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franciscan - May 2005

The Society of Saint Francis, 2005

Till we all Attain to a Perfect Man

Gender and the First Order SSF

by Joyce CSF

One versicle of the Response at Midday Prayer on Saturday (except during the seasons of the liturgical year) in The Daily Office - SSF, 1981 edition, went thus:  'Till we all attain to a perfect man'.  I identify this as symbolising the beginning of the paradigm shift for me as the scales began to fall from my eyes and my exploration of gender issues was launched in the mid - eighties. As one of my sisters at the time used to say in respect of that versicle:  'do we want one or do we want to be one?' 

Connected with this was The Principles of the First Order, Day 15, in which is stated 'the Holy Eucharist is the centre round which their (brothers and sisters) life revolves'.  The difficulty presenting itself here was the question, 'if this is so then why do we sisters have to wheel in someone from outside the community to enable the centre of our life to happen?'

There evolved a small group of us trying to do theology differently - to discover what other women were thinking and feeling about their relationship with God, the Church and themselves.  These were the early days of the Christian feminist movement and groups of women were gathering to study theology and the Bible from a feminist perspective and reclaiming women saints and biblical women, many of whom had been marginalized by the patriarchal establishment.  The Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) was active and gaining momentum in its campaign for justice for women in the Church. Women in Theology (WIT) came into being at this time and became an influential organisation for providing women with a forum for exploration, study and worship together.  St Hilda's Community formed around an alternative 'parish' for women and men in London for some years, and produced some inspirational resources, still in use today.  I was involved with each of these groups. Una Kroll, Monica Furlong, Hannah Ward and Janet Morley provided many women with resources and encouragement to persevere in a hostile climate of male and female opposition and blatant hatred.  General Synods and the Lambeth Conferences of the time were places of protest for those of us trying to change attitudes towards the ordination of women in the Church.  And these protests included our Roman Catholic sisters was well as Anglican women from overseas, where women were ordained already as well as some who were still in the process.

A small minority of us CSF sisters began the slow and painful process of trying to bring about some changes in the First Order SSF.  We started with the human language translations in the Office Book.  At Compton Durville, after negotiation with all members of the house, alternative wording was approved for those parts of the Office, said by the Officiant, where the language was sexist.  There was no obligation on the Officiant for the week to use it.  This modest beginning began to spread to other community houses as word got around.  But this was not an easy row to hoe for those of us labelled as 'feminist' - not surprisingly, the same hostility existed within as without SSF, sisters as well as brothers.  I was berated on many occasions for upsetting the brothers.  But upset was not the object of the exercise - all change by its very nature involves some measure of 'upset'!  If the system works for you, you are not going to be too pleased if change is on the cards! 

By about 1989 there had been a significant enough positive response to 'the rocking of the boat' for us (brothers and sisters) to have a workshop on gender issues at a Regional Meeting with facilitators (male and female). We spent a whole day looking at how gender issues influenced our life as brothers and sisters.  One outcome was the recognition that there were some things that we can do well together but there were also things that we needed to do separately as brothers and sisters.  There had already been significant changes in the structure of the First Order which symbolised the desire for brothers and sisters to work together in collaboration for the sake of the Reign of God.  We share the same Constitution of the First Order and Provincial Statutes (in the European Province).  We have established joint meetings of European and American Provincial Chapters, and in 1984 began the joint meeting of the First Order Chapters in San Francisco.  This principle is now accepted as the norm in the First Order.  The annual Ministers' Meeting always includes a joint meeting.

When the time came to revise The Daily Office SSF, published in 1992, there was common agreement in the First Order that the human language should be inclusive; there was a conscious effort made by the Liturgical Committee to include more women in the Liturgical Calendar of commemorations and to reclaim some biblical women as reflected in some of the refrains and canticles.

The vote in the General Synod of the Church of England in November 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood was a momentous occasion for those of us who had been campaigning for years.  I shall never forget being there on the steps of Church House and being stunned and overwhelmed that now my sisters in this Province could begin to preside at the Eucharist 'around which our life revolves'.  This was already a reality in the American Province where Catherine Joy had been ordained in 1985.

Presently we have five ordained sisters.  But our joy in CSF contrasts sharply with the angst for some of our brothers still opposed to the ordination of women, especially as the possibility of women bishops in the Church of England draws nearer.  The Act of Synod to allow 'two integrities' to try to co-exist is also presenting enormous heartache within other male and female religious communities.  This Act, in my opinion, condones institutional sexism; it is still a justice issue, whatever secondary arguments are presented.

Although some of the heat has gone out of gender issues because significant shifts have been made, there are still some areas where little has changed.  Language about God and images of God are still steadfastly male in the liturgy of Common Worship and The Daily Office SSF; the ambiguity of 'The Society of St Francis' being the umbrella name for the three Orders as well as the name of the brothers of the First Order fuels the image of the First Order as male.  There are still a significant number of brothers and sisters for whom these issues are of no relevance.  I cannot turn the tide of my transformation: feminism has given me a self confidence I never dreamed was possible, an inner freedom to keep choosing the religious life as the way in which to live out my Christian vocation, friends who cherish me and whom I cherish, and a way to nourish my being made in the image of God, the source of all Being, so that I can pray every day that I am glad to have been born a woman. f

Sister Joyce CSF, an Australian by birth, joined the Community of St Francis in the European Province in 1970, was Life Professed in San Francisco in 1975, is currently Minister General of  the Community, and lives in Brixton, South London.

 

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