Professor Mary Grey continues our investigation with a look at female contributions to theology
SUPPOSE, just as Virginia Woolf once imagined the life and fate of-Shakespeare's sister, we imagine that St Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Angelicus, also had a sister. In this deeply religious family she too, highly intelligent, was fired by the love of God and longing for • theological study.
But, unlike her brother, she was unable to avoid the usual vocation open to a twelfth century girl, marriage and motherhood. Her brother caught up in his own struggles — did not play Francis to her Clare. Married to a Neapolitan merchant, she had no access to theological libraries. Her annual pregnancy, together with the family tendency to put on weight, weakened her physical stamina.
Yet the spark did not die, but, strengthened by her midnight gospel meditations — her husband away on his travels and her hungry snatching on whatever theological crumbs came her way from her brother's pen, was poured into her children's education and drove her to express her zeal through practical ministry in the poorest quarters of the city.
But, tragically, she did not live to see 30: in her weakened state, killed off by a fever caught from plague-stricken slum-dwellers, she could never give expression to her Summa Theologica.
"Denied access to theological study" has, until recently, defined the position of women. Yes, we look back with pride to the great abbesses — such as the seventh century Hilda of Whitby and twelfth century Hildegarde of Bingen, who created their monasteries as centres of spirituality, culture and learning; we are inspired by the great mystics, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and the English Margery Kemp, as well as by the foundresses of religious orders — such as Mary Ward, St Angela of Merici, St Madeleine Sophie Barat and Cornelia Connelly.
Their significance is that women in theology have a story and a tradition — as far back as Mary of Bethany, who engaged in theological conversation with Jesus himself. Yet, for ordinary women, it was impossible until recently to study academic theology at a university in Britain — and Catholic seminaries certainly denied them access.
Considerable progress has now been made in these respects. First, during the bridging period, the Catholic tradition of religious sisterhood has been — and is — an inestimable resource and inspiration. Not only in the areas of catechetics and religious education, spirituality and parish ministry has an impact been made, but writers like Dame Maria Boulding and Dame Felicitas Corrigan have been quietly contributing to theological scholarship.
Nor should we forget that women have been steadily active in theology by writing outside academic circles — for example, Dorothy Sayers' book, .4 Man Born to be King, is still widely read.
A woman's place
Undoubtedly the second Vatican Council was a great catalyst: not only were lay people considered to be fully people of God, but baptismal ministry was now seen as a challenge to deeper commitment, and a greater variety of human experience was brought to the light of theological reflection.
Justice and peace acquired a new urgency on the church's agenda, including the place of women in the church and within official theological tradition.
Steadily women have been seeking admission to theological academies: the easiest barrier to overcome was the obtaining of a first degree/diploma in theology/religious studies through either the Catholic colleges or secular universities.
But the delight experienced by "drinking the new wine" has been offset by the realisation of the difficulty of obtaining jobs in theology afterwards, and being accepted as having an authoritative voice difficulties which are sharper in Catholic than in Anglican circles.
Although some women now have positions in religious studies departments in the Catholic colleges, a few in university theology departments, and some are involved in pastoral formation programmes in Catholic seminaries, the struggle to be accepted as having an authoritative voice in all areas of theology continues, especially since the barrier to the priesthood and the difficulty of being accepted as preachers, means that key positions in theology will always be the preserve of ordained priests. (This last is a difficulty shared with lay men).
But "drinking the new wine" of academic theology has had other consequences apart from the struggle for acceptance. Women bring new experiences to theology, drawn from lifesituations of nurturing, closeness to the processes of living and dying, and from a long tradition of being primary educators of their children. The situation of being outsider to the mainstream philosophical and theological traditions (which saw the man as normative human being) teaches women a less hierarchical and more inclusive way of human relating. If, as women, we see our very core of self as relational, this must derive from being "created in God's image" and teach us something about the trinitarian nature of God.
Secondly, women are beginning to ask disturbing questions of theology itself. For example, if the Bible describes God as mother and midwife, as Sophia-Wisdom, why do we always refer to God in exclusively masculine terms? What is the significance for salvation history of all the women in the Bible, (not only of Mary, Jesus' mother) — of Hagar, called by God to be the mother of a special child, yet flung into the desert? Of Miriam, who led her people in a dance of liberation?
if Mary Magdalen was given the commission to preach the Resurrection. why is she remembered as the repentant prostitute and not as faithful disciple?
These questions — and many others — are prompting the search for lost traditions and lost dimensions of theology which either highlight the