Film and Book Reviews

Women still face struggles in ordination journey

BookThe Tapestry: One Woman's Journey to Priesthood, by Libby Gilchrist (Initiate Media, 2018)

By Elizabeth Murray

December 13 2018As its subtitle says, The Tapestry is one woman’s journey to priesthood. It is a story of grief. It’s an honest, personal reflection on Libby Gilchrist’s grief and struggles while striving to fulfil her calling to be a priest. It brings together the threads of her life that led her to ministry in parishes and hospitals. Living in a diocese that wasn’t ordaining women as priests at the time, Gilchrist’s efforts to fulfil her calling were made all the more difficult. This is a conversation between Gilchrist and a friend which highlights Gilchrist’s own awareness of the potential issue of gender: “ ‘Why exactly do you want to study theology anyway?’ I took a deep breath and managed to say “Why do you think?”. She looked intently at me: “I don’t know.” “Well, if I was a 25-year-old male, why would you think I might want to study theology?” “Ohhhhhhh…”.

As part of a unit on grief which was part of her theological training, Gilchrist created the “tapestry” that gives this book its name.

This collection of images attached to the fabric of her ordination dalmatic anchors the reflection. Although created by Gilchrist at one time in her life, the imagery focuses reflection on the experiences before and after. The images echo back and forward as the reader follows along on that journey. The account is mostly linear, with occasional looks back as events provoke particular memories.  

For those, like me, who grew up with men and women as parish priests, this story retells the persistence and determination of the women and men in the church who faithfully believe that women have the same rights as men, including in leading worship. This story is in the recent enough past to be a powerful reminder that the journey to a truly inclusive ordained ministry is ongoing. For those who were unaware of the ins and outs of the debates around ordaining women to the priesthood in Wangaratta Diocese, this book offers a personal perspective from the midst of those arguments.

Women’s place in Holy Orders in the Anglican Church is not nationally consistent. Many of the obstacles characterised by the wall in the tapestry still exist. Not least of these is a persistently male image of God. “I was a woman, so how could I possibly be made in the image of a male God?”, writes Glichrist. She vividly articulates the human cost of such obstacles. She also reveals the pain inflicted by the church as an institution, both through neglect and actions.

For those who do not believe that women have a place in the priesthood, this account is unlikely to convince them otherwise. It would, however, offer insight into the impact that this exclusion has on people who truly believe that God has called women to this ministry.  It goes through the theological reflection that recognises the arguments on all sides.

For those who were involved in the campaigns promoting the ordination of women, you are unlikely to learn anything new, but you will recognise the struggles and perhaps you will find encouragement in the hope and persistent light that is the ultimate message of the story rendered in cloth and thread as well as in the words Gilchrist writes. It shares how grief lead to growth and healing.

Light is always present even in darkness. Just as the golden threads are seen across the “tapestry” itself, people shine as beacons of light throughout the retelling. There are those who were encouraging from the beginning of Gilchrist’s calling. There are those who moved from opposition to acceptance and support. There are those from outside the church who find the barriers to women’s ordination incomprehensible who value the ministry they received from the Revd Libby Gilchrist. 

Gilchrist’s story shows how important it is to have supportive people for any ministry to flourish.

Anyone reading this book is shown what their sisters in Christ can experience in a national church that does not universally welcome and embrace women as being as equally suited as men to all levels of ministry.

The Revd Elizabeth Murray is Assistant Curate at St John's Toorak.