Project Canterbury

The Ideals of the Ministry of Women
by Evelyn Underhill

Paper read at a Conference called by the Central Council for Women's Church Work,
October 1932.

from Mixed Pasture: Twelve Essays and Addresses
London: Methuen and Co., 1933.

WE shall all feel it undesirable that the last speaker at such a Conference as this should introduce any controversial note. But I feel bound in honesty to state in a few words my own position in regard to the main issue, before I go on. I am opposed to the giving of the priesthood to women; for many reasons, and chiefly because I feel that so complete a break with Catholic tradition cannot be made save by the consent of a united Christendom. Any local or national Church which makes it will drop at once to the level of an eccentric sect. On the other hand, I greatly desire and also expect an immense extension and recognition of women's ministry in other directions than this. Properly 'rooted and grounded' in lives of real simplicity and self-abandonment, this must conduce to the well-being and enriching of the Church's life. Hence the great importance for the future of a right conception of our situation; what we have to give, and how we can give it best. But these, after all, are merely the views of one insignificant individual looking out on the external situation; and any individual view of that external situation, how it should and how it may develop, is mostly guesswork at the best. We do not want to end there, but rather by reminding ourselves once more of those realities on which anything pleasing to God in our work must depend. If we are true to those realities and seek to increase our hold upon them, then surely, whatever our status as workers for the Church and whatever recognition we may or may not get, we shall be able to be useful to Him and to souls. And that, and that alone, is the point.

What, after all, is Christian ministry, male or female, lay or ecclesiastical? It is, or should be, just the attempt of some one who cares supremely about God to cherish and help in one way or another the souls that are loved by God: to be as one that serveth. And moreover it is an attempt that is made, not because we feel like it or choose it, but because we are decisively pressed, called, put to it. 'You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.' The word vocation does not mean that we do the calling. It is true, alas, that we often seem to see this principle ignored; but is it worth while to consider the sort and degree of pastoral work which we might do, unless we are prepared to do everything which comes our way from that centre? 'Lovest thou me? Feed my sheep.' That is the real point, isn't it? and the only one. Over against that, all discussions about our call and status, and what we ought to be allowed to do, and what we have to contribute, and whether the shepherds accept us as trained shepherdesses, or more often regard us as auxiliary dogs--all that fades into silence.

That real teaching saint, Father Benson of Cowley, said: 'It is a sign of perfection to be willing to do anything;' yes, even under the orders of the curate you don't much like. Supple, equal to any burden and any job, because the burden of one's own importance has been given up. Surely a body of women aiming at that type of perfection would do more for God than a body of women who had achieved some particular status. The work that endures, and that is worth while, comes always from an immense self-surrender; and only that kind of ministry is going to increase the power and vitality of the Church. It really is not worth our while to struggle for the opportunity of giving anything less than that. No kind of assertiveness whatsoever can serve the purpose of the supernatural life. That merely blocks the Divine right of way; prevents the Spirit from getting through. If it is true--and I think perhaps it is true--that the movement of that Spirit within the Church is opening fresh paths along which women can serve God and souls; then how careful we must all be, to balance our initiative and devotedness by great patience, suppleness, and self-oblivion. We surely cannot wish to give up the sacred privilege of the lowest place.

Here we must try to avoid doctrinaire conclusions which arise from disguised self-will, and be entirely at the disposal of God. Do you remember the beautiful story of the Vision of Pier Pettignano? He saw the Church Visible as a superb procession following after Christ on the Way of the Cross, all the ecclesiastics, dignitaries, and officials each in their place and each with their credentials. And at the end of it all came the shabby little figure of St. Francis, in his patched tunic; with no credentials, no position, drawn only by love. And he alone was walking in the very footsteps of the Crucified.

I have known a few women in my life who have genuinely ministered to souls in a creative way: who truly gave the living water and the heavenly food. They have all been extremely simple and unpretentious. The question of status, scope and so forth has never, I should think, entered their minds at all. Their hidden life of love and prayer--and here surely is a capital point--has largely exceeded and entirely supported their life of active work. That, it seems to me, is the ministry which the Church so desperately wants; and if we are ever to give it, it means that our inner life towards God must be twice--no, ten, a hundred times--more vivid, constant and courageous than anything our active life may demand of us. For only thus can we ever begin to learn charity; and it is only in charity that men and women can minister to each other spiritual things. How else indeed could turbulent, half-made, self-willed creatures like ourselves hope to keep themselves at the disposal of God? If He is to find in us fresh channels of His life-giving life the proportion of our hidden prayer to our active life must be the proportion of root to tree. But are we prepared, do you think, for all that such a scheme of life will cost us; the tremendous training it will mean, and the reversal of values it involves? A return, in fact, to the values of the New Testament. And if not, is it worth while to worry about our external scope? Movements and demands, however legitimate, can be actually dangerous if they deflect attention from the one thing that is needful to the many things that may be useful or expedient. So, if there is to be a new movement in the Church, a removal of barriers and a new opportunity of pastoral service for women, how terribly careful we should be that it begins in a movement of the heart; and that this movement should be, as von Hügel says, vertical first and horizontal afterwards. Don't you think that what the Church needs most, is not more and more officials but more and more people freely self-given for love? people who work from the centre, and radiate God because they possess Him; people in whom, as St. Teresa said, Martha and Mary combine. No use getting Martha that splendid up-to-date gas cooker if you have to shove Mary out of the way to find a place where it can stand.

Just notice those women in the past who have ministered with most conspicuous success to souls; the heads of our profession, the women saints. They must be our patterns, as the Curé d'Ars is the pattern for the parish priest; so we ought to keep on looking at them, looking at the top, and note what they teach. They represent, each in their own intensely distinctive way, the classic norm of women's ministry. And the first thing we observe about them is, that all are devoured by the immensity of their love and abandonment to God and Christ; and how all else flows from this, and depends on their faithful, selfless, interior adherence. And next, I think, we notice a sort of beautiful informality and freedom in their proceedings; and something which we might call a maternal and domestic quality in their method, which seems on the whole to look more towards the prophetic than the priestly way of serving God and tending souls. We see them gathering little groups about them, creating spiritual families on whom they exercise a transforming power, giving people God in a very unofficial way. Of course we know and recognize that the Church needs both these types--they complete each other--but is it not here that women seem to find their best place? As individuals surrendered to the Spirit, moving and working, under His pressure, and yet with great freedom and originality, within the institutional frame?

And next observe how quiet and hidden on the whole their best work is; and how sometimes when it develops and becomes public and they get a status--and especially when they begin to tell people in general what they ought to do and how things ought to be done, and the mother of souls becomes a reformer--they seem to charm us less, and tell us less of God. Most of us, I think, are definitely at our best in a limited environment; and it is only our best we want to give, isn't it? Our home-making talents and our instinct for nurture, teaching, loving--the power of concentrating on the individual, on the weak or the damaged, the intuitive touch on character and the understanding of it--these are the points at which women have something of real value to give to pastoral work. It is surely not when St. Hildegarde becomes a public figure, a great woman, and enters the sphere of controversy, or when Elizabeth Fry makes a semi-royal progress through Europe, stiff with black silk and consciousness of her own vocation, that we feel them most to be agents of God. Then the interior simplicity on which all hangs seems to melt away. Even the great St. Teresa said that her five happiest years were spent hidden away in the tiny convent of St. Joseph, training her little group of daughters in the interior life.

Surely we want women to retain something of that precious suppleness, simplicity and freedom which makes us tools fit for many purposes. It is so much better just to be able to say 'Send me' without having to add 'where I shall have my position properly recognized, or opportunities to use my special gifts.' It is God whom we want to get recognized; not us. If we look again at the women saints, we see that with them that is usually so. They often had immense difficulties, emerging as most of them did within a Church far more rigidly organized than ours. They often suffered from the jealousy, misunderstanding and suspicion of their contemporaries. But they did feed some sheep; and that is what matters after all. Look at St. Catherine in her little room at Siena, surrounded by her spiritual sons; or Madame Acarie fulfilling her vocation in and through her family life, and becoming the 'Conscience of Paris.' Consider those great lives, burning with charity; let us measure our thoughts about the ministry of women by them. A clear recognition of the standard they set is going to help women Church workers through their ups and downs, far better than any external change in our position can do. This change may turn out to be useful and desirable; but if the other side is lacking, it won't do much for the real life of the Church. All kinds of claimfulness are so foreign to the Christian genius, that every movement of this kind involves a certain spiritual risk; whereas every movement towards humility and hiddenness actually increases our real value to God and the Church. This does not mean softness or inefficiency; it merely means leaving ourselves out.

Surely it is a good thing that the two orders of service within the Church should be different: and there is a mass of social and spiritual work, teaching and guidance both individual and general, and detailed training in the interior life, in which it is certain that women can and should give far more service than they have yet done. The Church should welcome such ministry, and extend these opportunities. But even where the welcome is a little bit on the frosty side--for we know that the institutional mind is not always very elastic--that does not justify our making a fuss. In all those new developments of Christian method which must come, and ought to come, with changing times, I am sure that women should do, and will have to do, many new and responsible kinds of spiritual work in so far as they are fitted for it. But the fitness matters most; that interior poise which enables us to take any job, from the most desperate to the most homely, and link up the outward action with the unchanging Eternity whose purpose we are here to serve. If a new era in women's life in the Church really is opening, do not let us come to it inwardly unprepared, because we are in such a hurry to begin. I suppose, in the first century, the Church's need of workers was just as great as ours; but St. Paul thought it was worth while to begin by hiding himself for three years in Arabia, in order that he might discover what the Spirit desired him to do. I have a feeling that we ought to do something like that. For improvement in our position, or the mere multiplication of women serving in the Church, will do nothing to extend the Kingdom unless those who enter on this career really are light-bringing souls, as von Hügel said; and they will only be that in proportion to their active self-abandonment, the extent in which they ignore their own preferences and so become sensitive to God.

So I think that efforts to defend and expand the ministry of women in the Church will be useless for the deeper purposes of the Spirit, unless there is a ceaseless recognition that usefulness in religion means usefulness to God; and usefulness to God depends upon ceaseless co-operation with Him. And this again requires a sensitiveness to the movement of the Spirit impossible without a steady and disciplined interior life of prayer. I do not mean to suggest by this that the Spirit only acts through saints. The marvellous thing is, that in the true ministry of Christendom God so constantly uses sinners; but I do think they have got to be very loving and grateful sinners, entirely free from any notions about the importance of their own status and their own work. If this temper of soul, this profound humility is sought by us, then I should feel the future as regards the ministry of women was absolutely safe. Without it, we should perhaps be wise to ponder the advice which the saintly Abbé Huvelin gave to a distinguished lady of our own communion who consulted him about her numerous religious activities: 'Madame, distrust your own zeal for doing good to others.'

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