GUEST POST:// Becca Cottrell is a Yorkshire lass about to start her second year of ordination training at Cranmer Hall in Durham. She lives with her husband, Joe, and is still trying to persuade him to get a dog.
In June this year I had the absolute privilege of spending some time on pilgrimage visiting Israel Palestine. It was beautiful and difficult, mind-blowing and challenging, full of laughs and tears, and really flippin’ hot!
There are a whole range of things that I want to reflect on from my time there but putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) has been tricky, so please bear with me as I share my musings and ramblings of just one of the experiences I had there.
One Sunday morning a group of us got up early to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the second time. We had been the day before and it was busy, hectic and a bit non-stop, so this was an opportunity for calmer and perhaps more reflective time at the place where Jesus died and was buried (according to tradition).
We had been in the Holy Land for almost a week and seen the wonder and pain caused by different religions, different races, different political powers and different genders living alongside each other. It was a melting pot of life and history and faith rubbing up alongside each other, with the line between cohesion and distinction often difficult to tread.
We had spent some time visiting the Western Wall and I was hit by a real sense of deep faith, of sorrow and of celebration felt there. It was where (from my naïve and limited understanding) many people, whether individuals, families or schools from a variety of Jewish movements were coming to pray and to praise, to grieve and to give thanks. It was moving and powerful, yet I couldn’t help but notice, how different it was for women and for men. The prayers and singing of the men were loud and powerful, yet the women could barely be heard. I spent some time in prayer, touching the wall and noticed that the women were praying in almost silence, covering their faces. If you looked to your left along the wall past the divide, the wall went into the tunnel and there were many bookcases and thousands of books and scrolls. Yet from what I could see, in the far smaller women’s section, there were only two bookcases and far fewer books. It came across like women were not able to pray and worship in the same way as the men, and (because of the significantly smaller space and less resources) that their devotion was less important. But this was not my faith. Not my culture. This was not my place to call out, what to me, felt unfair. So, on I went.
And whilst we were in Jerusalem, we stayed in the Muslim quarter, just outside the Damascus gate. It was lively and busy and glorious, and we had a brilliant time there. The souks and market stalls were often some of the first things we saw, as we would have to navigate our way through the Old City, and we became well acquainted with the narrow and busy passages. But after a short while, I began to notice the women on the outskirts of the stalls and streets. They were fairly easy to miss, and especially if you were looking all around you, taking in the fabulous sights and sounds and smells, you wouldn’t notice they were there. Until you fell over them that is, as I did. That’s because most of the women were not at the market stalls, standing around talking or trading. Many of the women were sat on the floor. They would get there early in the morning and would often be there after many of the stalls had closed in the evening. Some would sell a range of fruit, vegetables and herbs, and others were just selling vine leaves. But they were hardly looked at. People (myself included at first) didn’t acknowledge, speak to them or even give them a nod. In fact, some people would rush past them, knocking their produce over or covering it in dust and dirt. It felt cruel and unfair, but this was not my culture. This was not my place to call out, what to me, felt unfair. So, on I went.
Anyway, where was I? We had got up early (skipping breakfast!!) to beat the crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And in the calm stillness of the early morning it was beautiful. We’d come down by the roof, where the Ethiopian Coptic Church worship and heard their devotions. And once we were inside, I explored again, went and visited both sites of Golgotha (according to tradition) and stood listening to the words and prayers of the Armenian church, the Syriac orthodox and other Christians speaking and singing in many languages. It was glorious, yet I felt slightly uncomfortable. I had really wanted to see inside the Aedicule, the sight of Jesus burial and resurrection (again, according to tradition…) but there was a Roman Catholic Mass taking place, so it being a Sunday after all, and us being at the possible (but not hugely likely) spot of Jesus’ resurrection I decided to stay, to try and engage despite my Latin being non-existent.
But hearing and watching what was going on, became difficult as many of the denominations were getting louder and louder. It felt less like worshipping alongside each other, and more like competing against each other. It did not feel like a place that was open and welcoming, but competitive and exclusive. And not just exclusive of the other denominations, but exclusive for women. As I looked around and saw groups worshipping from across the globe, in not one of them were women leading, serving or helping. If women were worshipping (and there were not many) they were relegated to the back of the group, or to the side. In the place that celebrates Jesus sacrifice for all, Christians were not worshipping together, but were divided, separated. In the place where Mary and Peter visited the tomb, where Jesus was raised from the dead, women were being discriminated against. And it broke my heart.
Because, it may not have been my tradition, it may not have been my culture, but this was my faith, my God being used to exclude and discriminate.
As I stood there, next to the tomb, feeling deeply saddened by what I’d seen and experienced as a female, a Greek-Orthodox monk (a bloke, but that was probably obvious) pushed us out of the way and told us to leave. It was their turn. We were not welcome. We should come back later and maybe try again.
I was less than impressed (I’ll be honest, I swore and cried a lot) and felt such an anger and rage inside. How dare people, in the place where Jesus died, and Mary sat and wept, ostracise women? How was it okay, on the same dusty streets that Jesus had walked down, for people to tread over women? At the temple were Jesus worshipped, to treat women as lesser? For these may not be my traditions or my cultures, these may not be my ways of worshipping, but staying quiet, doing nothing seems impossible.
I had honestly believed the Church was different, that was what I’d told myself. That other cultures have different traditions and practices that I don’t understand, but that’s okay because the Church respects women. That other religions might not do quite what I’d do, but that’s okay, because the Church was different. Yet was it?
I am currently training to be a Priest in the Church of England. A Church that for 25 years has ordained women as God’s priests. And for over 4 and a half years has ordained women as Bishops. Just over 4 years of seeing women as equal in God’s church. Yet still there are many (inside and outside of the CofE) who do not hold this view, who do not see women as equal in God’s church. And in order to be ordained, men and women must agree to give space and opportunity to those who do not see women as equal. And that is really, really hard.
To be there, at the tomb to where Christ rose and Mary wept, as part of my journey of faith and formation as a priest, knowing there are many who would never accept me was hard. Because the Church was not all that different. It had taken huge strides towards equality (which is amazing and wonderful and remarkable) but it still allowed inequality to flourish (pun absolutely intended). But Christ was different. God was different.
I did not serve a God who discriminated but a God who rejoiced in the (equal) ministry of men and women. A God who spoke first to Mary, and then to men. A God whose Church was vast and wide and welcoming, no matter your gender, race, language or sexual orientation, and in which they rejoiced. A God who called saints and sinners before me to be priests in his Church, both women and men. And who called me. Not despite of my gender, of who I am, but because of it.
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