And then, when the choir reached me, I saw that the leaders of the procession, the carriers of cross and candles, were women. Those who held the regalia of what had been a male church, in the chapel of what had been a male college, walking in front of a still-male choir, were three young women. Their eyes were enormous in the candle-glow; their expressions trance-like, exultant.
I was unprepared for what I felt then. First of all, in the heart of an unbeliever who would never be an Anglican anyway, came a rush of joy. The instinct that recognises the fall of a Bastille is never wrong. Reason protested weakly: the three were not even ordained ministers; this was show not substance; and what on earth did it matter if women advanced in an activity that is based on superstition? But the instinct said: a black old fortress is down, good has won something from bad.
After that came an even less expected feeling. I saw that the male reactionaries who had fought so desperately to keep women out of the Anglican priesthood were, in their own terms, right. That change had not been a mere adjustment to modern times. It was going to turn the Church of England inside-out, because the spirituality of women is not the same as the spirituality of men. Women would not just become "vicars plus feminine intuition". They bring a different sense of the sacred that in the end will be implacable towards the compromises on which this particular church is founded - a church founded on the wish of a man, who was also a king, to get rid of a woman. I looked at the calm, glittering eyes of the cross-bearer and her companions, and thought of sibyls, pythonesses and a poem by Osip Mandelstam, which says that "men's lot is to perish in battles / but it is given to women to die in the act of divination".
The choir sang. In front of me was a magnificent tenor soloist, a man from the great St Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach was once organist and where, in 1989, the people gathered for their democracy marches which began the overthrow of Communism in East Germany. He and the other choristers are still all male. But his presence as a migrant from scenes of liberation suggested that another, smaller overthrow might not be far off.
Boys' voices? Here the male old guard feels on safer ground. Everyone knows that the treble voices of boys have a quality which the soprano voices of girls cannot attain. Nothing is more revealing than the language chosen by defenders of the existing order to describe that quality. Boys' voices have "purity". But it begins to look as if "everyone" may be wrong. I heard from somebody at King's that some experiments have been carried out recently. Connoisseurs of music have been challenged to a sort of whisky-tasting ordeal: to listen to the voices of individual boys and girls singing from concealment, and to write down which was which. They all failed, some hopelessly.
Purity, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder but not in his ear. And to ask why boys' voices have been considered "purer" than girls' voices, when there is no objective difference between them except as individuals, is to set off down a long and muddypath into history.
This is not, of course, about men being pure, but about women being impure. The late Professor Marija Gimbutas argued in many books that Europe was once inhabited by matriarchies, crop-growing and peaceful, who were overrun in the Bronze Age by aggressive, male-dominated societies of herdsmen - the peoples of the Indo-European language family. Two of them, the Jews and the Greeks, were to refine the idea of female inferiority into dogma. The Jews invented a single male God who talked almost exclusively to men rather than to "unclean" women; the Greeks evolved their extraordinary model of a "democracy" in which women had no political role whatever. Even their neighbours, like the Thracians or Scythians, allowed women to be rulers, priestesses and sometimes soldiers. But the Greeks, perfecting their idea of a polarity between "civilisation" and "barbarism", insisted that authority for women was a mark of the barbaric.
Transmitted to Rome, united with the Judaic tradition in Christianity, the purity of maleness - as opposed to the contamination of women by dark and earthy forces - became central to Western culture. It still torments us every day. A year ago, the inmostthought of those who fought to the bitter end against the ordination of women in the Church of England was really this: that the sight of a woman at the altar was . . . uncivilised.
Christmas is the best season to reflect on all this. In the chapel, the voices of small boys sang the praises of the only woman supposed to have attained the purity available to men. She gave birth without the sexual act: sex is held to debase the souls of women but not of men who, in holy matrimony, deposit seed in willing earth and then withdraw spiritually intact. All this stuff would not be worth discussing if it had not made so many people miserable for so many centuries. But the entry of women into the ministry of any church gradually dispels it.
Some churches find the change easier to take than others. Scotland is a more male-chauvinist culture than England, but the appearance of women ministers in the kirk did not drive its conservatives - who are very crusty indeed - into cosmic panic about barbarism or uncleanliness. This is because Reformation principles are expansive. They started from the grim idea that human beings are all so filthily carnal by nature that men have no appreciable advantage over women. They progressed to the thought that it is not for humans - still less for male ones - to make rules about who has access to divine grace and who does not.
My own hunch is that accepting women as priests is actually tougher for English Anglicans than for Roman Catholics. For the moment, the Catholic church seems immovable in its opposition. But when a Pope - not this one - changes his mind, the laity and much of the priesthood will find it surprisingly easy to follow him. Catholicism is a warren full of magic and pagan echoes, but also of vigorous and adventurous thinking. The Church of England lacks that richness, and thinking is not its forte. Above all,it is a state church, tied into the lay politics of a male-dominated society, tense about the legitimacy of its origins.
The choir moved on towards the altar, and sang again. At the other end of the chapel, darkness hid the stone love-knots where masons had changed H-C, for Henry and Catherine, to H-A, the initial of Anne Boleyn. But in the distance, over the heads of the congregation, I could still see the cross and candles held up in triumph by three young women whose sisters are giving all this splendour a new and different meaning. This was a small part of a big victory.Reuse content