A Metaphorical Cup of Tea: Interview with Maggi Dawn

Some of you will know that I was very privileged to become friends with Maggi whilst I trained for ordination in Cambridge.  She was, in fact, someone who had endless energy and insight for me, even when she was making big life decisions for herself.  A true priest...and friend.

Maggi and I left Cambridge at the same time (coincidental I assure you), me for the exotic climes of Harrow and she for the slightly sunnier shores of Yale University, where she is Professor and Priest.  So when someone at the WATCH committee asked if anyone would contact Maggi to interview her about her new book, Like the Wideness of the Sea, I jumped at the chance to get in touch.

An edited version of the interview is found in OUTLOOK, the annual magazine of WATCH, which will be published this week.  However, the full interview was so good that I asked if I could publish it in full on my blog here.

So, I publish it in full below, and I ask you to take a look at the work of WATCH, which works for the full equality of women and men in the church, and perhaps join us in this Kingdom work.

1.      You recently published ‘Like the Wideness of the Sea’, a book on the Church of England’s wrangling over the place of women as Bishops: why write this now?
Quite simply - I was asked to! The Editorial Director of Darton, Longman & Todd, whom I’ve known for many years, called me the day after the November 2012 Synod saying that the feeling of shock and despair was palpable in England, not only in the Church but in the public sphere, and he wanted to publish a response within two months. The reason he asked me was that I knew the situation from inside, but now have some distance from it, so he was interested to know how it looked to me a year after I moved to the States. My intent in writing was to try to avoid simply rehearsing the same arguments again, and to look sideways at the problem, in the hopes of offering a fresh perspective, and some ideas to find a way out of the deadlock.

2.      The discussion on women in leadership is centuries old, are we fighting a losing battle?
The discussion is old, but the context is always new – from one century to the next, nothing stands still.  And in order to see the gospel lived out in every generation we have to allow ourselves to see the difference between the gospel itself and the cultural accretions that are added to it over time, so that we can rediscover God’s freedom and salvation in every generation. That’s not to say we change the truth to suit ourselves, but we have to be discerning enough to understand that the gospel has been interpreted with significant social differences at different times and places. Most Christians, for instance, no longer regard it acceptable that the scriptures were used to justify polygamy, or the crusades, or slavery. It is not only legitimate, but incumbent upon us to ask whether the long history of the Church in denying women an equal place has actually been a misinterpretation, rather than faithfulness to scripture and tradition.

This particular discussion is certainly causing conflict within the church (and not only in the Church of England), but despite that I’m reluctant to use “battle” imagery to describe it – because those who are entrenched in their views that women may not be priests or bishops are, nevertheless, our brothers and sisters in Christ. I would rather use language of hope and reconciliation.

Recently Alan Boesak visited Yale Divinity School, and talked about his involvement in combatting racism in South Africa. He preached a brilliant sermon, based on Genesis 25:8-9: “Abraham died… an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” Boesak pointed out that Ishmael was expelled from the family home half a lifetime before this event, and had not been heard of since. For all the inspirational things Abraham had done, this one event was far from a moment of glory, and had wreaked havoc on many lives.  For Ishmael and Isaac to be reunited to bury their father, Isaac first had to have the grace and humility to find and invite his brother, and Ishmael had to summon up enough grace and forgiveness to accept the invitation. If they were ever to recover from that one, dreadful episode in their lives, and find reconciliation, they had to bury their father together. One side cannot resolve a conflict alone, and one side “winning” doesn’t lead to reconciliation. The past has to be buried by both sides being prepared to face their own demons, and to work together towards reconciliation for the sake of a better future.

It’s a story that Alan Boesak retells out of his experience in South Africa’s journey out of apartheid, but as I listened to him I saw resonances for other kinds of human division, including that of the Church of England’s current conflict. If two sides of an argument are entrenched in their views, then resolution can only come if both sides are more intent on finding a way to live together than on insisting on their side “winning”. It’s vital that those on either side of the argument are honest about what will or will not constitute a just peace. But they also have to let go of any intent to “win” against the other.

3.      Would you be a priest in the Church of England if you knew then, what you know now?
In many ways, I think everything would have gone better for me if I had not been ordained in the Church of England. But vocational decisions are never simply a matter of choosing what’s “best for me” – if ministry does not involve a certain degree of self-sacrifice, it isn’t worth much.

The fact is that there are very few places in the world where women are received on an equal footing with men, so to some extent answering a call anywhere is going to present challenges for women. I had already been living out a calling for a long time before the priesthood opened to women at all, and women before me spent entire lifetimes doing the same. Currently I work in an ecumenical context, directing a ministry that encompasses people from more than 25 different denominations, as well as people with no denominational affiliation, and the complexities of disagreement are as much present here as anywhere. So in some ways living within the Church of England’s impasse has equipped me to direct this ministry with courage and creativity. Consequently, even though I felt I had to leave the Church of England for the time being, I remain tied to it by many threads of friendship, and with genuine gratitude for all that I learned through serving as a priest. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those who taught me, and those who trained and worked alongside me – even those who presented challenges to me in the process.

I also hope that in some small way I may have contributed to the Church’s discovery that ordaining women is just as important as ordaining men.

4.      Do you think our training processes for priesthood are ‘women-friendly’?
To some extent, but not enough. Although I think the wider point is that training processes need re-imagining for all kinds of people. Residential training is still largely based on the model created for training post-graduate single men before they got married – in essence, a monastic pattern that assumes the participants have no responsibilities outside the walls of the college. I dare say that worked well for 22-year old single men in the 19th century, but present day Ordinands are at all stages of life, single, married, with children or ageing parents to care for, and a one-size-fits-all pattern of training puts excessive stress on all kinds of people.

The modular system at Yale Divinity School is quite effective. Some students live on site and some a hundred miles away, and single or married, with or without family, they are integrated into college life and able to co-ordinate a full working week with their personal lives. Each student can choose five working days with different start-times to suit their family needs or commuting pattern. Some opt to work three or four extended days on site instead of five. Every day classes stop for an hour mid-morning for the main Chapel service so no-one has to miss Chapel. It isn’t perfect, of course, but it does allow people to establish a full and thorough training pattern that is compatible with their personal circumstances.

5.      What advice would you give young women in particular who wonder if they should be part of the Church of England?
I tend not to “give advice” on issues like that; I listen to what an individual is thinking and feeling, encourage them to keep their eyes wide open to the whole picture, and wherever possible not make big decisions in a hurry, or in a state of distress. If people are considering changing Church allegiance it’s important to remember there is no perfect church; it might be right to stay, it might be better to leave. But while we can stand beside people while they make those decisions in the end the decision has to be made by the person themselves, not merely on the advice of someone else.

6.      Would you do anything differently in your own journey?
There are plenty of things I think I could have done better! But I always remember these words of wisdom - from a philosopher, and a singer: Kierkegaard once wrote that you can only live life forwards, and Piaf sang, Je ne regrette rien! None of us has the benefit of foresight, and we would probably all do some things differently if we knew back then what we know now. But it never ceases to amaze me that as we make peace with our own lives, the future opens up in new and surprising ways. I guess that’s in part what grace is all about.

7.      What is your first love?
I can’t help but think of that Sunday School joke where a class is asked a question, “What’s small and grey, has a long furry tail, and eats nuts?” – to which a child answers, “I know the answer ought to be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”
The answer to this question has to be God, right? But if you mean on a personal, inspirational level, then leaving aside God and my family and friends, who are always the foundation of everything for me, the answer is music. I could sing before I could walk, and began playing when I was five. Music feels like my natural language.

8.      Who has been your biggest inspiration?
Musically, I go back and back to Daniel Lanois, Richard Thompson, Paul Simon, Neil Finn, Joni Mitchell – all really groundbreaking writers. For in-depth reading, Coleridge and others who write about him remain my big inspiration, and I’m returning to write about him later this year. Most of all, though, it’s personal relationship that inspires me – those people who have walked with me for many years through life and work and music, and still have the capacity to generate hope, laughter and new ideas.

9.      What has been your deepest joy in ministry?
I think daily joy comes from building great relationship with the people I work with, and I have been outstandingly lucky in encountering many, many people who have filled my working life with friendship and laughter. But that “deep” thing? Whether it’s while I’ve been sitting with someone on their deathbed, or creating liturgy, or playing music, or academic teaching, the joyful moment always comes when I see some connection happen that is beyond me: some sense of peace, a light going on in someone’s eyes, or the moment when something “clicks”. It seems to me that we can create context for others, and faithfully walk beside them, but when the true moment of inspiration comes it’s not something we can make happen – it’s the work of God. Sometimes, of course, we work for years with people and never see things come together for them, but now and then there we’re lucky enough to witness those brilliant moments.

10.  Have you enjoyed moving across the Pond?  Do you miss the CofE?  England?
I am genuinely glad I made this move, although it hasn’t been easy at all. Before I left England someone said to me, “it will take two whole years to feel at home, so be prepared to do a lot of hanging in there”. Sure enough, moving abroad was exhausting, lonely and expensive, but we are nearly two years in now and my son and I are both beginning to flourish in our new context. We have really loved cultivating a sense of adventure about this enormous country, being able to climb hills and walk within a few feet of wild deer or birds we’ve never seen before. There’s a lot to love about America!

The hardest thing about the move has been missing friends and family in the UK. Thank goodness for internet technology which does keep us connected, but a Skype conversation isn’t the same as a leisurely supper. Something I had forgotten from last time I lived abroad is that you miss the easy familiarity of knowing how everything works, and of being established in a community. I miss walking down any street in Cambridge and seeing 10 people I know, and being 45 minutes from London and 4 hours from Paris. It’s hard work starting all over again, but my son and I have determinedly kept our sense of humour, and we are gradually finding a new home here, and some new friends too.

11.  In your book you speak of being amazed by the productivity that comes from not having to question yourself constantly: what does that ‘look’ like?
I couldn’t have imagined how different this would be. It wasn’t until I went to work every day and did NOT find an underlying suspicion about whether I was competent, just because I am a woman. This is not a denominational issue; it comes from working in a University that has done a huge amount of work for 20 years and more to ensure that women are treated on the same footing as men in the professional space.

What it looks like is hard to describe, but I find that in many of the small details of my working day – such as writing an email, preparing a paper for a committee, speaking up in a Deans’ meeting, or giving directions to my team – I work faster on these background tasks because I don’t have to second-guess underlying sexist responses or misunderstandings. And I can delegate easily; people don’t assume I should be doing certain tasks just because I’m a woman. Consequently I have more energy and time for the work I am here to do – academic teaching, writing, creating liturgy, and working on the formation of student ministers in the liturgical sphere. At the end of a normal working day I am not drained and exhausted, and still have the energy to write or play music or paint. 

12.  Is the CofE going to run itself aground?  Is the deadlock fatal or is there really hope?
One of the difficulties the CofE faces with an issue like this is that institutional processes take months and years, so promises seem to be being shelved or broken, and meantime people are losing faith in the Church. I’ve worked in large and small institutions before, and I understand that processes run far slower when the bureaucracy is large and complex. All the same, there is a case, when an institution’s processes are threatening to strangle it, to find a way to cut through the red tape. Maybe this is one of those times. Institutions may be complicated but they are not powerless.

I do feel concerned when people say that we should just wrap up this issue and get on with “what the gospel is really about”. In fact, I think this is mistaken thinking. At the heart of this issue there is at least some degree of institutional sexism, which, along with all the other –isms and –phobias, is a matter of justice and freedom for real people. That is – in part, at least – what the gospel is about. The church’s institutional sexism urgently needs to be addressed, and it’s worth every ounce of effort to do so.

13.  How do you keep going in ministry when it’s tough?
First, I stop and breathe. Thomas Merton once said that working without stopping is a form of violence, and working without stopping is the biggest temptation for many clergy. One of my favourite gospel moments is Matthew 13:1 – mostly in the gospels we read that Jesus went of by himself “to pray” – but here he simply “went out and sat by the sea.” Sometimes even before you can pray coherently, I think you need to stop, and breathe, and listen (and, as I said in the book, by the sea is my favourite place to do that!).

Secondly, I fill parts of my life with things I love that are not directly part of ministry. One of the reasons ministers run dry is when we “run on empty” – and it’s so easy to fall into a pattern where we work all the time. The truth, though, is that we are stronger, more creative, and less likely to be overwhelmed by difficulties if to we are rested, inspired, and regularly filled with whatever makes us tick. For me, that is a long walk with my son, playing music, reading literature, or viewing art or theatre.

14.  Does our understanding of priesthood need to change?
I’m not sure it needs to change exactly, but it does need to be clarified, because without a clear sense of why the Church ordains anyone, it’s easy for false ideas to grow up around the priesthood.

When I was in my early 20s I joined a group of people in my parish who used to go and read to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, whose eyesight was beginning to fail. He always argued that the simplest interpretation of the ordinal was the best one: that we are ordained to word and sacrament, nothing more, nothing less. We certainly are not ordained to be managers or CEOs or community leaders (even if we additionally bring some of those gifts to the church).  In particular he used this as an argument against lay presidency at the Eucharist, maintaining that the only legitimate reason to ordain anyone is so that they preside over the sacraments. We don’t need to ordain people in order to make them leaders or managers, nor even preachers and pastors – anything that lay people can legitimately do is not a reason to ordain, Newbigin argued, or it implies that ordination makes them more important than lay people who can carry out the same tasks. A proper understanding of ordination maintains respect for the sacraments rather than the priests, and places priesthood in its proper relationship to the “priesthood of all believers”, in the sense that the work of the gospel is undertaken by the whole church, not just the clergy.

15.  What is your message to our (male) bishops?
The book is the message, really. I pray for our Bishops, and keep in touch with a number of them whom I know personally, and I don’t underestimate the complexity of what they have to do. But I want to see them make good on their promise to include women in their HoB meetings, and have the courage to do what they are almost all agreed on – that we must, as soon as possible, resolve this issue.

16.  Will you return to us in the UK?
Yes! I long to come home. (Get the kettle on, Jody!) But for now I have a deep sense of calling in this new setting, and so I think I will be working here for a while yet.

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