Thursday morning saw me in St Martin in the Fields, along with more than 500 other Christian clergy, of varying denominations, plus a couple of rabbis – all were women, and as well as consuming coffee and cake, laughing with and at Dawn French, and listening to the choirgirl and choirboy of the year singing the Vicar of Dibley theme, we prayed, we sang, and then we went off to accompany a delegation to Downing Street and return to Trafalgar Square for photo-opportunities.
It was a stunt, of course. Designed to catch the media’s attention for the makepovertyhistory campaign. Backed by Christian Aid, the Jubilee campaign, CAFOD and other agencies, we were promoting the three makepovertyhistory aims for this year of Britain’s presidency of the EU and chairing of the G8 group: just trading structures, the dropping of debt for the world’s poorest countries, and the creation of more and better aid programmes by the wealthy nations.
Makepovertyhistory is, at least in part, the brainchild of people for whom catching the limelight is their stock-in-trade. Usually I find myself uncomfortable with the harnessing of celebrity and need: Comic Relief, Children in Need, even 20th-anniversary Live Aid make me cringe. And, for me, the makepovertyhistory TV adverts are a disaster area.
So why did I turn out? The aid and development agencies behind MPH have a seriously good track record, they know what they are talking about, and they are the people to whom I turn when I want to know about trade justice, or debt relief, or where and how best to contribute to overseas aid. And the purposes of this campaign move on from bandaging the wounds left by a system which puts so much of the world at a disadvantage while we prosper to addressing the structural questions, just as Jubilee 2000 did when most of us were first alerted to the destructive patterns of debt imposed by the affluent on those struggling in poverty. These are political questions, and the time is right for political campaigning; just watch the coverage of Gordon Brown’s Africa trip for confirmation of that. If turning out with my be-collared sisters can help to turn a wider audience’s attention to the campaign, yes, of course I’ll be there.
Even so, there remained a nagging discomfort about a purely female demonstration. In the Church of England, it has been a long, hard road to inclusion, to the acceptance of male and female as equal vehicles of grace and ministry, a road whose end we haven’t yet reached. Should we not have gone as both sisters and brothers of the cloth? We acted as we did to get publicity, but the fragility of that argument was proved by the day itself: there was some coverage, but the antics of the third-in-line to the throne kept us well down the batting order in the news.
Meeting as women, though, and particularly as women clergy of the CofE, did have a very powerful resonance, which perhaps the organisers would not have expected or even understood. When women were campaigning for admission to the priesthood, and particularly as they waited for the result of the General Synod vote, St Martin’s was one of the places of gathering, waiting, and preparation. Many women present on Thursday found themselves remembering other days in St Martin’s, other times when we sang ‘We are marching in the light of God’. We still spend a great deal of time addressing the wrongs and woes of the church; it was salutary to be addressing, instead, the wrongs and woes of the world.