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Voices Online Edition
VOICES - Vol. XX No. 2 - Michaelmas 2005

The Faded Feminism of Britain’s National Board of Catholic Women — And Work to be Done

by Joanna Bogle

Readers of Voices may be familiar with some of the antics of Britain’s National Board of Catholic Women, with which your London correspondent has been keeping you up to date from time to time. The antics would not matter, except that the Board is a “consultative body” to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, so it has been able to suggest, over the years, that it represents the views and opinions of many Catholic women through its various constituent member-organizations.

Conceived as a national coordinating body for Catholic women’s organizations some 60 years ago, the National Board has assumed a feminist agenda in the past couple of decades, and has parroted the usual clichés about oppressive-power-within-the-Church and women-being-marginalized, and has occasionally dabbled in the sort of bogus “let’s pretend” quasi-liturgies involving putting items on tables and telling stories about them.

However, the National Board has lacked effective bite for some time. Its teeth were drawn by a patient and determined effort on the part of some of its affiliated organizations. These groups resented being told that they had apparently assented to some statement of the National Board when in fact they had not done so — nor were they given the opportunity to explain their own position clearly.

Now, through these efforts, when the National Board issues a statement, its constituent organizations have the right to dissent. Furthermore, the Board is obliged to mention this dissent.

In addition, some of these organizations affiliated with the National Board thrive, and they run their own events independent of the Board.

Significantly, one of the affiliates, the Association of Catholic Women, which had been vocal in its concern about the Board’s activities, has substantially grown and expanded in recent years, and its own activities — an annual children’s Religious Education project, pilgrimages, days of recollection, talks, conferences, a regular magazine, etc. — have rather eclipsed those of the Board. (The National Board’s web site was last updated over a year ago.)

It was with this in mind that I read the latest offering from the Board, a brochure about its annual conference. The theme is “Who decides now? Women — Status and Role, Life and Mission”. This brochure announced that a decade ago “eight themes” emerged from a report produced for a discussion paper. These themes included “the underuse of gifts, talents, and skills of women”, “the need for inclusive language”, “the power of the parish priest to enable or restrict the involvement of women”, “the exclusion of women from decision making”, and “the need to clarify the role of the ordained priesthood”.

Sound familiar? It is the usual feminist lobbying. But the list now has a tired feel, and — to younger women especially — some puzzling language.

While seasoned campaigners may recognize that “inclusive language” refers to excluding masculine-gender pronouns (he, his, him) in “justice” to women, younger people do not necessarily understand it that way. They often hear “inclusivism” used in political circles, and the term implies activist lobbying of militant minority groups and various “rights” groups that the National Board never intended to support.

The conference brochure suggests that the older generation of “Catholic feminists” has been left behind. It announces a frankly unappealing weekend of events. Saturday evening features a social (“bring along your musical instruments”) while “group work”, “plenary” and “future planning” are highlights of each day. The focus of Sunday is a visit to the Anglican Coventry cathedral. (For those who don’t know, the present cathedral was completed in 1962, replacing an older one bombed in World War II, and it has been hailed by some as a supreme example of modern ecclesiastical architecture.)

This National Board’s conference reflects a general trend in Catholic feminism. The Catholic Women’s Network in Britain recently marked its 20th anniversary with a small gathering at which some ladies ate together, put items ritually on a table and spoke about what the Network had meant to them. Their newsletter, reporting the event, noted that one of the matters that surfaced in the discussions was the fact that much of the criticism levelled at the group had come from other Catholic women.

I am gratified to read this, because that means partly me, and I am happy to claim my share. I have been a vocal critic of the Network’s influence within the National Board, its links with Catholics for a Free Choice, the publicity it gives to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and much more.

And now? Well, things have, in a favorite fashionable phrase, “moved on”.

The growth areas in the Church are largely from orthodox movements, and even their growing pains make them more interesting and more worthy of attention and debate than yet another conference promoting an outdated agenda.

Still, I shall be rather sorry when the National Board and its feminist affiliate organizations dwindle finally into the limbo-land of forgotten bureaucracy. They have been what journalists call “good copy” over the years — laughing at their jargon and worrying over their influence has kept some of us busy and has given readers something to chew over. But now we must get on.

In Britain, over the past decade while the National Board’s “eight themes” have been cluttering up desks and wasting episcopal time, real problems and challenges have been gathering apace.

Mass attendances have slumped. Over 90 per cent of pupils leaving our Catholic secondary school are not practicing their faith. Infant baptisms are down as are confirmations, and the Catholic divorce and abortion rates continue to rise like everyone else’s.

There is so much to be done by way of evangelism, education, outreach and missionary activity — and not least by Catholic women. It would be helpful if the last vestiges of status could be quietly stripped from the National Board so that it no longer gets funds from official Church sources, and if the bishops no longer have to waste time consulting this “advisory body”.

The rest of us will be getting on with the real work of the Church and seeing the signs of hope there — new movements, some fine young orthodox priests, a pro-life movement that has stayed the course, increasing numbers of Catholics going on pilgrimage to Lourdes and elsewhere, a quiet revival of confession and the Rosary — even the possibility of an outbreak of sanity on the subject of liturgy.

The future glows with the steady flame of a candle that has not gone out and from which fresh lamps can be lit. As we look behind us we see the martyrs far-off in the past, the heroes of the 19th century revival, and the steady trickle of converts (even in the silliest years of the 1970s and 80s), and we are inspired to go forward. There is work to be done.

Joanna Bogle, Voices contributing editor, lives in London, is active in Catholic movements in England, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television.

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