THE report of the National Board of Catholic Women to the bighops' low week conference is entitled "Do Not Be Afraid". Why then has it managed to arouse such a variety of strong feelings, many based more in fear than in love?
An analysis of the document highlights three themes. The first of these is the theme of invisibility. It was the Anglican lay woman, Maude Royden, who noted during the first World War that: "the impossibility of getting any male youth to ring the sanctus-bell induced a lady to offer her services. After anxious thought the priest accepted her offer because the rope hung down behind a curtain, so no one would see her."
Contemporary Catholic women are asking to come out from behind the curtain. This need is experienced in many different contexts, at home, at work and, above all, in church. Hence the repeated recommendation that girls should serve at the altar.
The need to see the icon of a woman in the sanctuary, replicating the divine image in which we are all made, and reflecting the fullness of humanity made known to us in the risen Christ, is expressed in this insistence that girls should be altar servers.
A second theme raises questions about the identity of women. This is a dialogue which is already open. The church is committed to "a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the anthropological foundation for masculinity and femininity" (Christifidales Laici, para 50).
This critique is desperately needed in today's world. Indeed it forms part of a movement which has honourable historical anticedents. In 1893 Catherine Booth composed an address entitled Female Ministry. "Thank God," she wrote, "the day is dawning with respect to this subject. Women are studying and investigating for themselves. They are claiming to be recognised as responsible beings, answerable to God for their convictions of duty; and, urged by the divine spirit, they are overstepping those unscriptural barriers which the church has so long reared against its performance."
And thirdly there is the question of sexual morality. The report opens with a story, that of a woman who describes what the experience of expecting twins has taught her about the relationship she enjoys with God. "Being a woman has so much to teach us about God and yet I never hear it preached about."
Being a woman and yet unable to bring this experience to bear on the church's moral and ethical teaching is a haunting deprivation. In 1911, Hatty Baker, the Congregationalist noted, "it is sadly true that women of this type are dropping out of the churches — at least out of the orthodox, conventionally organised church of whatever denomination. I have been amazed at the letters received from, and the interviews held with, such women, to discern their gradual awakening."
The bishops' conference commitment to listen to contemporary Catholic women as they too record their thinking in letters and interviews offers a forum in which a comparable drain of energy and vitality can be contained. Catholic women are being offered a viable alternative to "dropping out".
Both the NBCW and the bishops' conference have reason to feel proud. The Board's report is clear, representative — in spite of the protests of those who seek to be disassociated from it — and generous in the love and support for the church which it records. Many a bishops' conference in the English speaking world would be grateful to have access to such a constructive document and the opinions it records.
If it has weaknesses they are not particular to the document, they are endemic in the Catholic community in this country. Our pilgrimage in faith is still, by and large, undertaken in isolation.
As the Free Churches struggle to integrate the ministry of their ordained women ministers, as the Church of England seeks to give an open honest airing to the debate about women's ordination, as the ecumenical women's groups conduct serious theological discussion about the place of women in the church, two central assertions from the second Vatican Council in fact offer a framework both for theological reflection and for ecumenical dialogue on an issue that is far too important to be treated independently.
According to the first, all the baptised are called to holiness, irrespective of gender. Baptism confers a mark or character upon the soul; the baptised woman hears a call to holiness which draws out from her the recognition that she is made in God's image and likeness.
She cannot accept denigration or humiliation in the name of a gospel which promised her salvation. In a world haunted by sexism and gender confusion, she knows that the Christian churches have unique resources to bring to her sense of selfvalue and self-worth.
According to the second, the community of the faithful is exhorted to be alive to the signs of the times. Whose signs are these? Where do they happen? Who do they belong to? The preoccupations of Catholic women do not occur in some kind of moral vacuum; they form part of the fabric of adult human life. Cliches, glib formulae about the sanctity of family life fail to match the facts. Contemporary women are prepared to trade in the heady idealism of a liberal stance for a genuinely prophetic vision.
In a world hungry to negotiate a new understanding of the authority and stature of women, the National Board of Catholic Women's report marks something of a landmark; the discussions among groups of women which lead to its publication have entered into the mainstream of Catholic life in this country. What has been said cannot be unsaid. The bishops have responded generously and courageously by committing themselves to keep a mutual dialogue open.
All that is needed now is a sense of context and a sense of history. A sense of context will lend real authority to this debate; it is desperately important and desperately needed. A sense of history, meanwhile, will enable a new enthusiasm to inspire Christian women of whatever denomination as they seek to take up their place in an honourable — if hidden tradition.
In 1615, Mary Ward, another great English woman, reminded her sisters that "it will be seen that women, in time, will come to do much". It will indeed be seen and, on this occasion at least, the National Board of Catholic Women have indeed done much.
Sr Lavinia Byrne is associate secretary for women and men of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland.