Six months ago, I walked out of church in the middle of a service. I had recently married, but the swift exit had nothing to do with leaving anyone at the altar. The service had started out uneventfully: the vicar gave his Sunday sermon, about the importance of solidarity and compassion in the face of adversity. He emphasised how much the followers of different faiths have in common. To underline his point, he gave an example: that the taking of a life is universally considered an unforgivable sin. All fine, except that wasn’t exactly how he worded it. He said: “The taking of a life at any point from conception onwards.” It was a pointed and unnecessary addition, immaterial to the argument at hand. It was the tipping point in a conflict between faith and feminism that I had felt for some time. I stood up, walked out, and haven’t been back since.
The turmoil of emotions I experienced that day were brought back this week by an announcement made by Pope Francis. For the Jubilee year, December 2015 to November 2016, priests will be allowed to “absolve of the sin of abortion those who procure it” – a responsibility usually reserved for bishops in most countries. But of course, women must first express contrition and “seek forgiveness”.
The announcement will no doubt be hailed by many as a step forward, the latest in a line of gestures made by Pope Francis in the name of compassion and mercy. Earlier this year, he reportedly held a private audience with a transgender man who had written to him after being stigmatised by his local community. In January, he departed from his prepared text at a group baptism in the Sistine chapel to encourage the mothers present to feel free to breastfeed their babies. And in 2013, he famously declared: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
But there is something about the Pope’s announcement that makes it feel almost more of an insult than the Catholic church’s existing anti-abortion stance. It is difficult to choose which aspect is more offensive to women: the assumption that abortion must always engender anguish and guilt; the all-male priesthood who will magnanimously pardon female transgressions; or the decision that this escape from excommunication will only be extended to those lucky sinners who come forward within the specified 11 1/2-month window. The letter also seems to condemn those who do not contritely repent, saying: “The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realising the extreme harm that such an act entails.” This does not feel like a step forward to me.
It would be easy and glib to suggest that such pronouncements are hopelessly out of step with a liberal modern outlook and that the attempt to reconcile faith and feminism is pointless. But this is certainly not a dilemma restricted to members of any one faith and for many, the idea of completely turning one’s back on either feminism or faith is heart wrenching.
The Church of England has made significant efforts to update its image in recent years, most notably with the consecration of Libby Lane as its first female bishop. Its official website states that it “combines strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be – strictly limited – conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative”. So my local vicar wasn’t necessarily representative of the wider church, as is often the case. But that statement doesn’t go nearly far enough for me. Equally, I find it impossible to align myself with a church that would revoke the licence of a gay priest who chose to marry his partner.
The efforts being made to modernise the church are positive, but progress is excruciatingly slow. The idea that women’s bodies should be regulated and controlled by diktats from on high, above their own needs and choices, is abhorrent. What struck me most in that Sunday sermon was the irony of preaching about empathy while showing so little compassion for women. It is perhaps unsurprising that one survey of British feminists found them much less likely, compared with the general population, to describe themselves as religious.
Yet I have also met many inspiring feminists of different faiths, who speak and write compellingly about the connections and overlaps between their religion and their belief in gender equality, inclusion and social justice. Should there be such a vast difference between faith and church? Religious texts have been written, translated and interpreted, and doctrines laid down by a predominantly male group of thinkers, often remaining unaltered from their beginnings in a past, unequal society. Is it possible to retain the spirit of the message while updating the interpretation?
I haven’t worked that out yet. To me, faith is about love and compassion, but these values can feel hopelessly at odds with the stance of the church on specific issues. As the world races onwards, it is hard to imagine the church managing to remain relevant unless it finds ways to modernise much faster. I know I won’t feel able to go back until it does. – By Laura Bates
Image – Pope Francis salutes a group of boy scouts during a visit to the Santa Maria Regina Pacis church on May 3, 2015, in Ostiah south of Rome. (AFP)