St John's Church, Harpenden - letter from the Ministry team

We publish a Parish Magazine 4 times a year and in each Magazine there is a letter from the vicar or a member of the Ministry team.

Letter from the Vicarage

A long tradition - or was it simply custom - was broken when, within a short period of time last year we witnessed the appointment of the first woman, Libby Lane, as Suffragan Bishop of Stockport, and then Rachel Treweek, as Bishop of Gloucester; she subsequently took a seat in the House of Lords. There have been other Episcopal appointments since then. It is hard to credit that until the later part of the 20th century it was considered self-evident that such titles as bishop, preacher, priest and theologian were reserved for men. To suggest giving such honours to women led to ferocious and bitter arguments and was seen as taking a stand against both the Bible and tradition. This also led to women walking away from faith communities in anger and anguish; they will wait in vain for some token of an apology.

There have, of course, always been women who had a burning love for the Church's well-being and a profound zeal for what used to be referred to as the salvation of souls. Women also experienced profound pain at not being able to realise their apostolic vocation or to have their writings taken seriously - women were excluded from being students and masters until the 19th century. Aristotle had argued that women could not be wise in the same way as men; European society and the churches were structured in such a way that this theory inevitably became true.

There were exceptions; there is a disputed claim that Hildegard of Bingen travelled to Paris in 1174 in an attempt to persuade the Bishop of Paris that her writings should be included in the theological curriculum as the centres of learning shifted from the Benedictine monasteries to the newly established schools and universities. They were apparently commended but never became part of any curriculum. Nowadays in her native Germany her theological writings are now taken far more seriously; she was declared a Doctor of the Church (theologian) on 7 October 2012 by Pope Benedict, whom it would seem long recognised her writings as worthy of serious reflection. In England she is more likely to be mentioned on Radio 3 programmes as a composer of music than a writer of theology.

Julian of Norwich is also being rescued from the rather lazy and comfortable titles of 'mystic' or 'spiritual write' to being seen as a subtle and sophisticated theologian in her own right, a lady who grappled with the seeming contradictions of her personal revelation of God's omnipotent love on the one hand, and on the other the medieval church's teaching on, and her own witnessing of, evil, which deserves punishment. The hope is surely that this anonymous woman ('Julian' refers to the church where her hermitage was) can take her rightful place with the finest of medieval English theologians.

A major shift involving gender occurred around 1200, when women begin to take a prominent place in the mystical and theological tradition. Without denying that there were important women and even women writers before this in Christianity, it is fair to say that the great age of women's theology began around this time.

Their rediscovery has been fuelled in part by contemporary feminism and feminist theology, which has found in these often forgotten female voices valued predecessors and conversation partners. Important as this is, we need to recognise that the issues that concern the churches of today are widely different from those of the medieval world and the medieval Church. Beliefs and practices that were central to them can seem marginal or troubling to us.

The other thing to remember is that much of what we know about these remarkable women often comes from the pens of their male admirers, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich being somewhat unusual in that regard. So we are obliged to ask how much of what we know about these women has been filtered through texts that men - confessors and spiritual advisers - wanted a wider audience to know and think about these women.

During Lent we will focus on some of these remarkable women while acknowledging that we are excluding others; so, for example, we will consider Julian of Norwich, about whom much recent research has been undertaken, but exclude our local anchoress, Christina of Markyate, about whom much less is known. We will also consider the lives of Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and some of the amazing women who formed a lay movement known to us as the Beguine, whose vision and spirituality radiated far beyond its centres in Brabant, Flanders and Cologne.

Within the context of the medieval Church it was virtually impossible for women to create new ways of living the gospel without the co-operation and approval of men. It is to be hoped that today women will exercise their ministries freed of this constraint and that new and creative ways of being a believer and exercising ministries in the church will enrich us all.

With every blessing to you all,


Nicholas Anderson

Visit the Diocese's web site: Living God's Love.

Read about Lauryn's visit to the Holy Land

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