Last week, the National Board of Catholic Women held its first-ever conference; this week, a conference on the Permanent Diaconate takes place in Liverpool. How much should we change the ministry in our Church? Sr Pia Buxton explores.
THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY has been told almost entirely by men from their experience and out of their fears and joys, problems and successes. The big names in the telling, the Doctors and Fathers of the Church have hardly encouraged women to tell our story. How's this for encouragement: "Women are a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril and a painted lie." (Even Theresa of Avila, and she was no wimp, said "To be .a woman is to feel your wings droop.")
Much more recently a letter from a 'young teenager visiting Rome and writing home to her family: "They keep saying to. us, you can't go there, you 'mustn't go here; if you do this you'll be excommunicated. How women are despised. Yet more women than men love God and during the passion the women showed more courage than the Apostles." Now that was St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, venting her feelings.
There is a struggle today to define the parameters of women's spirituality. Do Women respond to experience differently from men? Is the God they find different from the God men find? Certainly, women experience life differently, biologically, and I think psychologically, culturally and socially. Is this intrinsic or is it conditioning?
Men and women are both made in God's image. I think we can say from our limited view of God as seen in all that is, in creation, that the love of God is the source of both the masculine and the feminine. God initiates life and holds that life in being, a dual role also of women. There is a divine capacity for pregnancy, birth, feeding.
It is revealed thus in the life of Jesus. St John sees the passion as the birth of the Church in the blood, the sweat the tears of Calvary. I've worked for several years as a spiritual director and find an almost unconscious movement in men and women towards imaging God, experiencing God as "mother". When this happens, people seem to stand in a new place, not better or worse, but different; a corrective being renewed in our time and echoing the experience of many of the mystics from past centuries.
Our spiritual experience gives rise to images. Images and models enable us to articulate; they echo truths for us like the signs and symbols, they give us a hold on things; it's like offering tea in a cup, rather than pouring it all over a person who requests it!
But images and models can also trap us in a time warp: I remember being taken to a party when I was two and my sister nearly four. It was a very grand party and we were duly impressed. At the end of it, we were to say goodbye to our hostess who stood at the distant end of a fine red carpet.
She was a huge woman, glittering with jewels and redolent of power. On arrival before her, my sister, a good little Catholic girl, genuflected, made the sign of the Cross, looked up with a smiling face and said "Thank you, God". I was rescued before I let the side down further.
Our model of Church that institutional hierarchical model which is also a reality, possibly to outsiders anyway is pyramid in shape and hierarchical in mode of operation.
The revival in mid-20th century of the Pauline image of "The Mystical Body of Christ" was and is inspirational. It was encouragingly followed during Vatican II with a sequence of new models the Church as "Herald", "Pilgrim", "Sacramental", the "People of God" and finally "the Servant Church".
No one model is ever adequate and any model or definition can impose limitation on the mystery. So, I suggest a few alternative models to you: "The Gossiping Church", bearing in mind that the origin of the word Gossip is one who shares Gospel originally a gossip was a woman who went to the aid of another at childbirth, encouraged her with gossip, chat, goodnews, until the birth was achieved.
Today, we increasingly appreciate the ministry of Christian conversation. A Church that gossips the birth of the reign of God. We must all have experience of the Christian joy of lively, faith-filled conversation shared in love and hope.
I also dare seriously to recommend the model of the Empty Church in imitation of the self-emptying of Christ in the Kenosis of Calvary.
The primary task of the Church is not to defend itself, but to give away its treasures for the sake of those outside it a Church of compassion and even of empathy.
I think a problem for many of us is the division of the Church between the base line of the pyramid, where we all stand, and the clergy in diverse layers up the pyramid.
God in Genesis creates male and female (God does not say "let there be clerics and let there be everyone else") and God's ordering of things into male and female was not intended as divisive but complementary and diverse.
We have a lot of work to do to understand the masculine and the feminine in the human family, in the Church. This seems to be becoming much more relevant than trying to define the states of cleric, lay, religious.
We are called to union, to Eucharist, to complementarity, to oneness, not to diverse compartments. The Holy Spirit is too energetic for that sort of controlling.
I believe it is a feminine attribute to make a wholeness of the parts, to relate things to each other and ourselves... to appreciate the inter-connectedness of things.
This is a significant time in the Church: a time of crisis, of diminishment, often of despair and apparent irrelevance. A lack of faith in the culture around us means that it is also a time to take risks rather than to preserve and defend the known order.
I remember Clodovis Boff on a visit to Europe describing our Church as in midwinter rich but sad, yet he detected internal and external signs of hope. The rediscovery of Gospel, the development of small Christian groups, the rising level of consciousness for the marginalised, the speaking out on behalf of the poor in the political arena.
He compared these signs to bubbles emerging in the saucepan when the water is beginning to boil.
I believe that women are playing a central part in this movement emerging from the baseline. The important thing is what does God want where and how is the spirit moving these days?
Perhaps, after all, there is a challenge for us in that.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the first National Conference of Catholic 'Omen.