BOOK REVIEW : Crumbs from the priestly table are not enough

WOMEN AT THE ALTAR Lavinia Byrne Mowbray, £8.99
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The Independent Online
The debate over women's ordination in both the Anglican and Catholic churches has become one of those questions - like abortion or the Wales's marriage - where there are no shades of grey. The two camps are entrenched in their views, with those i n favour congregating in the mainstream of a markedly less catholic Church of England and those against flocking to Pope John Paul II and his own fierce brand of traditionalism.

Without discussion, the question of women priests looks set to become a crusty, untouchable barrier to good relations between the two churches into the next millennium and beyond. Within both denominations, the internal battles which the issue provokes will be fought at the expense of wider and, arguably more pressing, concerns. The time, in short, has come for some sort of last-ditch attempt at mediation before what is left of the common ground disappears over the cliff like a Scarborough hotel.

Sister Lavinia Byrne may seem at first glance an unlikely candidate to walk in the footsteps of such peace-makers as Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and General Sir Michael Rose. She will be familiar to those Today programme listeners who don't instinctively go and run the bath when the `Thought for the Day' slot looms as an articulate liberal-minded Catholic nun with feminist leanings. And in church circles her day job as associate secretary for the Community of Women and Men in the Church at the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland is guaranteed - if only in the worthy wordiness of its title - to irritate the Ann Widdicombes and Graham Leonards of this world.

Yet in Woman at the Altar she emerges as a conciliator, someone - to use an analogy she draws in the book - who can fuse the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint Cecilia, childless, husband-less but an outstanding patron of music, a woman with a voice inmore than one sense.

It has become popular among some of the advocates of women's ordination to marginalise Mary in favour of Cecilia, but Lavinia Byrne argues that the real problem with Mary has been one of interpretation. To back up her case, the cover of the book shows a striking mosaic from Ravenna, with the Virgin in her usual blue garb but with her arms outstretched like a priest saying Mass.

Elsewhere, Sister Lavinia quotes the example of the Philippines-based Tres Personas Solo Dios community, a breakaway group from the Catholic Church, which has an exclusively female priesthood. These women dress like the traditional representation of the Virgin and make the same promises of celibacy as their male counterparts in the "official'' church. The difference, the Philippines' community would argue, is that their priests keep their vows.

As well as casting her net back into history and around the globe for encouraging evidence that women can - whatever the anti-lobby says - play an equal part before the altar, the author also looks at what is happening to women in the Catholic Church in this country. "Women are now moving from the invisibility and obscurity of centuries of hidden service," she writes. Nuns like herself are taking on leadership roles outside the gates of the convent.

Yet she detects a danger in developments such as the increasing number of women who are now special ministers of communion. By granting women what are in effect the crumbs from the priestly table, the all-male clerical caste may be hoping to buy off the cries for full equality.

As Sister Lavinia highlights, for many Catholic women acting as hand-maidens to Father does not satisfy their vocation. Indeed, it is merely a distraction to be so close to the altar but still unable to reach out and touch it.

Lavinia Byrne - appropriately for one trying to cast a little light amid the storm clouds - never quite comes out about her own ambitions, but Woman at the Altar confirms her standing as one of the most thoughtful and persuasive Christian voices in this country - male or female.