By Gerald Morgan
“Herkne eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones.”
Readers of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (c. 1395) will recall the contempt with which the Wife of Bath dismisses the arguments of St Jerome, that archpriest of medieval anti-feminism, on the question of second and subsequent marriages. And rightly so. Jerome’s harsh and inhumane polemic is empty of intellectual substance. One might have thought that the cause of women in the Christian churches would have advanced somewhat since the end of the fourteenth century.
Those who were present at the launch in the Synge Theatre on 29 October of Dr Florence Craven’s pioneering study on the attitudes of Roman Catholic and Protestant Irish women might have some grounds for optimism. To the proposition “It would only be fair to let women become priests/ministers on an equal footing with men”, 95.3 percent of the Protestant women respondents and 83.6 percent of the Roman Catholic women respondents agreed. And to the related statement, “I’m not too keen on the idea of women clergy”, 95.5 percent of Protestant women respondents and 75.3 percent of Roman Catholic women respondents disagreed. The Mná na hÉireann are virtually of one voice. The issue of the ordination of women would seem to be a settled issue.
As chance would have it, Dr Craven’s rational presentation of women’s views in the Irish Churches was followed (even to my astonishment) by the hysteria in the headline of the London Times on the following Wednesday (3 November), namely, “Campaign for women bishops ‘is like 1939’”.
It seems that we are to view Anglo-Catholic zealots in the Church of England opposed to the ordination of women at all costs as now in the position of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. This must be as offensive to Jews as it is to Anglicans. Proponents of this preposterous and indeed sinister statement are plainly people with whom rational argument is no longer possible. Appeals to tradition by opponents of the ordination of women are merely attempts to distract attention from the real issues at stake. There can be no theological or doctrinal objection to the ordination of women. What we have here (as in the good old days of St Jerome) are anti-feminist attitudes dressed up as religious principle.
The proper response to them, now, as in 1395, is surely that of the Wife of Bath. There is something particularly odious in the spectacle of English priests deserting to Rome in order to promote the continued subjection of women.
And there is something singularly ungracious about the Church of Rome in its attempts to encourage them to do so.