thrown down to the Church
Women Experiencing Church: A Documentation of Alienation edited by Dorothea McEwan (Graccwing, £9.95) Joanna Moorhead
BEFORE justice, there must be indictment. No wrong can be righted before the charge has been put; no group of wronged people can hope to get the chances they deserve before they have named the injustices which afflict them.
Naming injustices is the purpose of Dorothea McEwan's book naming and describing the often very personal hurts which its contributors have suffered at the hands of a male-dominated Church.
The women whose essays make up the book are taken from a fairly narrow band of Catholic Church members. They represent, on the whole, the white middleclass, middle-aged radicals who are in the vanguard of the current campaign for a fairer deal for Catholic females. But these women's experiences, MeEwan would argue, are mirrored throughout the world in all areas of the Church.
Many of the women who have agreed to chronicle their tales in this volume have felt unable, for one reason or another, to be identified.
One such is "Christine Smith", whose two-part story is, in both its aspects, uncannily typical. "Christine" writes, first, of her experience of being hooked into Opus Dei, and then of her sexual relationship with a Spanish priest. The two are not linked, "except for the fact that I, a convert to Roman Catholicism, wanted to be active in my parish in Spain".
Many women and indeed many men have chosen to turn their hacks on the Catholic Church when faced with the kind of treatment described in McEwan's hook. Ronwyn Goodsir Thomas writes of the almost unbelievable response of her parish priest when she persisted, despite his obvious disapproval, to receive Holy Communion in the hand, the practice having been agreed by Rome.
On one occasion "he sighed loudly, turned back to the altar, took the paten off it and put it in my hand. As I didn't intend to use it I passed it to the person next to me. He snatched it back, angrily smacked it onto my outstretched hand, all the time gesticulating furiously that I was to receive the Host on it. His behaviour was nothing short of blasphemous".
Even more shocking is the experience of Margaret Hebblethwaite, who was arrested and held by Vatican guards for demonstrating at a papal audience. Her story reveals the petty paranoia of the Vatican establishment, but more importantly the way attempts to put grievances and issues onto the Pope's agenda, to let him know what ordinary Catholics are concerned about, are quashed.
Hebblethwaite's account of her uncomfortable and disturbing treatment by Church policemen is, like most of the contributions to this book, extremely readable. Altogether, the collection provides a rich and fascinating document detailing the nature of oppression and ill-treatment in the Church, usually (but not always) of women at the hands of men.
One day the Church will have to answer at least some of the charges laid at its door by McEwan and her authors: in the meantime it is a tribute to their faith and tenacity that these women remain within the Church, and that they believe change and a fairer deal will one day be achieved.