Thoughts for January from Jean Douglas

St Katharine and the Women

Having been asked to write something for the magazine, the deadline was fast approaching in December and I hadn’t started. It was suggested that I could use the theme of the sermon I preached on St Katharine’s Day in November, so here goes……

………Sunday 26th November – Well, what a weekend! Yesterday the Christmas Fair, today the Patronal Festival of St Katharine, and it’s also “Stir-up Sunday”, when people used to make their Christmas Puddings. In the service sheet for the Patronal Festival there is short synopsis of the life of Katharine. Debating with 50 philosophers, some of whom were convinced by her faith and converted to Christianity. They were the ones to be killed.

Katharine was then imprisoned, during which time 200 people visited her, including Valeria, the wife of Maxentius, the Emperor. All of those people were converted by Katharine and all were executed. Maxentius wanted Katharine to be his wife, but she refused, and he then ordered her to be tied to a spiked wheel and tortured, but at her touch the wheel shattered sending pieces in all directions, as the modern firework does in her name. She was subsequently beheaded and died aged 18 years.

What a remarkable young woman, as were some of her contemporaries – Joan of Arc, Julian of Norwich and more recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Many years ago the Christian and other professions consisted only of men. Women were second class citizens, not allowed to vote, they could be servants, workers, wives and mothers, but little else. But gradually, and with the encouragement of some men and women, some became doctors, lawyers, teachers, Prime Ministers and Queens. But not priests. Of course some women felt called to the priesthood, but were not allowed.

The Archbishops’ Commission of 1935 supported the idea of a special holy order for women, but different from the men, who could become Deacons, Priests and Bishops.  So women could become deaconesses or deacons, but could not go forward to be ordained as priests. I well remember going to a meeting in Sacred Trinity Church, Manchester, where a visiting American women priest (yes, they were ahead of us) told us of her own experience and the prejudice she encountered. She had trained with men, become a deacon, and then did the year’s training for priesthood. Come the day of the ordination, all the men knelt and the Bishop laid his hand on each man’s head. But when he came to the woman, he kept his hands to his side and passed on to the next man. She got up and walked out of the cathedral, followed by the Bishop’s Chaplain who being black could identify with her. What a damning statement.

Then in 1972 the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) was formed and David and I became members. One of the founder members was Margaret Webster, a great friend, who was the wife of Alan Webster, Principal of Lincoln Theological College. She has since written a book* about the struggle. The most determined opposition came from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the C of E. They had also thwarted many times the Methodist Unity Scheme, which failed in 1969, and again in the seventies.

After many long years when women were belittled, and even spat at by some clergymen, came the big General Synod of 1992. The BBC were going to broadcast that day, so David and I had the radio on all day – he in his study, and me in my sewing room. Then the result of the vote from the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity came with these words – “since the Measure has obtained the required majorities, we now pass on to next business”. We were ecstatic, as were the women. David got out the whisky and we toasted the Ordination of Women. The doorbell rang and it was a lady from our other church, who had been driving home when she heard the news and felt she had to come and celebrate. So she too had some whisky!

November 11th 2017 was the Silver Jubilee of the measure. As it was also the Silver Jubilee of Garyth’s organ playing. How appropriate today’s Psalm 95:  “O come let us sing to the Lord….Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving and be glad in him with psalms.” The women who feel called to put themselves forward for training as have Angela, Carol and Heather in this place, will not experience the hardships that their sisters had to endure.

Let us remember Jesus’ words in the gospel – “Feed the hungry, visit the sick, help the poor and needy, and you do it for me.”  Amen.  (Matthew 25. 31 – end)

Jean Douglas

*A New Strength, a New Song: Journey to Women’s Priesthood

by Margaret Webster. Published Mowbray, 1994. ISBN: 978-0264673202