Pagan elder joins Westminster Faith Debates

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The presence of women, as 51% of the population, needs to be there in leadership roles to reflect spiritual balance. – Bharti Tailor, Executive Director of the Hindu Forum of Europe.

On May 26, the Westminster Faith Debates hosted its latest discussion at the St. James Church Piccadilly in London. The evening’s subject was “What Difference Will Women Bishops Make?” Although the question focuses on a hot topic specifically for the Church of England and its communities, the organizers brought in panelists from a number of different religions, including Paganism.

[Courtesy L. Woodhead]

[Courtesy L. Woodhead]

Elder Helene Mobius of the Pagan Federation was asked to sit on the panel to provide a Pagan view on female leadership in spiritual organizations. Facilitator Dr. Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University said:

We invited Helene because paganism is one of the only religions in Britain run by substantial numbers of women for women (and men) and with beliefs and practices shaped accordingly. So we knew she would have an interesting perspective to offer to a C of E which is only just starting to put women clergy in positions of the highest power and influence. 

In November 2014, the Church of England approved the ordination of women bishops. Then in January, Right Reverend Libby Lane became the first woman to earn the title and position of bishop. While the ceremony did not go without protest, she was successfully consecrated before an audience of 1,000 people. This happened twenty years after women were first ordained as Priests.

Since Lane’s ordination, the community has continued to argue over the merits of having women bishops, and how this new evolution in leadership will change liturgy and Church culture. Professor Woodhead, along with her co-facilitators, chose to use the Westminster Faith Debates as a forum to tackle this subject.

Helene Mobius was one of nine women who spoke that evening. Mobius is the Prison Ministry Manager for the Pagan Federation and faith adviser to NOMS. She explained, “The interfaith work done by others played no small part in my invitation, and although some Pagans would not like to be seen as ‘mainstream,’ our inclusion in this type of debate can only help lead to a better understanding between faiths.”

The eight other panelists included:

Professor Woodhead, who is the director of Westminster Faith Debates, presided over the event, along with Professor Adam Dinham of Goldsmiths University of London.

[Courtesy L. Woodhead]

Back Row: Adam Dinham, Helene Mobius, Saleha Islam, Lucy Winkett, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Hilary Cotton, Linda Woodhead.  Front Row; Nissa Basbaum, Kate Bottley, Bharti Tailor, Laura Janner-Klausner  [Courtesy L. Woodhead]

Mobius told The Wild Hunt, “As a Pagan Elder, I was given the opportunity to add a different perspective to the line-up of speakers, and judging by the warm reception from organisers, panellists and members of the public, I believe there is genuine interest in Paganism and our participation.”

That perspective was clear in the quotes and various online accounts of her talk. In a tweet, Westminster Faith Debates quoted Mobius explaining that “Paganism can be considered as fundamentally matriarchal … but is not primarily about gender.” She also said, “Pagans have a deep reverence both for femininity & masculinity – conjoined and mutually enforcing.”

Similar to Mobius, speaker Bharti Tailor, Executive Director of the Hindu Forum of Europe, reportedly spoke of the balance between the masculine and feminism within her religion. She was quoted as saying, “Divine women stand alone and complete.” But, as blogger Sally Rush wrote, “[Tailor] said it was easier for women to gain access but then they had to make sure they kept access.”

Unlike those two religious groupings, the Church of England and other monotheistic faiths have struggled with the notion of female religious leadership. Over the past century, an increasing number of women have moved into the clergy positions, that have long been held exclusively by men. For example, in 1935, Judaism reportedly saw its first female rabbi in Germany. Just last week, Religion News Service published an article titled “She’s black, gay and soon you can call her Rabbi,” which tells the story of Sandra Lawson, a member of the progressive Reconstructionist Jewish tradition. The article notes that “Religious role models are a critical component of identity formation” and, as communities diversify, the leadership roles need to reflect the diversity. This same point was made during the debate by Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori. She noted that “White, male, English-speaking bishops with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge are only one sort.”

In April, seven women were ordained as Catholic Priests within the organization Roman Catholic Women Priests, a movement that began in Germany in 2002 with now reportedly has 208 women Priests. One of the women, Andrea Johnson, told the local New Jersey news, “We bring an aspect of inclusiveness that people want … We are as capable, if not more capable, of doing the pastoral work our communities need.”  Another of the seven women said, “I think when people look back in, say, 100 years, they’ll ask, ‘What was the big deal?’ And really, what was the big deal?”

And that “deal” is part of what was being addressed during the Westminster Faith Debate. How, if at all, will the growing presence of female religious leadership change liturgy, experience, religious culture and climate? Will women have to “morph” into men in order to hold these roles within the current institutional structures? These are just two of the many questions asked of the panelists.

While many of the speakers addressed the struggles as they applied internally to their own religious organizations or faith groups, Mobius’ reportedly focused more on the global issues and external oppressions that make use of aspects of Paganism. She said, “We still have women suffering abuse and being accused of witchcraft all over the world. [We] need to shake out of apathy.”

Blogger Sally Rush, who described Mobius as “one of the most interesting speakers,” reported that Mobius looked “at the way in which words which were intended to be good have been demonised and continue to be demonised. She focused on crone and witch as terms which originally meant elder and wise but have been used to condemn and commit violence against women.”

Rush also quoted Mobius as emphasizing that, “We have to move beyond divides between men and women and on to a more symbiotic approach.”

Another issue that was addressed was the need to avoid constructing a new unyielding paradigm based on female leadership. In the tearing down of the old rules that blocked women clergy, the community should be careful not to create new identity-based limitations and expectations of those that achieve that status. Diversity should be reflected across gender as well as within. 

Rush offers a solid overview of the entire debate, hitting many of the main points. She noted the generational differences in the definining of one’s feminity, or holding on to whatever that means, when taking on a position held traditionally by men. Rush writes, “it reflected the desire of third wave feminists to be able to keep their femininity and authenticity.” Rush also lamented the “binary nature of the discussion,” adding that it emphasized the “need to include the voices of T and gender queer people in discussions like this rather than marginalising them to debates on sexuality.”

Last week’s debate will be available via podcast on the Westminister Faith Debates site.  The next debate will be held in June and will focus on “Social Cohesion – Lessons from the Pennines.” Then in July, a new panel will tackle the subject of extremism, asking  “What should schools do about Radicalisation?”

The Westminster Faith Debates are funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Lancaster University, and are held “in London every spring, and open to the public free of charge.”

Our institutions need to recognise and affirm the value and role of women in religious organisations – Hilary Coton, Chair of WATCH