Remember the Phoenix

[Note: having received all kinds of responses about this post, negative, positive and everything in between, I need to clarify a couple of things. Firstly, what I have written is a reflection on the *responses* to this event. Those who have pointed out that we don't know what has happened, are correct, we don't.  Secondly, the point of what I write is that our responses happen regardless, which is evident.  I say below that whatever ordained women 'do', they do as women, even if something is not explicitly about gender because that is the primary way we are interpreted.  We are perceived as *women* priests and it is nonsense to pretend otherwise.  Our responses are based on this perception.  Lastly, the 'She' I write about below is the symbolic ordained woman.]

Most of you will have seen the news that Janet Henderson has resigned her post as the Dean of Llandaff Cathedral due to, as a source has said a 'difficult time since her appointment, with some clergy resenting the appointment of a woman.'

What a gut-punch.

I've heard all kinds of responses on Twitter and Facebook.

Most have been sad and outraged.

Some have likened it to Philip North resigning as Bishop of Whitby.  Now, lots of people won't like what I'm about to type.  Personally, I thought Philip North was courageous for withdrawing from this post, and I admit that I felt rather sad about it all - what have we got ourselves into, I thought.  I don't know how the circle will be squared on this one, and in many senses it would be much easier if I could generate hate and spite for the lot of them - but I can't and I won't.

To fall into cliche...some of my good friends are Forward in Faith (Anglo Catholics who don't think we should ordain women).  In fact one man in particular *always* comes into my mind when I begin to think of people leaving the CofE...because of me.  He's kind and gentle and encouraging, he affirms me and yes, my priesthood, and he loves loves loves Jesus (and Mary ;) ).  I honestly don't know how he does it and stays integrated with his own beliefs about women in the priesthood - I'm not sure that he does, I think it's painful.

So, don't ever tell me that I just want 'them' to leave.

But to compare Philip North's story to that of Janet Henderson is simply offensive.  And here's the bit that people won't like...it is one thing to be the object of hate, spite and derision (we can only imagine the experiences that caused a capable, experienced priest to have to leave), and it is quite another to be told, as Philip North was, that the people who are your objects of exclusion, are not considered such by others - and to hold those people as objects of exclusion is not considered acceptable any more.

It is very different for a woman to say 'I can't stay because I'm a woman', and a man to say 'I can't stay because you're a woman'.  The object remains as the woman - she bears her shame and she bears his distaste. She bears it.

Just to be clear, this is what ordained women in the CofE, and clearly in the CinW, have to live with.  It is in their psyche, their DNA as ordained people.  When we are in a deanery chapter, a synod, a diocese, a meeting - these are the dynamics at play, whether they are overt or not.  This is not to bleat on about it - I know that it's uncomfortable and people want to dismiss it or pretend it's not that bad or say they don't feel it's like that for them.  Yes, I know.  I'm in one of the best Areas of London Diocese, London being not considered 'women friendly'.  My Bishop is out and proud about his affirmation of the ordination and consecration of women, I don't experience overt sexism on a daily basis.  I'm very grateful and love my job.  So I know that some of you hate it when I bring up the fact that we can't really escape the effects of choosing to be in an institution that is ambivalent about us.  An institution where we are the objects of our own and others opinions of us.  I know you don't like me to say that there is only so much of that which can remain external.  Because we're meant to be strong and let it wash off us, right?  But this is the pool that we swim in, and we can't help but drink the water.

So, no, it's not the same thing as Philip North.

Some have said 'she should have stuck it out'.

Ah, now, this is tricky isn't it?  Part of my response to this story was entirely selfish, I don't mind admitting.  Every time a woman soars in the church, becomes who she is meant to be, which includes leading in senior positions - where her capability, her priesthood, her experience, her wisdom is honoured and nourished...every time I see that happen, I can breathe again. Phew...it's possible.  If it's possible for them, then it's possible for me.  I spend a lot of my time in various spaces choosing to be more than I can imagine I can be - I suggest you all do the same - but sometimes I hit a wall.  I run out of imagination.  I know that I need to step into God's imagination, God's understanding of what my potential really is, but sometimes I can't.

And then a story like this hits the headlines, or I hear about another woman who can't find a job, or I get rebuffed from speaking at places where my face doesn't fit, or I see conference after conference where the overwhelming majority of speakers are blokes, or I see women defending their territory because it's so small and that's what they've had to do...for years.  God have mercy.

And it's like a perfect storm.

Sometimes I crash.

So, even though I disagree (who can make that choice for someone else?) I understand the sentiment - 'she should have stuck it out'

She should have stuck it out - so that we can hope.
She should have stuck it out - so that the bullies don't win
She should have stuck it out - so that she can be our symbol
She should have stuck it out - so that the path is forged

And once again *she* is the object.  She bears it.  Our hopes, our desires.  She bears it.

Women in the church at the moment will carry all of this.  We do not simply do the job, we do the job as a woman (I know you don't want it to be so, but it is so).  In front of eyes that hope for us, because we carry their dreams, or in front of eyes that wait for us to fall, because we bear their fears.  It is inevitable at this moment in time.

And sometimes the story is not all 'triumph in the face of adversity', sometimes people die.


Deep breath.

Remember the Phoenix.

A symbol of resurrection, beautiful and bright, burned and born out of the ashes of her demise.

In mythology, the Phoenix has tears which heal and the strength to bear loads way beyond her size.

So remember the Phoenix.  She bears it.


Dyfed said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm not sure many realise how tough it can be for women in leadership.

Jody Stowell said...

No - and it's difficult to say what the reality is without people thinking of us as victims or that we've taken on a victim mentality.

I want to offer the reality of the situation, which of course I can only do from the inside, and blow some of the denial out the window.

Often women in church leadership have not been taught to understand these dynamics however - the theological colleges don't know how to a lot of the time - and are left to sink or swim when chucked into ministry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. I was saddended to read of The Dean's resignation, I know we don't know what goes on behind closed doors and only have the media's portrayal of it, but this is one example of many ordained women having to endure stuff which really is not Kingdom building. Many of my non-Christian friends wonder why I would want to be a priest in such an institution as this, some days I do wonder...but then I know there must be hope...it is that Hope which gives me perservance. It is awful that the dean felt that she needed to leave and in some ways people may think those who wanted her out have won. But, actually, I think it shows great courage and clear boundaries, she has shown that there is only so much that she is willing to put up with and after a while enough is enough. I pray that she will be able to flourish elsewhere and I pray for the women who aren't in the public media today and are still enduring such suffering and pain. Thanks Jody.

Unknown said...

Please remember that you are not just under the eyes of those who depend on you to succeed or those who are waiting for you to fail, but also the majority, I hope, of those who are happy to have you as their colleague or their priest.

Best wishes

Janet Henderson said...

Stumbled across this while searching the internet for something else. I would like to point out that my decision to resign had nothing at all to do with my gender. If you read the press articles carefully you will see that all the comments are from anonymous sources who clearly wanted to put their own spin on the story. The only gender related point here is that there is an extra pressure on women because, whatever they do, some people will seek to attribute it to their gender!

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Janet, thanks, yes I tried to make the subject clear in my added note introducing the post, after the conversation we had at the time.

It is the symbol of ordained woman that gets commented on in the media rather than the reality. And I am commenting on the comments.

As Rosemary Lain Priestly puts succinctly, our 'gender is always in the room'.