November 17th 2014 is a date that will be recorded in the history of the Church of England. It was the day when, after years of wrangling and discussion, the legislation enabling women to become bishops was finally signed and sealed.
I will remember the day, not because I whooped for joy and drank champagne (I’d done that in July when Synod passed the legislation), but because that evening I went to see Made in Dagenham the musical – a recent addition to the West End, and a story that has unnerving similarities with the women bishops campaign.
It was a free ticket courtesy of a friend who occasionally passes such things my way. Her greeting, as she joined me in our amazing, middle of the second row seats, was along the lines of: “isn’t this a good day!!” – and I, in my idiotic way, thought she was just talking about the imminent musical watching! But no, she was celebrating the demise of the stained glass ceiling!
The musical is excellent – let’s get that out of the way first of all. I highly recommend it to all those of a feminist, musical loving persuasion. I’m often dubious about great films making the progression to the stage, but this one is up there with Billy Elliot – just replace tutu wearing Geordies, with overall wearing Essex girls. It’s the only musical I’ve ever come across to include a number on the subject of quantitive easing. A number featuring a toe-tapping Harold Wilson no less! It does the politics brilliantly – poking a lot of fun at the PM, but letting Barbara Castle be effortlessly wonderful.
Its final number probably would have had me standing up and cheering (appropriately, it’s called ‘Stand Up’) on any day, but on this day when the women of the Church of England had secured their own gender-based victory, it was all I could to stay in my seat and in control of my faculties! I wanted to shout to the entire theatre that I knew how these women represented on stage felt – we’d done it!! Nearly all my decorum vanished in that moment.
Even the star of the show appreciated the occasion!
The events of Made in Dagenham occurred in 1968. Here I was FORTY-FOUR years later celebrating a victory of similar proportions! How did it take so long?? What on earth has the Church of England been doing all this time?? And, most importantly, when will this struggle get its own musical?!?
Of course, many of us know what the church has been doing over the decades. It’s been making progress – but slowly, so as not to cause alienation, division or schism. It’s been pondering theologically the question of whether women could hold this position. Its bureaucratic cogs have been turning slowly, first approving women priests twenty years ago, then battling over the episcopacy. Then, this week…
This week we’re celebrating again. On Wednesday, it was announced that Libby Lane will be the very first female bishop in the Church of England. When I started writing this post last week, speculation was rife as to who and where this would happen. [I’d hoped for Gloucester – purely because of my bias towards its cathedral!] The story isn’t over with the signing of the legislation or the first appointment – in fact, a new one is just beginning…