A friend has just off-loaded a lot of old copies of the Tablet on to me. I dislike its editorial line of “loyal dissent” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) over Church teaching on many issues to which we should give loyal assent – for instance Humanae Vitae and its teaching on contraception. (My colleague Stuart Reid once observed in his Charterhouse column in the Herald that the Church’s teaching in this area is hard – but that he would not want to be a member of a Church which taught differently. He put my own view entirely.) The Tablet also bangs on about women priests in the Church. I tend to skip those pages.
Still, bad can often be mixed with good and the issue of the Tablet for September 24 included an article that moved me deeply. Entitled “Power and perversity” it was by former GP and later an Anglican woman priest, Una Kroll. The subtitle explained what the article was about: “After a lifetime of spiritual searching, which included 10 years as an Anglican priest, one of the best-known campaigners for women’s ordination shocked family and friends by giving up her ministry to become a Catholic. For the first time she explains why she made that choice.”
It was curiosity, not narrow triumphalism of the “Good! She’s come home” variety, that made me read on. Kroll relates that in January 1997 she was ordained a priest in the Church of Wales by the Bishop of Monmouth. Several happy pastoral years followed, then “just before Advent 2008 I became a Roman Catholic, not on impulse but after at least five years of trying to discern God’s will…”
She writes that her parish priest exclaimed, “Why are you joining a Church whose Pope and Vatican leaders are resolutely opposed to women priests?” She replied (and this is what moved me): “I’m sorry, but I have to.” Despite some areas of disagreement with the Anglican church – such as the rights of Anglican clergy to enter into civil partnerships – there was much she was comfortable with in her own Communion. Moreover, Kroll disliked some aspects of the Catholic Church, such as interpretations about “the exercise of papal and magisterial authority that were apparently being used to suppress discussion of difficult issues in the Church: the concentration of power (potestas rather than auctoritas) is always dangerous when all opposition can be suppressed…” and so on.
Nonetheless, she is now in a Catholic parish “where lay men and women do not have any role at all in making decisions and in a diocese and Church where episcopal and priestly potestas holds sway. I am there, knowing that I cannot exercise a liturgical diaconal or priestly ministry, nor can I share in decision-making…”
All this makes her decision seem rather heroic. We inside the Church know well how divine authority given in the priesthood can often turn into tussles of petty parochial power – and in the worst cases become actual clerical abuse of authority. We stick with it because we know the infallible Church is full of fallible human beings – and because once you have put your shoulder to the plough you can’t turn back. But in Una Kroll’s case, to choose to leave a satisfying leadership role in one church for the back pews in another: only the action of grace can bring about such a move. She puts it thus: “God gave me a direct push that I could not resist.”
She also had the humility and insight to recognise in her former role “the temptation to potestas”, adding: “That was the moment when I realised that I was called by God to move to a Church where I could not exercise dominion of any sort, but where I could still learn what servant priesthood actually meant when put into practice.” In her article Dr Kroll doesn’t mention Our Lady. I hope she will come to know the sublimity of service as exercised by Mary; then she will really understand the “servant priesthood”.
Meanwhile, there is always the flowers, coffee and cleaning rota – I write as one who has been on this rota for many years in my own parish.