Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 1
Catholic Women's Group in London Celebrates 25 Years
Association of Catholic Women's Witness for the Church
by Joanna Bogle
Britain’s Association of Catholic Women marks its 25th anniversary this year. There will be some modest celebrations — a Mass, a party — and plans for the future. The group was launched at a time when it was fashionable to announce that vast numbers of Catholic women resented the Church, opposed the Christian vision of marriage and family, and passionately believed that women could and should be ordained as priests.
ACW began with a general meeting — I was among those present — and adopted a sort of policy statement affirming our glad assent to the teachings of the Church and committing ourselves to promoting the fullness of the Faith. From the start, ACW was active in teaching about marriage and family life — support for the pro-life movement, lots of involvement in TV and radio debates, and talks in Catholic parishes and schools. And we forged a link with Women for Faith & Family in the USA, to whom we have always been grateful for inspiration and encouragement.
A quarterly journal, regular day conferences with guest speakers, and occasional trips and pilgrimages to shrines and places of Catholic interest formed the background against which major projects were undertaken. ACW was one of the groups initiating the “Towards Advent” Festival of Catholic Culture, now held annually at Westminster Cathedral Hall and bringing together all the major Catholic groups and organizations in Britain. An annual Schools Religious Education Project was launched, in which every Catholic primary school in Britain is invited to participate — prizes are awarded in various age groups for essays on Catholic themes.
This project, a major undertaking, has been sponsored in recent years by the Catholic Truth Society, which generously provides prizes. In 2010, with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, children were invited to write about the pope, about Saint Peter and what being a pope means, and so on. Vast numbers of essays poured in, along with artwork and (rather delightful!) letters to the pope and prayers for him. Relays of volunteers made sure that every essay was read, prizes were sent out, and special visits were made to schools to present major awards to pupils who had produced work of an exceptional standard.
Where do we go from here? The 25th anniversary sees new developments. When Pope Benedict announced in Anglicanorum Coetibus an invitation to groups of Anglicans to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, bringing with them elements of the Anglican patrimony (music, liturgical traditions, and parish customs), it made headlines and caused considerable debate and controversy. As things settled and various groups of Anglicans came forward in response to the Holy Father’s call, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham was formed, and a new chapter opened. ACW made contact with women from the Ordinariate, and over tea and cakes and much talk, links were forged.
The Ladies Ordinariate Group was formed, independently, some months later, and is now flourishing. LOGS, as the group cheerfully calls itself, has also been active in lobbying in Parliament to oppose the government’s plans for same-sex marriage, singing carols at London Bridge station (through which more than a million commuters pour daily), organizing meetings with speakers on various topics, raising money for the Ordinariate with a craft stall at Towards Advent, and more.
LOGS shared a joint summer outing with ACW members in 2013 to the Vocations Centre at Whitstable in Kent, with Mass and lunch, a talk about the Church and vocations, meeting some future priests, the Rosary at the beautiful garden shrine, a walk by the sea… And this looks set to be an annual fixture. LOGS also runs an educational project; with support from an ecumenical foundation it works with both Anglican and Catholic primary schools. The 2013 project involved children studying the psalms. In 2014 the children are studying the Lord’s Prayer and writing short essays about it, describing how Christ taught this prayer to His disciples, and why it is so important for us all.
And ACW looks to the future. Tribute must be paid to Josephine Robinson, chairman of ACW, and to Ruth Real, its secretary. A quarter of a century after its foundation, ACW is now embedded in the life of the Church in Britain and can look with modest pride on some real achievements. Meanwhile there have also been developments within the Church: today’s young Catholics have been brought up on images of World Youth Day and associated activities, they have followed the drama of John Paul and Benedict and Francis; they are not part of the post-Vatican II confusion and questioning but rather of an era of extraordinary events in the Church attended by massive media interest.
Young Catholic women in the Britain of 2014 were not brought up in a Christian culture. They do not swap stories about strict nuns in convent schools or afternoons watching Bing Crosby movies. Their faith, if they have faith, was forged partly in opposition to the culture around them — including, sometimes, the culture of a Catholic school that too often failed to teach much of the Faith.
They are not necessarily asking “Why can’t women be priests?” but are asking much more fundamental questions: is there a God? How can I know Him? Why are humans different from animals? How can I explain this to my friends?” And, when they have children themselves, they seek for them an education that will answer some of these questions, and give them a share in an authentic Catholic heritage.
As I write, ACW is planning its 25th anniversary celebrations, organizing its 2014 Schools Religious Education Project (theme this year is saints, with children studying the life of the patron saint of their school or parish), lobbying the government on topics ranging from sex education to euthanasia, and running its usual program of meetings (tackling some of the issues mentioned above), annual Day of Recollection etc.
Somehow the mood is less embattled than it used to be: within the Church, debates about the ordination of women and related subjects have lessened — the John Paul and Benedict years produced more thoughtful analyses of many issues relating to the theology of male/female relationships, the Church’s view on women, and the possibilities in exploring these subjects. But meanwhile, developments in biotechnology, banks of test-tube babies, the legalizing of same-sex unions, the continued explosion of pornographic material on the internet, the scourge of abortion, and family breakdown all cry out for attention. ACW must involve itself in the New Evangelization, and is well placed to do so through its links with schools and the relationships built up with teachers and others.
When Pope Benedict came to Britain in 2010, ACW was invited to take part in the great parade at the prayer rally in London’s Hyde Park. We struggled to put our banner together — a great roll of stiff flapping laminated material and a pole of interlocking steel parts cleverly designed to create massive frustration in its assembling. A couple of stalwarts from the Knights of St. Columba put the thing together in moments, joining our laughter and brushing away our thanks. Carrying the banner across the stage in the roll-call of Catholic groups, and seeing that vast crowd of — mostly young — people awaiting the arrival of the successor of Saint Peter, was a grand moment, one that will be remembered as we gather for our jubilee celebration and swap memories. We have much for which we can give thanks as we look back on our 25 years.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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