72 Disciples


We at www.womenpriests.org are looking for 72 new supporters to help us keep the website running so we’ve turned to the Scriptures for inspiration and found it in the example of the sending out of the seventy-two.

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him, in pairs, to all the towns and places he himself was to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest. Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” Luke10:1-3

Often when we think of the people who surrounded Jesus during his earthly ministry we tend to remember the Twelve apostles, his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and possibly a few others, men like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. However, Scripture tells us that the people who followed him were a much bigger group than this. Jesus attracted many followers along the way, many of whom went on to become members of the first Christian community after the resurrection.  We can learn much about the call to follow Jesus by following the fortunes of this larger group of disciples as they flit in and out of the background of the gospel narrative. In this story, recorded by Luke, “the other disciples” come to the forefront, for once, as Jesus makes a decision to involve many of them in his ministry. He appoints 72 people to go ahead of him and to spread the word of the good news about him in all the places he intends to visit. He knows they will be vulnerable and at risk so he teaches them to cope with being sent out “like lambs among wolves”. They have to be aware that sometimes they will get a warm welcome, sometimes rejection. However, by their labour they will prepare people to receive the Lord into their towns and homes and gain a rich harvest for the Kingdom of Heaven. He teaches them to become active in their discipleship. In this story we get the first indications of the kind of people Christians will be expected to be. From the first 72 onwards, the task of the Christian is to be sent out, to bear good news and to be good news.

I have a question to ask you about these 72 disciples: do you think they were made up of men and women or just men? I wonder, just wonder, if women were included in this number?  I really hope so, because women are called into discipleship just as much as men and this passage, which includes the famous words of Jesus about the harvest, is one which inspires young women, as well as young men, to consider their vocations to priesthood, religious life and lay ministry in the Church.

Why do we need 72 disciples today? Because we need people ready to run the risk of going ahead and preparing the way for Jesus to be seen in all our Catholic Churches through the ministry of both male and female priests. If women are to be recognised as equal partners in discipleship, able to bring Christ to others as priests, then the Church needs people of great courage and love who will run risks in order to make that happen. The harvest is great but the labourers are few.



What Service Can I Give The Church?

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I am sometimes accused of making too much of a fuss about inclusive language. We all know that when the Bible says “men” it really means “men and women”, and when it says “brothers” it means “brothers and sisters”, doesn’t it? Surely there is no need to go changing beautiful scriptural phrases in order to spell this out.  Well, I wish I could agree but there are pitfalls lying in wait for the user of single-gendered language. Sometimes English translations of the Bible use the word “men” when the text could mean “men only” or “a group of men and women”. Then it really starts to matter what conclusions we draw from the language of gender. Let’s take the pasage recording the choice of the first deacons in Acts:

About this time, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews: in the daily distribution their own widows were being overlooked. So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand this duty over to them.” (Acts 6:1-3)

There are some indisputable facts about the followers of Jesus presented in this passage. 1) The Twelve call a meeting of all the disciples. 2) An election is held. 3) Seven men are elected. 4) The apostles pray and lay their hands over them and the first Deacons are commissioned.  We know that the Twelve were men and we know that the Seven were men. So far so straightforward. This account is about men choosing men so, in this passage, is it not safe to assume that “men”  means “men” and “brothers” means “brothers” and thus to conclude that a pattern has been laid down for all time?

The question which bothers me in this neat narrative of male succession is the intervening election. The question I have started asking myself is, who were the disciples who took part in this election?  The election is not held internally among the Twelve but at a meeting of all the disciples.  We know that there were women who followed Jesus in his ministry and who could be described as his first female disciples. Were any of them invited to this meeting? When the Twelve say “You, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men” did they mean “brothers” as in “brothers and sisters” and “men” as in “men and women”? Was Mary Magdalene sitting at the meeting that day? Did she offer herself for election but was not selected? Did she take part in the election? Would it have been possible? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. Maybe she didn’t particpate because it just didn’t occur to anyone that day that the distributors of food would be anything but male. What we do know is that Christianity was pretty quickly revolutionary in this respect because just twenty years later Phoebe was being described as a deacon of Cenchrae (Rom 16:1).

There were women deacons for the next ten centuries of Christianity but then the practice dwindled as the objections of male theologians mounted and some of the functions of women deacons were lost when adult female baptisms became increasingly rare. What if our own times reflect this early Biblical pattern? Are we the new Christians from Cenchrae, able to grow on from our traditions, even those seemingly as authorative as the decisions made by the Apostles in Jerusalem, and select deacons from among all the Christian disciples, male and female? Language matters, but story matters, too. If we have had women deacons once, we can have them again. New disciples are needed in our own day, capable of putting themselves into the heart of the story and asking themselves what service they can give the church.

Vocation Sunday


How was your Vocation Sunday?

The Fourth Sunday after Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday and – in the UK at least – is traditionally designated Vocation Sunday. It is a day to reflect on the care which Jesus gives to his flock as our good shepherd, bringing us into the sheepfold: “I am the gate. Anyone who enters through me will be safe. (John 10: 8).” It is also a time set aside to reflect on the calling God has given each one of us and to ask ourselves how worthily we are carrying out the responsibilities with which we have been entrusted. In the Catholic Church it is a day when we offer particular support and encouragement to those who are thinking about entering the priesthood or consecrated life.

As I commented in an earlier blog, the Church is not always very good at distinguishing between the messages it offers to men and the messages it offers to women. Very often women – and it is nearly always women – are simply expected to filter out for themselves which messages, obstensibly given to all, are not in fact intended for them. One phrase which illustrates this, above all other, is exemplified in the description I have just used, “those who are thinking about entering the priesthood or consecrated life”. I find that this phrase gets used a lot but one hears it differently depending on whether one is a man or a woman. One of the joys of being a man in the Catholic Church is that priesthood and consecrated life are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to respond faithfully to God’s call to live one or the other, but it is also possible to serve as a priest in consecrated life in one of many different religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Jesuits or in other communities, such as the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei. The invitation to men on Vocations Sunday is, therefore, to consider whether one or both of these vocations offer a path for you. One of the expectations of women in the Catholic Church, however, is that they will hear only the second invitation, the call to consecrated life. Many do and at the last count in 2009 the Church has been blessed with 730,000 women in religious orders.

For someone like me, Vocations Sunday, and this phrase which is often attached to it, has a double-edged significance. I find myself thinking anew about both priesthood and religious life. As a woman vowed to celibacy, I am pursuing consecrated life and I find great happiness there. But I also feel called to the priesthood and, as a woman who cannot put that call to the test, I find that causes both happiness and distress. I have been intrigued in the last few weeks to come across a little booklet by Fr Stephen Wang called “How to Discover your Vocation”. In a chapter entitled “What are the signs that God might be calling me to the priesthood or the consecrated life?” he devotes a short paragraph to “Women and the Priesthood”. It is the first time I have ever heard the subject addressed in an official Catholic publication and while he carefully re-states the position that priesthood is reserved only to men, he suggests, “If you are a woman and you feel that there are strong signs of an attraction to the ministerial priesthood, these signs may indeed be God’s way of calling you to a radical life of service and mission and responsibility .. [perhaps] something new for our times, a role for you personally or for women more generally that is yet to be discovered” (Catholic Truth Society, 2009). While I hope that he will one day alter his conclusion and agree that the Church could recognise an authentic call to ministerial priesthood in a woman I, for one, am enormously heartened by his acknowledgement that it can be present and that it can lead to the Lord doing a new thing in our day.

Perhaps now I can invite you truly to pray for both men and women who are thinking about the priesthood and religious life. Watch this space …!



Alleluia, Jesus is risen! I love Easter. I love the joy that sweeps over me as the Easter Vigil unfolds. My heart stirs again as my faith in the resurrection is renewed and rekindled for another year. I know my saviour lives. Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News.

This year my sense of joy in the Easter Season has been heightened by some unexpectedly sunny weather in the UK and the uplifting experience that was the Royal Wedding on the Friday of Easter Week. Watching a young couple publicly proclaim their wedding vows at Westminster Abbey in front of millions was deeply moving. For all the talk of the dress, the coach and the famous guests, at the heart of the event was two young people prepared to undertake a Christian marriage and share with the world their hopes and dreams of a lasting, loving relationship. The world knows how often these hopes and dreams can be cruelly shattered, yet we can still be inspired by a young man and a young woman willing to publicly undertake the adventure that is love. As the Bishop of London urged in his sermon, we who were invited to share their day should offer them also our prayers and support.

Joy in that first Easter Week came from an experience of shattered hopes and dreams being restored. The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35, this Sunday’s gospel, tells it best. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said Cleopas and his companion to the stranger on the road as they tried to explain to him the disastrous events that had befallen them with the crucifixion of Jesus and the odd tale of the empty tomb. “How foolish you are,” said the stranger, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” So he begins to explain to them the prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures and how they could be applied to the events they had just lived through. Suddenly it all makes sense when he brings them right up to the present moment and breaks bread at the table with them. Then they recognise that their hearts had been burning within them all the time that he had been speaking and that it is Jesus who is with them at table.

How easy it is to see only the difficulties that beset us and not the source of hope and joy that is right in front of our eyes! Disappointment and despair are strong emotions and they can prevail even when they are no longer necessary. All the great religious traditions teach us that we must learn to live in the present moment and not act out of the fear of the past or dread of the future. It is when we do this that we are able to experience happiness, even though much of life will contain pain and suffering.

I read all the Easter stories with one eye on how each gender encounters the risen Lord to see what women and men can learn about Jesus for the present day. For Cleopas this was an amazing day. He is not one of the Twelve, he is not picked as one of the Seven deacons, in fact, he is never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Yet he was one of the most significant witnesses to the resurrection recorded in the Bible. This story is one which speaks to the faith of every Christian for the times when we failed to recognise the Lord and yet felt our hearts were burning within us, just waiting for the light of recognition to dawn. If Cleopas is every Christian, what of his companion? It is women who most often go unnamed in the gospel stories. Who would have been walking with Cleopas? It is frequently assumed to be a male friend but it could equally as well have been his wife. If so, this would be a great assurance to women that the risen Jesus invites them to the Eucharistic table. History does not say, so we will never know. Whatever the truth turns out to be, the other disciple at the table at Emmaus sends a message down the ages to all struggling Christians – the world may overlook us but we can still witness to his presence in our lives. Alleluia.

Thoughts for Easter

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The services of Holy Week can be especially poignant and painful for those who support the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. Holy Week is the time when we enter most deeply into the mystery of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, as we remember the act that brought about the salvation of all humanity. Through liturgies of great solemnity and beauty on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday we come at last to the great joy of the Easter Vigil as Jesus breaks the bonds of death and comes bursting forth from the tomb. It is the greatest story ever told. For all Christians this is the most sacred time of our year, the source of all our hope and blessing.

Yet, for many I speak to, the services are becoming increasingly difficult to attend, not because faith in Jesus no longer holds any meaning for them, but because it is a time when the maleness of the priesthood is highlighted. For those who struggle with the great lengths the male hierarchy has gone to throughout history to deny the possibility that women, too, can hear a calling to priesthood, feelings can be very mixed when attending these ceremonies. Why are there only men at the altar? Where are our women priests? Where are our women deacons? Why are these ceremonies, which speak so deeply to both men and women, being re-created and led by men alone? What are we meant to understand from our Christian story about men and about women today? Can we agree with it? The heart can become very torn just when one most wants to be “holy” and celebrate in wholeness of mind, body and soul.

A friend and former parish priest once said to me that he thought the gospel – the Good News – of Easter Sunday morning should always be proclaimed by a woman, just as it was on the first one. Jesus’ first appearance after his resurrection was to a woman disciple, Mary Magdalene, and she was sent to go and tell the others “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). Why is this not re-created in our churches? Why have we come to regard the Gospel as something which alone is the prerogative of a man to proclaim, independent of whether the original witness was a man or a woman? At the very least, if we are to enjoy continuity with our Christian heritage we should ordain women deacons to proclaim this particular gospel.

For those who experience the Holy Week services, or indeed any Catholic Mass, as a time of pain and confusion what is to be done? Abandon the faith? Find another Christian Church? Or can we draw consolation from Jesus’ own struggles to accept his suffering and remember his promise always to share with us in ours: “Know that I am with you always, to the end of time” (Matt 28:20)? Only lives lived in conformity to Christ and seeking closer unity with him can ever truly proclaim him. Though the interior struggle may rend, love will abide and truth always prevails. It is our Christian faith that after Crucifixion comes Resurrection.

Is Priesthood for Men and for Women?

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When it comes to priesthood it is impossible to think about how it applies to men without thinking about how it applies to women. The lived experience of women like me in the Catholic Church is that men become priests and we don’t. But it doesn’t stop there. There is ministry to be done, service to be given, communities in need of pastors. Constantly the Church calls out for new vocations to the priesthood. The question is: who can answer?
Officially, the question is, of course, decided. “I declare,” wrote John Paul II in 1994, “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitely held by all the Church’s faithful.” (Ordinatio Sacedotalis – On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone)

Catholic women, then, can’t answer the call. Ignoring the call, altogether, however, is not always so easy. Not long after the Pope’s declaration the Diocese of Westminster in the UK produced a vocation poster showing a priest in action with the caption: “He’s Special. He’s a Priest.” Nice and straightforward. Males were clearly the target audience. However, it is not quite in the spirit of Vatican II to stress the specialness of the priest when all are called to fullness of life in Christ so vocation advertising in recent years has tended rather to focus on asking all readers to consider what their vocations might be. Last year a poster went up on the main door of my parish church which said simply, “Me – A Priest?” There was a contact number at the bottom for vocation enquirers. I couldn’t help wondering whether the people who designed the notice had done a gender assessment! How was any woman who read it supposed to respond? Was she supposed to just ignore it? Should she, perhaps, read it but shrug and think, “No. I wonder if my brother would be interested?” What would happen if a woman read that question and thought, “Yes. With my whole heart. YES!!” What would happen if she called that number?

If women weren’t meant to think about this question then the poster should have been more careful to be gender specific and begin with “Me – A Man?” For the truth is that there are many women who have been thinking about this question for a long time – perhaps centuries – and it is not always possible to keep telling yourself “No”, however firmly the Pope declares it, if God keeps tugging at your heart and mind to answer “Yes”, every time you walk through the church door.

On Challenging Sexism

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Last month in England, two long-standing and respected football presenters, Andy Gray and Richard Keys of Sky Sports, were recorded off-air making comments about Premiership assistant referee, Sian Massey, before she was due to officiate at a match between Liverpool and Wolves. They joked that female referees did not know the offside rule and Keys said, “Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her”. The furore that erupted in the press focused on one thing: the men were judging Massey’s inability to do her job entirely on the basis of her gender. Their comments were judged to be “utterly inappropriate and totally sexist” by the general secretary of the Referees’ Association, Arthur Smith, who said “It has no part of the game. I don’t consider it harmless banter at all. I have spoken to Sian. She’s fine. She got that game on merit, she’s worked really hard, and it does hurt you. You overcome it, you move forward”.

Football is one area among many where women have made dramatic strides in the last decade. Even more dramatic, I might venture to add, is the changing attitudes of men who have moved from merely tolerating to genuinely appreciating their female colleagues. It strikes me as the height of civilised society when men disapprove of other men’s derision. This is truly how men defend women’s honour!

Sexism is difficult to defend against. It masks itself under humour and deceives by insinuation. It can sound perfectly reasonable until is defeated. How can women possibly participate in the men’s world of Politics? Medicine? Law? Football? Yet in each of these fields women have overcome every obstacle put in their path to contribute at higher and higher levels.

One question that bothers me is that if there are no women ordained as priests in the Catholic Church or found in her highest teaching authority, the Magisterium, how can we be sure that it is not the result of prejudice? In its historic evolution and current exposition could the Catholic Priesthood really be the one all-male institution that has remained immune from sexism? When I first started thinking about women’s ordination twenty-five years ago, I had no idea at all that the question could possibly be coloured by sexism. I thought all decisions in the church were decided by theology alone. Sadly, there are many pages on the womenpriests.org website which demonstrate examples of sexism on the part of the Fathers who determined the shape of the priesthood in the early centuries of Christianity and determined their own right to be the teaching authority and final arbiters on the matter at the same time.

Sian Massey ran the line during that football game between two male teams and made at least one crucial – and correct – offside decision. Andy Gray was sacked two days later when it came to light that he had also made lewd comments to a female co-presenter. Richard Keys resigned. Such an outcome would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. I venture to hope that we are at last moving into an era where it is both a man’s world and a woman’s world. How long will it take for this to be fully realised in the Catholic Church?

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