Faith and Reason: 'Our guiltie and polluted nature': In a further article in our series on Catholicism and feminism, Margaret Spufford argues that opposition to women priests is motivated by ancient physical taboos.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HERE we are, after the first wave of ordinations of women, and some questions that presented themselves in the middle of the debate remain unanswered.

The first question is how far Our Lord's failure to appoint women formally as apostles was one which was necessarily adapted to the attitudes and expectations of his own society, or, indeed, how far the earliest writings of St Paul and the Evangelists were necessarily written to fit their societies' expectations.

The Lord's accepting attitude towards women was extraordinary, but he did not, it seems, transmit it, at least in full, to the apostles. Being true man as well as true God, the Lord had to function within the social framework of his time. There would have been no point in appointing women if they had no chance of being held in respect.

After this factual, historical questioning, to which we ought either to be able to deliver factual answers based on evidence, or to say we lack the evidence, I found myself with further questions concerning taboos.

There were, of course, totally comprehensible and logical arguments put by both Anglican priests and lay people against the ordination of women, which were usually based on an entirely rational appeal to the tradition of the church, and the fear of a local church being unable to add anything legitimate to it, at least in the absence of a General Council.

These eminently explicable worries did not transmit themselves to me, an Anglican historian who happens to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there has been no General Council since the departure of the Greeks, and that, in any case, from the historical evidence at her disposal, the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit in the Church must consist, generation after generation, in patiently correcting the errors of men, however eminent, however well-willed, and illumining these same men further.

Some of the other responses were, however, so strange, even hysterical, in tone - the word 'priestess' seems to signal one type of them - that I have regretted not being trained as a psychologist as well as a historian. I started to enquire of anthropologists about taboos. The taboo which suggested itself very strongly in some of the debate which followed the General Synod's decision was that of pollution: was it possible, I wondered, that the underlying fear felt by some resistant Anglican priests and laity was that women might pollute the sanctuary, and possibly, themselves?

It does not take much work to uncover the ancient Jewish fear of and taboo against menstruating women, who were to be ritually cleansed after menstruation. Intercourse with a menstruating woman could result in the conception of a monster. The great mysteries of childbearing raised their own fears. Ritual purification after childbirth needs no emphasis either.

In view of the taboo, enshrined in the Law, against touching a woman who was menstruating, the Lord's action in laying hands on and healing the woman with the issue of blood becomes much more dramatic, and much more powerful, not only as a healing miracle, but one in which his revolutionary attitude to women and own freedom in the face of current taboos in first-century Jewish society becomes clear. It was an outrageous act.

This ancient Jewish set of fears can be traced through the Middle Ages: it is not necessary to do so here. However, it is necessary to state that these taboos were alive and well in the post-Reformation Anglican church: the church of the 'halfly reformed'. Regrettably, the most derogatory language that could be found for the foulness of the soul of Pope Alexander VI was a menstrual one:

'Thy soule, foule beast is like a menstruous cloath, Polluted with unpardonable sinnes.'

When Isaiah had discounted mens' own righteousness 'as filthy rags', the marginal annotation of the Genevan Bible explained this meant '(as some read) like the menstruous clothes of a woman'. The same theme was carried on in the popular work by Thomas Bentley The Monument of Matrones (1582) when, at her churching after childbirth, the 'most defiled and polluted hand-maid' was to remember that 'our guiltie and polluted nature, like the fowle menstruous cloth of a woman, is washed by the blood of thy sonne'.

Most extraordinary of all to the modern reader, an Anglican minister was complained of during the 1640s, for refusing to administer communion to a woman at 'the time of her natural courses'. Female presence could, in the 17th century, pollute the sacred space. But are these primitive and ancient beliefs, which of course, predate the comprehension of the biological role of menstruation, so finally banished from our still unsophisticated subconscious minds? Or are these taboos still alive and well, but tucked away well underground, in the 20th century?

Indeed, they are not necessarily confined to men at all: I remember the unspoken discomfort of a woman student I taught over 30 years ago, who was uneasy about being supervised by an academic who was eight months pregnant.

Do such, probably subconscious, discomforts lie deep under the extraordinary emotional effusions of some of these Anglican priests who are so deeply disturbed by the prospect of 'priestesses'?

I end with an example which may be profoundly shocking to some readers. But, in all truth, my intent is not to shock, but both to make a statement of belief, and get us all to think.

An Anglican woman, deeply committed to her faith, whom I very much respect, asked me recently what I felt about women's ordination and, before I could reply, said, 'I know my responses are not logical, and are prejudiced, but - honestly Margaret - can you imagine a woman great with child celebrating, without revulsion?' I thought about this a lot. Well, honestly, yes, I can. Our Lady is the type of the disciple, not a model only for women. She was a living chalice, bearer of the Word, bearer of the flesh and blood of our Lord. How can I imagine a more suitable celebrant than Mary, the Mother of God?

Comments