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Women with an agenda to transform Anglicanism

15 November 2013

Christine Worsley on essays from around the Communion

Anglican Women on Church and Mission
Kwok Pui-lan, Judith A. Berling and Jenny Plane Te Paa, editors
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18  (Use code CT734 )

WHAT is the distinctive calling of the worldwide Anglican Communion in the 21st century?

Emerging directly from a consultation of Anglican women theological educators in Canterbury in 2009, this book offers a radical response to this underlying question, which, in the editors' opinion, is faced by a Communion in crisis.

As the title suggests, all the contributors are women, who represent a diversity of churches and contexts from across the Communion. Since women are in the majority in terms of Anglican church membership, but are vastly underrepresented in the Communion's decision-making processes, the authors bring a particular commitment to raising awareness of the experiences and contributions that women make, and have made, to Anglicanism.

But they do this by no means exclusively. At the heart of the book is a call to value and respect the marginalised, and to listen to the voices of those all those whose opinions are not enough heard, and whose faith, wisdom, and service are not valued as highly as they should be.

This book is an invitation to conversation and reflection - to re-visioning - by which the authors hope to promote further dialogue and scholarship. This does not mean that they do not want change, but their hope is for informed change from a renewed and transformed Communion. The book models a practical theological approach that values the voices brought to the conversation by the tradition, the insights of other disciplines and faith traditions, and, most significantly, the realities of lived experiences in specific contexts.

The first part of the book contains contributions exploring issues of leadership, power, authority, gender, and sexuality, from historical and theological perspectives; the second, "Anglican Women and God's Mission", explores the call to the Church to share in mission from a perspective that sees the whole world as the arena of God's loving activity. All contributions reflect a deep respect for the significance of local churches in this calling.

For me, two important emphases emerge from within the volume. First, the call to live as a Communion that does not submerge diversity in the search for a common mind, but that learns to find strength in living with difference. For a number of contributors, this includes the difference that comes to us from the past - from the contexts in which traditions are formed; we are called always to be in conversation with our past, and to allow it to furnish a critique of our present. This is powerfully illustrated in a chapter on the Mothers' Union, which, in its encounter with diversity, reprioritised values and principles (for example, on divorce), with the result that security of identity became less important than its calling to mission.

Second, the book calls on the Communion to refocus its identity as the community of the baptised rather than "primarily as a hierarchy of ordained orders". For example, an exploration of authority in the second chapter highlights the way in which discussions on priests and deacons often focus on their relationships to the episcopate "rather than . . . their relationship to the company of the baptized, or their importance in the ministry of reconciliation that the church has in the world". This is an argument for a change in emphasis, not one designed to question the importance of the orders of ministry in the Anglican Churches.

Entering into the dialogues in this book is challenging. It challenges readers to a broader vision, to look again at the light of others' experience, and to be aware of the historical, theological, and cultural forces that shape us all. This is not because the issues discussed are new, but because the focus on women's opinions and perspectives which it brings has the potential to challenge inherited patterns and "open up conversations to include a diversity of voices".

I recommend this book, above all, because it has integrity; in its generosity, openness, and embrace of diversity, it mirrors something of the quality of communion to which we are called.

Canon Christine Worsley is the Kingdom People Development Officer, in the diocese of Worcester.

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