On the day that Ban Ki-moon appoints Mary Robinson as the special Envoy for Climate Change and Malala celebrates her birthday by reminding us 'let's show the world that we are stronger than violence', it's great, at last, to see the vote to allow women bishops by the Church of England's Synod. An amazing amount of energy has gone into this debate over the past 20 years.
To me, it's all astonishing! I was brought up in a family where my grandmother was a deacon in the Congregational church and my mother was an elder in the URC. There were women ministers in the Pentecostal churches of my youth and teenage years, many of them wonderful characters, ministering in ways that brought hope in tough, tough places. In my extended family, we had women philosophers, doctors and musicians. During my childhood I met the most amazing Ghanaian women leaders and business women who were friends of my parents. It was the Church in Wales and Church of England that introduced me, as an impressionable young woman, to the idea that women could not be teachers and leaders. This has been one of the most psychologically damaging influences in my life. Yet I also found the catholic and reformed theology of the Anglican and Lutheran churches life-giving. While posing many unanswerable questions about the nature of a God who, I instinctively felt, encompassed the feminine as well as the masculine, it spoke profoundly of relationship between the Divine and human beings in ways that helped me to live my life as a young woman involved in the care of the dying. Despite having great respect for Roman, Coptic and Orthodox theology, if you are young and female, it's really quite difficult to understand how preaching, sacramental theology (especially around marriage) and governance that come exclusively from a male perspective are life-giving and transforming. My patristics tutor once countered such a question with 'well there's always Mary'. Yes, Mary is a wonderfully inspirational character but about as ambiguous as it is possible to be, if you are a woman. The Gospel ('good news') is about finding life in the most unexpected places and welcoming transformation; it seems to me that the inclusion of women in the whole life of the church is key to this becoming a reality for all women in both society and church.
In my early twenties, I used to organise ecumenical summer play schemes for children; I have very fond memories of summers spent in Aberystwyth, Bermondsey and Byker (Newcastle). Always, we worked with the local Roman Catholic priests who, even in those days, used to say, 'the Roman Catholic Church will ordain women one day.' Some of them graciously invited us to participate at Mass. As a young lecturer for the Cambridge Theological Federation, I was truly inspired by a female Orthodox colleague who, I think, struggled greatly with the attitude of her own church to her as a teacher yet clung on to the belief that women had an, as yet, unsung and significant contribution to make to Orthodox theology, digging out the riches that are already there. Over the years, working as a priest, I have had a rich partnership with Jewish colleagues, some of whom have been amazing women Rabbis and others of whom have helped me unlock the strong but often unrecognised vein of female insight that runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures.
For younger people who look to the future of the churches, the Church of England's decision today opens up new potential. Many of us will be truly glad that our daughters as well as our sons will now grow up expecting spiritual and theological leadership to come from women as well as men. We will celebrate the healthier balance that brings; given the shocking revelations about sexual abuse in society and in the churches it can only be healthier that, in future, there will be bi-gendered leadership.
I know from personal contacts and experience that the fact the Church of England has taken this step will be a tremendous encouragement to women in other parts of the world. It is really important that we acknowledge the lead taken by the churches in Aotearoa, Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada. South Africa, USA, South India, Cuba and Ireland. And equally important that we empower and support women in churches where they find themselves powerless, uneducated, voiceless or constrained by customs that undermine health, well being or ability to earn.
For older women, it's important that we don't resort to either bitterness at lost opportunities or an attitude that wants to control what happens next. Let the Spirit be free! My mother never felt at home or truly welcome in the Anglican Church because of its refusal to ordain women; today she would have joined my father and me in celebration. And probably she would have said, 'What took you so long?'! But I know she would have thought, 'What's important is that the leadership of the church is strengthened to communicate and encourage everyone in discipleship of Christ.'
Today, I am just delighted that we have taken one small step in the direction of marking women's experience, voices and contribution to theological, social and political life.