In which Ruth gets angry for her sisters up north

In the past I have faced a bit of prejudice about being a priest who happens to be a woman. I say ‘in the past’ because, for me at least, it all seems to have blown over. People who were once agin women priests either have changed their minds or have moved to worship with fellow-haters. On the whole it just doesn’t seem to be an issue any more. I suppose my gay sisters and brothers are the ones getting the flak at the moment. Well, the ones who want to get married or be bishops at any rate.

However, this week I came across this letter from the Hebrides News. Let me print it here in full:

The pulpit is no place for a woman       17/5/13

Sirs,

One cannot help but sadly see that the Church of Scotland continuing her downward spiral when she gleefully and shamefully supports bizarre unions and appointments that the Bible clearly opposes. The continuing appointments of women at skyscraping levels in the church is not just wrong but very wrong, just as it is unbiblical for a woman to be a minister in any church denomination or congregation. There are around 196 women which are now ministers in the Church of Scotland. This is 196 too many. There may be only a few women ministers in our Highlands and Islands church congregations, but these few are still a few too many. The very fact that they are women debars them from the Christian ministry.

The pulpit is no place for a woman minister, however elegant she may be in public speaking or proficient in her knowledge of Biblical theology. She may rise up and hold high office in a nation, just like Queen Elizabeth and as the late Mrs Margaret Thatcher did, but not the steps that lead up to any Church pulpit, whether in Inverness Ness Bank Church or St Peter’s Episcopal’s Church in Stornoway.

Yes, women are to remain silent in every church assembly, and that includes pulpit, presbytery and the annual General Assembly. It is best to hear what absolute truth has to clearly say: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14v34-35).

The truth is that God has never ordained or anointed any woman to be a preacher or teacher. If it were God’s will that women should hold such a post in the Church, Jesus Christ would have shown an example by choosing one woman, at least, to be an apostle. But he did not, and even when he selected 70 disciples whom he sent out, two by two, no woman was included. Although Jesus had many women ‘disciples’ He certainly did not send any of them to go about preaching.

God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function. Men are to set the example in spiritual leadership—in their lives and through their words. Women are to take a less authoritative role. Certainly women are encouraged to teach other women (Titus 2:3-5). The Bible also does not restrict women from teaching children. The only activity women are restricted from is teaching or having spiritual authority over men.

Yes, a woman, by reason of her faith, knowledge and good understanding, can rise to a place of honour in the church but there are certain offices and privileges which God never assigned to women: no women apostles, no women bishops, no women elders, no women pastors, no women evangelists, no women deaconesses, no women priests, no women moderators. Clearly, the Bible has nothing to say in support of any of these appointments despite what many undiscerning women and unspiritual men may claim, whether in the church or out of her.

Mr Donald J Morrison

85 Old Edinburgh Road

Inverness

I was so shocked and although I had heard that a friend who is the Episcopal priest in Stornoway had met with some prejudice I had no idea it was as blatant as this. To use the bible (and incorrectly at that) to justify misogyny is even worse. A friend on Facebook asks if censorship is the answer, and I keep thinking that if this were about black or Asian or gay people it just wouldn’t be printed. So perhaps censorship has to be considered. However, I suppose it has exposed this vile prejudice and made me realise how awfully hard it must be to live and work with this all the year round.

The funny thing is that although I suppose I am considered a Spiritual Leader in some circles, I have never really felt like that. My church is much more round-tabled. So if the only thing that women cannot do in this man’s church is teach men and have spiritual authority over them, then that’s fine. I share things and listen to peoples’ stories. It seems to be that it is his church who has turned it into a hierarchical model, not me. And whatever happened to making use of our spiritual gifts?

“Oh sorry Holy Spirit, I can’t lead the church as you ask and inspire me because I’m the wrong sex?”

“Oh sorry God, I can hear you calling me but I must say no. I’m a woman, you see, so you must be mistaken.”

My action has been to let her know that I am praying for her and to write a letter to the newspaper.  Would you consider doing the same?

Women’s stuff

This past week has been Faith in the World Week, focussing on Women in Religion. On Pause for the Thought each morning on Radio 2 they had women clergy and rabbis making the contribution and many of them spoke of what it is like to be a woman in ministry. And that got me thinking about how much things have changed just in the last 10 years or so since I was ordained.

When I was going through the selection process, kicking and screaming, there were some in my home parish who struggled with what I was doing. Some said, “Oh we’ll still be your friend but we don’t agree with what you’re doing.” And they did indeed carry on talking to me but never ‘about that’. Others, on the other hand, were initially alarmed but in time said that they had changed their opinion because it was me. And in time they got to know other clergy who happened to be women and discovered that really it wasn’t a problem for them anymore.

When I was a curate in St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth I was told there were some people who didn’t agree with women priests. So a rota was put up in the cloisters which showed when I was presiding at mass and they avoided coming on those days. I never had the courage at the time to visit them and get to know them. That’s a regret. One woman did come when I was on duty but wouldn’t come up for communion. “I love hearing your sermons, Ruth, but I’m too set in my ways. I can’t change now.” However, when her husband died I was the one on duty to go and be with her. Something happened then which made her change her mind. It was a glorious, tear-filled moment.

At the first charge I was told there might be one or two people who ‘weren’t sure about women clergy’ but it never actually appeared to be a problem. Whoever they were, they must have come round. The local Church of Scotland was quite traditional and had never had a woman minister there either, but I was asked to preach there and ‘concelebrate’ one Maundy Thursday. Quite a number of people said that because of me, they had changed their minds. (I don’t think it really was because of me, I think it was because they just hadn’t encountered any women in ministry.)

At my second charge I knew that they had had a woman priest before but that it hadn’t been a great success. So some people who had been prepared to accept women’s ministry had decided that perhaps they were wrong. Strangely this never seems to work the other way round – if you have a bad male priest, it doesn’t seem to put you off all male clergy in future.

Throughout all this time, I have encountered some opposition and prejudice. There have been nasty comments left on my blog and the occasional anonymous letter. But that was in the early days and I really haven’t encountered anything hostile for a long time. On the other hand I have received lots of praise from strangers in supermarkets, at funerals, in queues, in Starbucks, and a host of other places. I’ve been hurt when people wouldn’t come to receive communion (or even the chalice when I was serving) but then I have had so many positive encounters that those have now faded into the distance.

And now we are about to elect a new bishop and it may be that there is a woman on that list. There may be one or two people who will struggle with that, but I suspect the number is a fraction of what it was 10 years ago. So we wait and see.