by Trevor Pitt
from Signs of the Times No. 56 - Jan 2015
The title of this significant and inspiring book echoes the author's famous angry protest at the Church of England's General Synod in 1978, when the motion supporting the ordination of women priests was rejected. Now half a lifetime ago, the author here reflects on the personal nature of that particular struggle and the outcome in terms of her own subsequent faith journey.
Writing towards the end of a long and eventful life, her profound spiritual autobiography is quite slim and will not take much reading, but that's only because it is so wonderfully written and conceived with utmost personal and intellectual honesty.
The book will seriously engage anyone's humanity because it is an immensely human project, critically examining the extreme highs and lows of the human condition as experienced and understood by someone who is a doctor, missionary, contemplative nun, wife and mother, Anglican priest and, latterly, lay woman in the Roman Catholic Church. She raises incisive questions indicating how little is either settled or understood when it comes to the issues to which she has devoted her life - justice for the poor and oppressed, protection of the natural environment, discrimination against women and homosexuals - in short, the healing of all our relationships for the common good. All she once believed has been put to the test - and she believes it is still too early to judge the outcome.
Her journey has been a long and unconventional one, and many of its vicissitudes are recounted here through the personal details of her early memories, developing as a liberated woman at Cambridge, training as a doctor below the glass ceilings of professional medicine, finding outlets as a missionary nun in Africa, marrying a monk, early widowhood, and returning to a celibate life under simple vows in Wales. This fast moving and oft-changing context provides the background to what lies at the heart of her latest book - the long term clarifying of all her thinking and beliefs in an evolving understanding of the reality of God.
At times this feels very confessional, and very private. Her practice as a counsellor shows through at several levels and in the many examples she provides of others who have dealt with transitions and breakdowns in their lives. Throughout, discrimination against women is a common theme - in education, medicine and, of course, in the Church. Recounting these episodes helps towards her own holistic and religious development, as so many of the people and stories in which she became involved have 'stayed with her', and she hints the same is true for all of us.
She relates how God entered her life early as a weird 'mysterious force' without identity or name, an energy which seems at times to override choice but which draws her into one life-change after another until it eventually becomes 'known' - though not understood. Imbued with traditional Anglican ideals her course followed an increasingly radical path towards feminist socio-political activism until a sudden and bewildering breakdown in 1980. Despair eventually turned into blind faith, and subsequent ordination, but even this was little more than a holding operation until her loss of trust in the church she had trusted too readily led to resignation. She describes this period as 'doubt and darkness', leading to the realisation that darkness itself can embody the dynamic creative energy that is God's 'unconditional love', and in which she now finds a faith she can believe and live with integrity.
In some ways this is a story of a traditional believer facing the need to strip away doctrinal and institutional restrictions in order to live fully in the present moment - 'agnosticism in the full sense of that word'. She thinks such changes in perception and belief are common to many as they grow older, though few speak of it openly. She clearly sees it as 'gift from Love itself'. She still thinks that church leaders have lost their ability to be honest in this way.
In sum, quoting Desmond Tutu, she sees herself as a prisoner of hope for the future. She is sustained at the end of her life, she tells us, by a desire to see religious faith as a positive contribution to the survival of humanity, harnessed for peace, not violence. This means change that can never come from the powerful ones who are as oppressed by their wealth and position as those they oppress. It requires resistance from the world's ordinary people. In this sincere belief she took the seemingly perverse (but unsurprising in her own terms) decision in 2008 to become a Roman Catholic, to be an ordinary lay woman in a church which still confuses auctoritas (authority) with potestas (power) and where she can complete her pilgrimage in prayer without any power or position whatsoever.