Maggi Dawn's new book making waves in House of Commons

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

It is not every day—or decade or century—that a theologian teaching at Yale is cited as a source during debates in the English House of Commons. Alas, Maggi Dawn, Dean of Chapel and Associate Professor of Theology and Literature at YDS, is not your average theologian. At the moment, Dawns’ new book, Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England (Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd) is making waves and stirring conversation throughout England.

Maggie Dawn photoBefore her move to YDS from the University of Cambridge, Dawn had served as a priest in the Church of England as one of its first ordained women (the Church’s prohibition on female priests was only lifted in 1992). After serving as a priest for nearly two decades, and even being offered a number of senior positions that would have placed her in the position to potentially become a bishop, in 2010 Dawn said she “came to the conclusion that, for a time at least, I should remove myself from public ministry in the Church of England” because the institution “still had not found a way of fully authenticating the ministry of women.” As a result, she left England for New Haven.

Reflecting back, Dawn recalled, “leaving was not only compatible with my vocation [as a priest], but essential to it.” 

In England, Dawn was never simply a priest. She was always a female priest at best, and a ‘girl priest’ at worst. At Yale, by contrast, Dawn said, “I can’t tell you how different it is; every single day I come to work, and I never have to think about the clothes I put on, or the voice I use in a meeting, asking myself if I’m coming off as too feminine or too feminist.” The biggest difference between life on this side of the Atlantic, said Dawn, is that “my colleagues [in America] treat me as a person, not as a girl.” Thus “all that time and energy I was wasting figuring how to get past peoples’ assumptions, I can now spend actually doing my job.”

Coming to Yale afforded Dawn the time, energy, and distance to respond to Church of England’s embarrassing step backward last November, when, despite receiving support from the House of Bishops and House of Clergy, the legislative push to enable the appointment of women as bishops was vetoed by the House of Laity. The proposal was far from ideal since it included a huge compromise: if certain priests refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a female bishop’s authority they could opt out of her oversight. This would effectively relegate her to a second-class bishop since no option to opt out exists under male bishops. 

Dawn described the current situation as “an impasse that projects such an unacceptable and illogical theological message that real people”—herself included—“are currently withdrawing their presence from the Church.” Of the Western and European-based cultures, nearly all Anglicans have accepted women with the exception of England, which Dawn said should be called ‘the father ship’ instead of the ‘mother ship’ of Anglicanism. Dawn has taken a firm stance on where she stands on the issue. “I will not take a job in the Church of England while it disauthenticates the authority of women…Misogyny is the refusal to accept the full humanity of women,” she said. “And in that sense it is misogynistic.”

In just four weeks following the November decision, Dawn produced Like the Wideness of the Sea. The book offers three new perspectives on the issue of women bishops. First, Dawn insists, “The question is not whether should we have women bishops, but whether we were right to ordain women as priests in the first place.” The Church of England began ordaining women under what is called a ‘period of reception,’ where the Church basically said, ‘We’ll ordain women, see how it works out, and if it becomes apparent it was the will of God we’ll let it stand, if not then we’ll cease ordaining women.’ For Dawn, that reception period has come to an end. If women are valid as priest they necessarily must be valid as bishops. 

Dawn then revisits the idea of ‘waiting on God.’ The typically logic of this is, ‘If something is worth doing then it’s worth waiting for, and we must wait on God and on God’s time.’ Although Dawn admits that waiting can is “an absolutely valid and vital spiritual discipline,” she argues that waiting can become inverted—as it has in the Church of England—when we fail to realize when God is actually waiting on us. 

Finally, Dawn challenges assumptions that women are not allowed to be angry, and are to be kind, patient, and compromising when men get upset, and argues for a constructive form of anger. “The whole Church—men and women—is being damaged by this terrible treatment of women,” she said, “and the Church needs to get mad enough to do something about it, and to stop apologizing and saying ‘We’ll wait on the Lord.’”

While, in practice, the Church of England may be content with waiting, British Parliament is not. As an established church—where, unlike the USA, no official separation exists between the church and state of England—the Church’s decision to uphold its discrimatory practices against women has led Members of Parliament to see state intervention as necessary, otherwise the Church could face disestablishment since national institutions are supposed to be barred from practicing gender discrimination.

On March 13 in the House of Commons, Diana Johnson, a Member of Parliament, cited one of Dawn’s personal accounts of clerical discrimination and recalled arguments underlined in Like the Wideness of the Sea to make the case for a legislative bill that would force the Church of England to allow women be consecrated as bishops if it wishes to remain the established church. “Parliament has a big role to play in the Church of England, and the Church has a big role in Parliament,” said Johnson. “I certainly do not seek to enable Parliament to intervene in Church affairs lightly, but matters of discrimination are very serious, and we must speak up.”

Johnson is not the only one to take note of Dawn’s book. The book has been openly endorsed by a number of bishops in England who are sympathetic to Dawn’s message, and major British news publications like The Guardian and The Telegraph have solicited her opinions. With the exception of “a long letter from one archbishop, who shall be nameless,” and a few complaints of others, Dawn has been grateful for the overwhelmingly positive feedback her book has received. She takes it as a sign that the Church of England will soon realize, as she and Parliament have realized, that God is waiting on them to change.

Date Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 4:22pm