The Tablet Blog
In praise of a hidden tradition of Catholic women's empowermentDr Anna Rowlands responds to Linda Woodhead
14 December 2012, 9:00
As a practising Catholic and a feminist there are two refrains I have heard from friends over the years. One goes something like this, and tends to be a question asked by my Catholic convert friends: ‘how on earth did you manage to keep your faith intact through the spiritually thin Catholicism of the 1970s and 80s? The second refrain is posed by my feminist friends: ‘why on earth would you remain a Catholic?'
One answer to both questions lies in between the lines of Linda Woodhead's important Tablet article of two weeks ago (you can read a shorter version of her argument here). Linda, who is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, presented the counter-intuitive argument that the Catholic Church remains a better place to be a woman than the Church of England. There is a surprising truth in this statement (yes, despite the various church politics we can all quote). She painted part of a picture of the Catholicism in which I, and other women in our 30s and 40s were raised.
While many of my convert friends see only forms of liturgy, hymnody and catechesis that leave them cold, this same period was one in which the Catholic Church in this country was quietly managing a quite extraordinary feat. The fruits of an ordinary, local Catholic set of practices are only now becoming apparent: the education and formation of a generation of women confident in their faith, who have now taken their place in the world of work as well as within their families.
Many of these women came from first and second generation migrant backgrounds, had little to lose and much to gain, and found themselves being nurtured through what my colleague Julie Clague, a lecturer at Glasgow, named an 'alternative civil society'. This alternative civil society was built around the matrix of lay, apostolic women's religious orders, the provision of Catholic (state and private) schooling, a 'thick' practice of Catholic parish life (including wide social provision, the presence of Young Christian Workers, St Vincent de Paul, Cafod and other social justice formation groups) and perhaps, too, a determination amongst migrant families to educate their girls.
It is impossible to understate the importance of the work that comprehensive Catholic schools have performed in creating a context for developing the confidence and academic achievement of Catholic women. Here we encountered powerful, articulate women, confident in their faith with a passion for social justice as for Scripture and liturgy. For many their experience of Catholic schooling was their experience of Church - a remarkable kind of Church-in-the-world experience. And it was one protected to a degree from some of the more hostile winds. I have become increasingly convinced that without much fanfare this 'thick' community was nurturing something new in Catholic life in UK - the powerful, creative, public lay woman. This is a story that I think we have failed to celebrate or see for what it is - and must still be.
This hasn't happened (or perhaps better, has happened differently) for Anglican women for two reasons: the first is that Church of England schools operate differently from Catholic schools with a less overt formational and catechetical culture and their women are therefore also less overtly formed in a counter-culture than Catholic have been.
The second reason is an extension of Julie Clague's observations: Anglicanism hasn't felt the need to build an alternative civil society because it was already part of one, and it assumed that this was sufficient. I spent five years working in an Anglican theological college with extraordinarily gifted women ordinands, this context was perhaps the one context where I have seen a deliberate attempt to provide such an effective counter-cultural space of formation in an Anglican context. But to wait until women are in their 20s, 30s and 40s to provide this is not enough, and it leaves younger Anglican lay women without a parallel experience. This can't be just about women who present for ordination, or else this becomes a narrowly clericalised feminism.
To make this case for the power of the local Catholic Church's commitment to its women is not to express a kind of tasteless Catholic triumphalism in a moment of weakness and sadness for Anglicanism (and goodness knows we do have problems enough of our own). But it is to do two things: to note that we have had - and must protect and continue to develop for the future - a pearl of great price in our Catholic communities. This is especially important at a time when faith schooling is seen by a wider culture as problematic. What does it mean for a new generation of Catholic schools and parishes to continue to develop this legacy of the 1970s, 80s and 90s? Secondly, we can note that the Church of England is no longer coterminous with British civil society, which has become inflected with powerful and rich shades of different traditions. What kind of thick 'civil' practices might the Church of England construct to enable the development of flourishing communities in which it nurtures and forms its women as well as re-forms its own structures of leadership? Reflection on these questions matters to the daughters of both Church communities.
Dr Anna Rowlands is a lecturer in Theology and Ministry, Department of Education and Professional Studies, King's College, London
3 January 2013 14:51 (6 of 6)
I converted to the Catholic faith as a teenager (19) in the late 1980s. I had never been baptized and was completely uncatechised before I began attending a Catholic young adult prayer group at 17. I am still a practicing Catholic now married to a cradle Catholic with three children. When I was at Sussex University in the 90s I took the opportunity to study at Georgetown in Washington D.C. as part of my American Studies degree. That has been my only personal experience of Catholic education. I love the church and I love my experiences and journey with my fellow Catholics. My family has moved around somewhat (we are now in Germany) but when living in the USA our children attended Catholic parish schools that were oversubscribed and very popular. Because so many people outside the church seem to think they know who the church is, ordinary Catholic women are rarely if ever asked about their opinions and why they are glad to remain Catholics despite terrible sins such as the children abuse scandals. I consider myself intelligent, well educated and well informed and I know why I am Catholic and will remain so. Women in the church should be listened to by those outside with no assumptions. I never took the C of E seriously and it did not appeal to me when I was on my search for God.
22 December 2012 22:18 (5 of 6)
I recognise the truth of the argument from my time as senior deputy head and later head of a joint RC and CE secondary school and my previous and subsequent leadership work in RC schools. The CE education vision was very limited when compared with RC mission. As Chairman of Westmister Adult RE Committee, based at Maria Assumpta, I remember with great affection the work of Imelda Gardener and Sr Gemma Brennan IBVM. I remember too the great RE department input of evaneglical Catholics like Janice Burn, Pat Carmody, Vickie Squirrell and Barbara George. As 1971-72 President of University of London Catholic Society I remember colleagues of Pat Gaffney such as Valerie Flescatti and Barbara Kent. I remember too the social justice enthusiasm and Fairtrade (Divine Chocolate) advocate Sophie Tranchell and previous her chaplaincy work at Queen Mary University College. .
21 December 2012 0:12 (4 of 6)
The reason the Catholic Church is to be preferred for women over the CofE is the same reason it is to be preferred for men. The Catholic Church contains the fullness of the Christian Faith, Doctrine, and Morals, whereas the latter is a partial or pale imitation of the former.
20 December 2012 3:36 (3 of 6)
The Catholic Church that Dr. Rowlands described is fast disappearing in the United States. . Young priests coming out of seminaries have been trained to ignore issues of social justice. They are told their role is sacramental mediator realized through the celebration of the Mass. One Jesuit remarked to me (and others have echoed the sentiment) that 'they' (Hierarchy) are just waiting for the older priests to die off. Nuns are being investigated, forced to leave dioceses, told to dress in traditional habits, leave any social ministry and above all make no public pronouncements on social justice issues that differ from the Bishops. 2. The sole priestly role of mediator requires newer, grander, more opulent theatrical spaces, so older churches with coherent neighborhoods and vibrant community identifications are being closed. Parish schools are often closed so finances can go elsewhere (abuse indemnifications) and those remain open charge are too costly for the lower middle class. 3. The last two Popes and the Vatican bureaucracy is subverting the Second Vatican Council, even though the Council of the Universal Church is more authoritative that papal teaching.
19 December 2012 16:37 (2 of 6)
Very interesting post that the very first comment, in its mentioning of liberation theology, made more interesting. I wish the original post had some mention of an antidotal teaching in present practice, something like an activism built around Catholic economics, not liberation theology, which is quite the wrong direction for women and for society and for the Church. But the commentator is doubtless correct that liberation theology is what she has been offered in today's poor Church. I do agree with the general point of the post most enthusiastically. Yes, the Catholic church is by far the best place for women. It protects her unborn from pressure on her to abort it. It protects her marriage with that remaining prohibition of divorce. It offers the only remaining balanced vision of participation in both society and family. And it still fulfills all those wonderful services for women sketched by the British historian John Bossy, who argued the superiority of the Church in matters related to women as the reason for women's loyalty to the Church, in the face of the most brutal martyrdom during the so-called reformation. Look him up if you have not already done so.
18 December 2012 9:32 (1 of 6)
Cannot affirm strongly enough Anna Rowlands comments on education and formation of women. As a daughter of Irish/Scottish migrants the young women teachers at my Catholic secondary modern school inspired many of us to go into higher education - often as the first in the family to do so. My 'formation' at Maria Assumpta college introduced me to Young Christian Students, CIIIR, Liberation Theology, the Simon Community... I could go on, opening my heart and mind to an international community of people who put that faith into action. I like to think I try to do the same today. Cannot thank enough the women who opened the doors and windows to me.
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