SANDWICH, England — LAST Tuesday, on the front page of The Daily Telegraph of London, which I buy like thousands of other dementia-fearers because of the kindly crossword, I saw the face of a young woman at the General Synod at York with a bright teardrop sliding down her cheek. I thought, Oh dear! More misery. Newspapers now are only frigates of misery.
But the gleaming teardrop was not for sorrow; it was for joy! This girl, in an ecclesiastical, once exclusively male, dog collar, was weeping for joy because the synod, which governs the Church of England, had at last decided to allow women to become bishops.
Not that there are not some tough preliminaries. The dog collar has to be earned. And more. But starting next year, if all goes well, a female Anglican priest will be able to become even an archbishop should she believe she is called to do the job.
And she doesn’t even have to look like a male bishop. (When I was a child I was not sure that bishops were men anyway. Their clothes floated like women’s or angels’, though their faces were not exactly female.) A female priest — we have had them since the synod approved them in 1992 — looks as she wishes. There were some in very high heels and plate hats at a royal garden party I once attended. She can prance about and squirt Champagne at her friends (not that they were doing that at the garden party), and she can be noisy as a schoolgirl and wear a sort of sackcloth frill below the waist with a slim-line half-length cassock above. She can be affectionate to male bishops in public and be married to another priest. Goodness knows what else she can do.
My first thought when I read the news was to get in touch with my mother, but no luck, for she died in 1980. She said (often): “I’m sorry. I do not like the thought of it.” My mother used to bow in church if a bishop was in the procession. She had been taught that by her High-Anglican Church Aunt Jane, who didn’t let her eat before communion — until, that is, my mother began to faint away. My mother really would have liked to be Catholic in the hands of priests who were icily celibate and safe and didn’t need women around (though Christ did, as I often told her). And female bishops! Good heavens!
And yet in Yorkshire for a thousand years we had formidable female saints who could eat any number of male bishops for breakfast with their flagons of ale, including the glorious Hilda, abbess of Whitby, a unisex establishment of both monks and nuns. Whitby Abbey, more than 1,350 years old, stands now roofless and looks on the cliff-top rather like a rotten tooth. But even roofless, to this day it is said you’ll never see birds fly over its grassy nave. It is too holy. They fall down dead.
Hilda was a royal Northumbrian whose father was poisoned by a neighboring king. She became abbess of Hartlepool, on the north bank of the River Tees, and traces of the wharves where her ships were tied can still be seen embedded in the harbor wall. Later, she founded the monastery and convent at Whitby. In 664, the Synod of Whitby was held there and the decision was taken — reluctantly at first by her — to turn the face of the English church toward Rome. She later died, after seven years of “a burning fever,” praying for a church at peace. It was one of her laborers whose lovely “Hymn to Creation” is known as the first written English poem. Often, tending his cattle on the cliff-top, he must have seen the dawn, the sun rising above the sea like the first day of the world. She made him a monk.
Then, farther south in Kent, there was St. Mildred, whose mother, in 670, founded the minster that still stands there in good nick with nine nuns who are an ever-present help in trouble to all religions and none. Mildred was also the master of a shipping line that ran up and down the Thames estuary. There is a shadowy little carving of her above the gate.
They are Catholic nuns there, and do not ask them their opinion of female bishops. They are too busy. But I’m sure they pray about it.
We are straying from the front page of The Daily Telegraph. I turn back to it again and find that I know her, this teardrop girl. She is now the Rev. Kat Campion-Spall of Merton, South London, my old parish. The dog collar suits her. I think that Hilda, Mildred and all the women who have been essentially running the church since the seventh century — perhaps even my mother — would agree. I see her possible future in crosier, cope and miter.
And I wonder what some male bishops of the past — like Thomas of Canterbury — would have made of her. Would she have gone swearing and cursing to her death in the cathedral, as it is said that he did? Who knows? Perhaps she would have been more feminine, but just as strong, putting up a pretty good fight for unity and peace, and shedding a grateful teardrop on a still-ghastly world.