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
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
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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