In Rome, the ordination of women as deacons seems to be on hold. A new research project brought together women from very different Christian traditions to talk openly and honestly about their experiences
What happens when you bring together women from Churches and other Christian communities as diverse as Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Assemblies of God, Orthodox, Anglican, and Independent Pentecostal and invite them to share their experiences of the wounds and gifts in their respective traditions? Something intriguing, and sometimes surprising.
Bringing such women together is precisely what I have been doing over the past year, as part of an ecumenical research project, and the results have changed my own understanding of the contribution that women can make and are making to the life of the Churches and to the search for unity between Christians.
A number of the women taking part in the project commented that it was "freeing" to be given permission to be honest about aspects of their communities and traditions that, as far as they were concerned, "prevent women from flourishing fully". During the course of the research, women identified shared wounds that arose across their traditions, such as sexism, sexual harassment, and the abuse and misuse of power by those in positions of authority.
Surprised by the number of women in diverse Churches who were identifying similar wounds, one of the youngest participants, an Anglican in her late teens, said: "The most surprising thing I learnt was that the issues which women face within my Church are almost exactly the same as faced by women in other Churches ... I think others would value this experience because it allows people to see that the problems they face within their own Church are not unique to them, they are part of a far wider issue."
The inspiration for focusing upon wounds and gifts in our Churches came from "receptive ecumenism". This method, pioneered by Catholic theologian Paul Murray, is being used for Arcic III. It involves recognising that none of our Churches are perfect; therefore, we explore what our own Christian tradition can learn from other Christian traditions, rather than seeking to tell others what they can learn from us.
One might imagine an English "High Tea". Convention dictates that the finest, most delicate bone china should be used and that chipped and broken crockery must be kept hidden at the back of the cupboard.
Sometimes, it can be a little like this when different Churches come together. We are keen to show our tradition in the best possible light and so we tend to say what's good about it and, sometimes, even go as far as pretending there are no flaws in our own tradition.
Receptive ecumenism reverses this and does something quite radical; it encourages the Churches to bring all their chipped plates out on to the table for everyone to see, with the hope that there is a gift in another tradition which will be able to help heal some areas of brokenness.
The greatest wound felt by the Catholic women taking part in the research project was, perhaps not surprisingly, the absence of their voices. Whether during Mass, or in decision-making in the Church, or both, women's voices are not heard, and the pain of this is felt deeply. In Pope John Paul II's letter To Women, which he wrote in 1995 for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, he famously refers to the "genius of women" and the "feminine genius". This genius is depicted primarily as "service", "helping" and the capacity to "see persons with their hearts".
Pope John Paul affirms the necessity of women's contributions to the wider social, political and economic life. Other than describing different forms of "mothering", he leaves open precisely what women might contribute to the flourishing of the Church. One Catholic woman said: "I am a mother and I take that seriously. But I have other vocations too, which I believe are important." When the Pope's letter was mentioned in discussions, Catholic women always made the same point: "Women have more to offer than this."
Unequivocally, "the sound of a woman's voice" was the gift from other Churches that the Catholic women said they would like to receive. As I listened to the women speaking, and afterwards, during analysis of the transcripts, it struck me that "preaching", in particular, was mentioned repeatedly.
More than half of the Catholic women present - 64 per cent in fact - spoke about having a desire "to preach" on the Scriptures. One of the oldest participants, a woman in her nineties, said: "How awful it is and what rubbish, that women can't interpret the word of God - officially anyway. I think the Church is the worst for it. We're missing out."
A similar point was made by a much younger woman, who was in her early twenties: "My Church does not want my gifts just because I am a woman. Sometimes, when I read the Gospel for the Mass, I really want to preach on it. I feel like I have a gift that I could give here and a way of interpreting the Gospel. And even though I studied theology and I have the background that maybe they'd expect for someone to preach, I'm not allowed to do this because I'm a woman. I'm not a priest and I never can be."
And yet, despite not being permitted to preach, at least officially, multiple Catholic women testified to exercising the ministry of preaching. One or two, encouraged by their priests, preach at Mass on Sundays; some are preaching in ecumenical services, some in university chaplaincies, and others hold licences to preach in Anglican churches.
Having heard a few of them myself, I can certainly testify that these women are gifts to those who hear them. As one woman said: "This is not about women's rights. It's not about us saying we want what men have. It's about being able to hear women's voices echoing through the tradition, and hearing ourselves in the stories."
Outraged by the struggle faced by some of the Catholic women who sensed they had a vocation to preach, a woman from a different tradition asked: "Why do you stay in your Church, when it's so restrictive on what you can do?" The replies were passionate and firm. "Catholicism is like the air I breathe." one said. "It would be like getting divorced", and "I'd rather stay in and be part of changing things", other Catholic women said.
While women were articulate in identifying wounds and failings in the Catholic Church, they were also firmly committed to it. As one put it, "We love the Church. Christ does not give up on us, and we won't give up on his Church."
I became aware that the robust commitment of Catholic women extends to the movement for Christian unity. As one put it: "Above all, I pray for the full communion of our Churches and anything that draws us even a little closer has got to be worth engaging with."
Just one month prior to writing his letter To Women, the Pope published his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, which reaffirms that Christian unity is integral to the life of the faithful and reminds us that ecumenical dialogue is not simply an "exchange of ideas" but "an exchange of gifts". The women in my research groups talked about their participation in other Christian traditions as one vehicle through which to further the union of Christians. In many Anglican dioceses, for example, Catholic women are sharing their gifts through preaching, leading social transformation, working as theological educators, pioneering ecumenical work or providing spiritual direction.
While neither Ut Unum Sint nor To Women reflect on how women might contribute to furthering Christian unity, they are often the primary source of the energy and drive towards unity at the grass-roots level, despite women rarely being invited to contribute to formal ecumenical dialogues.
I am deeply uncomfortable with the notion of a "feminine genius" for many reasons, but, on the basis of what I heard in these groups of women from different Christian discussions sharing their hopes and fears, I'd suggest that if one must speak of the "genius of women" one might better describe it in terms of "resilience" or "tenacity". It seemed to me that the resilience and tenacity of Catholic women is not only a gift to their own Church, but also to the task of Christian unity.
Gabrielle Thomas is an assistant professor (research) at Durham University and an ordained priest in the Church of England who serves as a minor canon at Durham Cathedral. Her research was funded by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Group of the National Board of Catholic Women and conducted through the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University