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Answering the call as well as the cry

13 March 2015

Motherhood and priesthood can nurture each other, says Rosemary Lain-Priestley

IN THE late-winter sunshine, a group of female clergy gather in Salisbury Cathedral Close around Elisabeth Frink's sculpture The Walking Madonna. Tall, with powerful shoulders and focused gaze, the Madonna strides away from the Cathedral and towards the world.

Observing her closely, we are being led in a gently probing meditation about our own calling, wondering where God's momentum might prompt us to go. I have two thoughts, almost simultaneous: "Praying in this way touches the mystic in me," and "How can the Madonna have such a flat stomach when she was pregnant to full term at least once?"

This blend of flesh and spirit, carnal and sacred, shapes my life. It grounds my exploration of God, and continually reminds me of the shocking truth of the incarnation. The (probably) teenage Mary carried God as foetus, and embryo, and then baby; and gave birth, just as I have, with all the mess and vulnerability which that entails.

Most human beings have more than one calling: to love certain people; to pay attention to particular issues; and, according to our gifts, experience, and passions, to take our part in the healing of the world. I was called to priesthood before marriage and parenting, but I have never accepted that our callings are arranged hierarchically. Some of my mother's generation of clergy wives, when asked "Will you marry me?" were in the same breath told "You must accept that the Church will always come first." But, for me, vocation is an experience of intertwining golden threads, and not the sacrifice of others on the altar of my determination to prove my commitment to God.

God does not ask of us anything that will damage those we love. What God does ask is that we bring the whole of ourselves to each of our callings.

WHAT do mothers bring to ordained ministry? Some of the same things as fathers, of course, although our culture has not always encouraged men to speak of them. The arrival of clergy who are also mothers has opened up new conversations and new theological ground.

To skim the surface of what childbearing has taught us, we bring knowledge of God as a risk-taker, learned through the risk of birth, and then what someone once described as "having your heart walk around outside your body for the rest of your life": the habit of continual reflection on the well-being of others, and our impact on them; reliance on God for our sense of self-worth, in the absence of title or paid position; and a deep awareness that, ultimately, we are not in control, encouraging continued reliance on the one who made and holds us.

THE question for church communities is whether they can embrace as a profound gift the experience of priests-who-are-mothers, coming as it does with implications for reasonable boundaries around availability and privacy; working patterns that might look a little different; or the blurring of domestic and sacred as a small child calls out "Mummy" to the woman behind the altar in the middle of the eucharist. Perhaps the key question is: can you allow us to bring to the altar all that we bring to the table?

The Revd Rosemary Lain-Priestley is Dean of Women's Ministry for the Two Cities Area of the diocese of London.

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