all things to all – women priests and closeted clergy

Watching a certain very reverend Episcopal priest focus and transfer attention adroitly from parishioner to parishioner at the cathedral door, I recalled the corporate American studies on time: while people in top manager mode spend on average less than 9 minutes on each task, those in front line mode spend less than 2. This kind of wisdom also brings us the warning that good customer service is now reported to an average of 15 friends whereas bad reports reach 24.

As a proofreader and as a life coach, in quite different ways, I am often confronted by mess. Clients often have the painful but empowering realisation that their chaos is self-caused and part of my work is to invent or inspire strategies to clear up the mess. However I am sometimes confronted by my own low threshold for disorder. The other day I was berating someone about the ergonomic nightmare of his office (I could hardly move the mouse for coffee cups) only to be later struck by the thought that the thesis produced in that disorder was one of the best I’d seen in years.

At that particular cathedral service, all sorts of irruptions of humanity were occurring. There was the little cherub determined to sit up on the ledge of the front pew and lean over backwards during the first hymn; the crash, the wail and the voices off during the sermon; the two friends absorbed in chat about a pair of (rather lovely) crimson shalwar trousers one was holding up during the final blessing; the stampede for the pail of rhubarb on the fair trade stall; the sight of someone currently experiencing a surfeit of boyfriends chatting to one of them; little hands wanting to help give out hot coffee, while clutching biscuits; a doggie or two – just to add to the fun.

I was just attending the service and wandering around chatting afterwards, I wasn’t working or rather fulfilling my vocation. I don’t know the topics that filled those barely 2 minute windows at the cathedral door but I can bet on an average Sunday they include birth, death, illness, humour, planning, gossip, tact, patience, hope.

I’ve recently acted the part of a hostage in a play inspired by the experiences of the 1980’s hostages in Beirut. My new novel, which has just reached 40,000 words, features a WW1 heritage tour of Flanders and Picardy. It struck me on Sunday that another name for all this jolly disorder is ‘life’ and that it is exactly this kind of life, in all its fullness, that those in danger of losing it long for so much. It also struck me that the person at the door is required not only to be a good manager but also to be ‘all things to all’ (‘men’ is a sexist interpolation; it’s not in the Greek).

I find the demise in Scotland of my mother church quite poignant. Closeted clergy and bishops determined to foist their frumpy Catholicism on an increasingly disloyal and an increasingly elderly flock who may not feel it seemly to challenge ‘Father’ but are quite capable of thinking for themselves – despite their portrayal as fawning laity in the RC press. The insult, Sunday after Sunday, service after service, of lamenting the lack of vocations and praying for more while good talented women sit in the pews and are expected to stay there.

I get annoyed by the smug essentialism of the praise of women’s diffuse awareness in multi-tasking and criticism of men’s ‘further-along-the-spectrum’ focus of attention. I find the very frequent juxtaposition of ‘women’ vs ‘male’ (human vs bestial) insulting. I have little patience with the malevolent stupidity of those who insist that the men’s movement is, was and ever shall be intrinsically evil in its every aspect and is only ever in reaction to feminism and never inspired to undertake a similar journey – not the same, we do not start from the same place, and if all our journeying is to be policed by those who insist that we do then we will never get anywhere.

However, after a period of theological study and soul-searching in the 1908s, what finally changed my very conservative RC mentality about women’s vocation to the priesthood was the experience of a woman presiding at the altar. The natural grace, the natural place of a woman presiding at table was just so obvious that all the objections were revealed to be the sham of sexism. Thank God, the Scottish Episcopal Church has many good women, having the patience, the tact, the sense of humour, the compassion and the good cheer to be all things to all at the church door. I hope and pray and work for the day when the RC church will open its eyes to the underused potential in the pews. Of course, if those eyes open, so might the doors of all those clerical closets. That might be very messy indeed. Life often is.

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