Book review by Janet Morley
Well, I sat down and read this absorbing book of essays in a single sitting, but I have to declare an interest. I know a number of the contributors, my writings get favourable mention in the book, and I recognise a good number of the references to people, places, joys and frustrations associated with being a lay woman in the Anglican Church over the years – especially in the liberal/catholic part of the spectrum.
Contributors to the book have all been members of a Lay Women’s Group who for twenty years have gathered for an annual residential weekend at the Old Parsonage, Freeland, convened by the editors, Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild (both former Franciscan religious, now life partners). The introductory chapter concedes that the group is diverse in some ways but not others. Each woman has a distinctive take on being ‘lay’ in a church which now ordains women: some have been employed in professional church work like industrial mission, chaplaincy, diocesan posts or theological education, or have been in vowed religious life; others have had secular work but otherwise been ‘ordinary’ congregation members, or have experienced quite an ‘on-off’ relationship with the Church. But the group is ‘all-white, pretty middle-class, between the ages of 62 and 87’. So the group consists of those who came to adulthood and career choice at a time when ordination to the priesthood was not open to them in the Church of England, but when it did become available they chose to remain lay. Several books have told the story of women priests over the last few decades; this one reflects the experience of those of us who did not seek that path. It should interest anyone to wonder why that is, and to consider how far the ordination of women has, or has not, tackled the issue of clericalism.
The format is that each contributor writes of her life in relation to the Church, and to Christian feminism, weaving in as much or as little analysis as she chooses. I had the feeling that this format probably echoes the very informal style of the residential weekends, with the freedom for each participant to start from her own place and tell her own story. This makes for a series of memoirs – or you might call them testimonies - which certainly have some themes and resonances which recur, but it is for the reader to make the connections. I found it helpful that several contributors were evidently drafting their chapters during lockdown in 2020, because it brought the stories into our contemporary crisis, with all the sudden changes that have had to be introduced into the life of the Church, along with every other place of gathering in our culture. One essay was very different in style, which I found refreshing. Margaret Beetham’s piece consists of ‘Extracts from the diary of a lockdown’, tracing her movements and state of mind between the start of Lent and Easter 2020; and this is the framework on which her reflections and memories about the Church are hung. I found myself wanting another book, specifically examining what lay people thought, felt, prayed and did during the pandemic – particularly when what Hannah Ward refers to as ‘the centre of our life’, the Eucharist, was no longer available to us except second hand, online.
As distinctive and engaging as these different individual essays are, I was left wanting some more overall analysis of the recurring themes, perhaps in a final chapter that might have drawn threads together and sought to characterise where we are, or what crucial questions remain. What employment issues emerged, after posts previously open to women who were inevitably lay tended to be offered only to clergy once women were ordained? How far do lay members of the Church have an influence on the liturgy and its language, or on bible teaching? Why is the Church still obsessed with issues of sexuality, when older women (in previous generations the stereotype of the traditional churchgoer) are simply exasperated by the continuance of prejudices we have long since resolved and left behind? How is authority and leadership appropriately shared between ordained and lay women? What has been the impact of the changes on women’s spirituality, across the generations, and across the boundaries of race and class? And would lay women who identify as evangelical recognise themselves in these testimonies, or is theirs a different story? Perhaps the book’s purpose is partly to prompt some of these questions.
Janet Morley, on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22/07/21