulties women have faced apply to Traditionalists too – which is rather an irony: both communities have suffered at the hands of alleged theological liberals who aren’t really liberal – pretending to embrace female clergy (because they think they need to be seen to do so) while bullying them, and marginalising the Traditionalists whom they hate because the latter have the courage of their convictions and stand as imagined ‘reproach’. It should be acknowledged that much of the mistreatment of women has been by those who ’employed’ them in their parishes, etc. As a Trad myself, I believe I’ve had a good relationship with female colleagues, some of whom are good friends, because it’s been honest: we agree to differ and laugh about the absurdities.

While I’m not whining about it, people who overtly hold my view are now the lepers in the Church – and maybe that’s not an entirely bad place to be…

07 November 2013 16:44

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