Mother Church and Her Children

I heard a great sermon yesterday, Mothering Sunday. The preacher was apologising for times past when she’d bought into the notion that Mothering Sunday and Mothers’ Day were one and the same, especially services where only the women who were mums with children had been given flowers. How exclusive was that! No, she insisted, Lent 4 was about nurturing: a quality that is not confined to those who have given birth to children; and about the nurture offered by Mother Church. Well said!

The final hymn, ‘The Church’s One Foundation’, had been carefully chosen to reinforce the preacher’s last point. Its verses refer to the Church using female pronouns. Why then, I wondered, if the Church is so feminine, so motherly, so nurturing, do we have such a struggle on our hands at the moment. Why is the consecration of women as bishops such a controversial issue, or, if it isn’t, why is it taking so long to happen? Why do many of Mother Church’s LGB and T ‘children’ feel so excluded, hurt, and exiled? Why is Mother Church often experienced by LGB and T Christians as ‘bad mummy’ – punishing and ostracising?

Is it simply that the Church – for all the female pronouns and imagery, and even women as priests – is still excessively and aggressively masculine, and wary of the feminine? Will things improve once there are women in the House of Bishops?

Certainly there can be a gender imbalance in church events. I attended a meeting only last week where the co-chairs were both male; ‘both sides’ of the argument on women bishops were put by another male; and a fourth male was also given the rostrum. Thankfully, the Spirit moved one woman priest to stand up at the front and tell her story of being a female ordinand in a diocese that had, at that time, been totally opposed to women in ministry. We had heard much that evening about how some men would feel unfairly disadvantaged were women to become bishops, so we needed to hear that particular story as well and, just as importantly, to see a woman ‘up front’.

The Church of England does not feel like a happy household at the moment. Some of the children have left home already, others are threatening to go, and toys are being thrown around the parlour. There’s a tremendous need for nurture here but instead it feels as if Mother Church is behaving more like Mother Courage, the eponymous character in Bertolt Brecht & Margarete Steffin’s play Mother Courage and Her Children. As she pulls her cart along, preoccupied with profiteering from the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage exposes her three children to danger, and then, one by one, they perish.

In an interesting article on why so many priests are gay, the novelist Michael Arditti quotes the theology lecturer who once asked his class, “Have you ever thought, gentlemen, why you want to dress as mother and call yourself ‘Father?’”

Answer: they were unconsciously seeking a surrogate family. Well, currently, the Church of England family does seem to be fairly dysfunctional, and a little bit of mothering – or even womanhood – wouldn’t come amiss.

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