Today is St. Hilda’s day and I’m on a train this morning travelling to London to the General Synod. The Synod is due to debate and vote tomorrow on the Measure to enable women to be made Bishops in the Church of England.
The vote has been a long time coming. It will be very close. I found it strangely comforting when I was praying this morning that the Synod’s day of preparation is dedicated to Hilda.
Hilda is one of the great Saints of the north of England. Her life is recorded in Bede’s history (mainly in IV.23 but with references elsewhere. She died in 680 AD at the age of 66. Bede tells us that her life was divided into two parts: she lived for 33 years “most nobly in secular occupations” and another 33 “even more nobly in the monastic life”.
Hilda founded a monastery at Monkwearmouth then a year later moved to the new community at Hartlepool. Some years after that Hilda moved to Whitby to “found or organise” the monastery there:
“She established the same regular life as in her former monastery and taught the observance of righteousness, mercy, purity and other virtues, but especially of peace and charity. After the example of the primitive Church, no-one there was rich, no-one was needy, for everything was held in common and nothing was considered to be anyone’s personal property. So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it. Those under her direction were required to make a thorough study of the Scriptures and occupy themselves in good works to such good effect that many were found fitted for Holy Orders and the service of God’s altar”
The monastery at Whitby was a mixed community. Hilda had authority over women and men. She taught from Scripture, exercised oversight, counselled individuals and established institutions. Bede goes on to tell us that no less than five men from this monastery later became bishops “all of them men of outstanding merit and holiness”.
Hilda’s reputation spread far and wide: “she brought about the amendment and salvation of many at a distance who heard the inspiring story of her industry and goodness”. For the last six years of her life her body was racked with a fever, “but during all this time she never ceased to give thanks to her Maker or to instruct the flock committed to her both privately and publicly”.
Hilda lived in a moment of great cultural change and great missionary opportunity. Monasteries were alternative communities striving to set a model of radical discipleship. They were lively centres of prayer and scholarship and mission and points of stability around which a civilisation was able to grow. Hilda was not the only woman with the responsibility of leading such a community. The names of other women in similar positions are scattered through Bede’s narrative.
1,400 years ago, at the beginning of the Church in these islands, the English church found a way to use the gifts of women in teaching from scripture, in leadership and oversight, in mission and pastoral counsel.
We live today in a moment of similar cultural change and great missionary opportunity. We see the beginnings of alternative communities of mission. The Church of England in our generation must not miss the opportunity to make the very best use of the women God has given to us in teaching, in leadership and oversight, in mission and pastoral counsel. In our generation this means saying yes, tomorrow, to the Measure to enable women to become bishops.
Earlier this year, I was invited to lead a seminar at Soul Survivor, a Christian festival for young people, on women in leadership. I shared the seminar with Jude Davis, a colleague from the Diocese of Sheffield and one of the youngest ordained women in the Church of England. Soul Survivor positively encourages women in leadership and ordained ministry but many of those who come are from churches which are much more cautious (often on scriptural grounds).
Hundreds of young people, mainly women, came to the seminar. Many of them were keen to serve God with the whole of their lives within the Church and in wider society in leadership roles. Many of them were being held back by the hesitation they sensed in the Church towards women in leadership and, in particular, the Church’s hesitation about women as bishops. How many of them, I wonder, were the Hildas of our generation with the capacity to lead many to Christ, to bless God’s church, to be leaders in God’s mission?
Of course we must respect those who cannot accept this move on grounds of their reading of scripture or tradition. Of course we must make provision for them. Of course we must build trust and behave in such a way as to deepen that trust within the body of Christ.
But there has been enough delay. It’s time to move forward. 2014 will be the 1,400th anniversary of the birth of St. Hilda. It will be a fitting year for the consecration of the first women as Bishops in the Church in her native land.
who made the abbess Hilda to shine like a jewel in our land,
and through her holiness and leadership blessed your church
with new life and unity:
help us, like her, to yearn for the gospel of Christ
and to reconcile those who are divided