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Women in black
by Margaret Watson
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Margaret Watson

The women in black

Hell, I hate it when women wear black – I don't mean slinky little cocktail dresses, the kind everyone's got – even me if the truth be known, not that I ever go anywhere to wear it these days and nor is it little exactly. The ones I don't like are the authority figures – police women (Why do we always feel guilty even when we haven't done anything). Then there are nuns, traffic wardens, the lady who took my dog away. Even my nursery teacher wore a black dress with every day a fresh white collar and another ring of white anti-perspirant spray showing under each arm. I didn't know what it was then of course, but I hated that woman. It was her who made me sit on my right hand for three weeks until she had converted me from normal into a right handed writer. She was also the one who told the whole class I'd wet my knickers after Richard Lockwood poured orange juice over my seat. And I could never put my hand up when she asked about pets at home or who was going on holiday.

So you see women in black are not my thing. So why am I sitting here half way through a lecture on New Testament theology to be followed by exegesis of Saint John and all of it given by a woman in black.
Do priests have to wear black anyway? Who said so and if they did were they right? On what grounds? Why not purple or pink? I know there are robes for the various church seasons, but mostly it's green isn't it – pea green at that. I know God likes green, just look out of the window, but I'm not sure about it – not with my hair colour. Who wears green – dustmen and those men who wave at planes at the airport, oh and the countryside wardens I suppose.

I know in my heart of hearts that colour is the least important thing I have to worry about. It's tiny compared to the glory of creation, the wonder of the incarnation, the truth of salvation and the hope of heaven. Tiny, but right now it's looming large – very large and very black.
My mom just laughs, “But Barb, black's so slimming!”
But every day! Bishops are more colourful of course, but even if there were likely to be women bishops in the near future I don't want to be one. I see my role as part of a local community, living and working alongside people I care about, not coming down once a year in clouds of diesel fumes and tobacco smoke. Not that I don't like the bishop. He's quite sweet really. Makes me think of a humbug, pretty hard, but attractive on the outside, and soft and warm once you get to know him. He's very approachable. Most people who say “My door is always open,” don't mean it, but I think Howard does. Probably because he's always loosing his keys his wife says. Yes, he's very approachable, but he wouldn't understand my hangups.

Would wearing black make me a better priest?

“People will know who you are,” says mom.

But if I'm working in a village,( or more likely group of villages these days) won't they know who I am? Who else is likely to be stuck up in the pulpit every Sunday morning, followed by the parish council on Monday, team meeting on Tuesday – followed of course by Tiny Tots, the over 60's lunch, and later by the Alpha course. Even those who only come for the youth club will know who I am.

Will wearing black make me better at writing sermons, sorting jumble, washing up after the coffee morning, conducting a funeral.( O.K. Possibly, it helps sometimes.)

I know that I am going to be a priest. I know why – because God has made it so clear that there is no other way for me to go. He has a role for me that I am going to do my best to fulfill – but maybe not always in black.

The sun has just come out. Does Sandra know that the light coming through the ventilator is giving her a temporary halo? Is that why she always sits in that seat.? There's a bloke in the union bar who was offering odds on her becoming a bishop. She's been here almost a full term now. We know her better so he's changed it to how long before she makes Archbishop of Canterbury. She's already got a science degree, twins and another woman's ex-husband. Who does that remind me of? She'll probably make a good job of it too, but if she does I might apply for a post like that in the Bahamas that I saw advertised in the Church Times. Black suits her. She can carry it off. If I wear black people just assume I'm trying to hide quite how big my hips are these days. When I first came here I thought the food was great, cooked breakfast every morning. I've never eaten so well. My mom was more into muesli and grapefruit. I think I'll have to move out into self catering next year or I'll have a job getting through the door.

It's the Trinity this morning. One day we talk about the immutability of God, how he is always there, always the same, never changing. Jim Betters preached on just that last week at St Botolth's. But this week it's the Trinity – God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. How is that the same, but I know it is. God is bigger than our understanding, and certainly bigger than we can explain. I saw an old book in the college library the other day 'Your God is too small.' I didn't take it out – I was looking for New Testament Greek at the time, but I did glance through it. It reminded me of that old story about petitioners coming to a great king. Some who asked for little things were refused, but one bold man asked for huge amounts – and he got it. The king acknowledged that this man realised what a great king he had come to. A king who could grant great wishes. Not that God always says yes. That would be too easy. But I'm pretty sure that this great God couldn't care less what his priests wear. Maybe not, but it isn't just God we have to deal with is it – people have a say too.

One of the tutors, Andrew Walsh, was talking about his first parish as priest last week. His predecessor was apparently perfect and had been in post for 28 years. He was a saint according to his parishioners – had always known everyone's name and had a smile for them all, was never late, always visited the hospital, had magnificent harvest festivals and people came for miles for the midnight mass at Christmas.

“I found it really difficult to follow in his footsteps. Whatever I did someone seemed to say 'When Father Mallow was here' or ' Father Mallow wouldn't have done it that way.'

Then I met him at a dioscisan conference. A very nice bloke, but very ordinary, and he told me that when he first arrived people said to him 'When Mr Griggs was here' and 'Mr Griggs preferred to do it this way.'

After that I just decided to be myself and to use my own judgment. I didn't please all the people all the time, but you can't can you. And I came to love that parish, even the smelly bits and the awkward people and do you know I think in time they came to quite like me”.

He teaches the most useful class of all 'Practical theology'. When I first saw it on the timetable I couldn't figure out what it meant – well so far it has covered leading a prayer meeting, hospital visitation, and even dealing with the architect and fund raising. Later on there are going to be sessions on dealing with bereavement and marriage counselling. Most of us are quite young and only about half of us are married. We haven't come across death very much except on t..v or in the papers so it's going to be quite difficult. My mom was a midwife and she told me once about how she used to lead antenatal classes and thought she knew all about it. Then she got pregnant and for the first time she really began to understand what the women were thinking, the fears and hopes that they had. But I can't hope to experience all the things that people do, yet I've still got to be there for them – the young mother with her stillborn, the father left to care for three youngsters, the teenager gone off the rails. I know that is more important than what colour I wear, but I've got to get it sorted out or I'll go potty.

I tried to talk to the others about it. Most of them hadn't even thought about it. Sandra had the most sense.

“What colour undies are you wearing?” she asked.

“Sort of rose pink.”

“And I've seen you putting your washing in”, she said. You must have every colour in the rainbow, so what are you moaning about.”

I had to laugh.

“Anyway,” she went on, “Is it women in black or women in authority that you have a problem with?”

For me the two seem to go together – women in black equals negative experience, bad memories. I went to the sort of school where the teachers still wore their gowns on special occasions. People who wore scarlet or sky blue would appear at prize giving – when I never got a prize – all in black. Parents evening – that was another one. Mrs Marshall sitting there all in black, just a dark blue bit of ribbon round the neck. In class she was quite pleasant, but this was parent's evening.

“Barbara would do much better if she paid attention from time to time.”

And Miss Mitchell, “Well, there's quite a long way to go if we're going to pass those exams. 23rd in class.”

That didn't sound too bad, until she added “Out of 24 that is.”

They were the wrong subjects. I did o.k.in English with Mr Williams, and science – I liked science. I remember the time we had to decide on subjects for G.C.S.E. The school took pride in managing to fit in everyone's choices. We had to do maths and English of course, sciences and a language, but the rest was up to us. You could choose almost anything and if you could persuade four other people to choose the same the school would try and find a teacher – so one year some girls did Russian and art and others did graphics and outdoor sports.. Only on the day they gave the forms out I had chicken pox. By the time they'd posted my form and we'd filled it in and returned it everyone else had already got their choices so I got what was left – and that included philosophy, drama and r.e. I'd always been to Sunday school, got confirmed when I was 13, but for the first time we really discussed the subject – not just Christianity, but Buddism, Sikhism and all the rest. You could put your point of view and no one minded if it was different from theirs. Every week we debated something – a whole fifty minutes to argue. Does God exist or do we just feel the need to believe in Him? – that's what it was the first week. For the first time I could question things that mattered. And for the first time God began to be important and real – not just a picture in the window at church, but someone I cared about. Not that anyone tried to convert me. No one said you must believe this or that. But I did. God loved me.

The drama was good as well – I even got the part of Juliet, mainly becuase I'm really good at learning lines. – though I preferred being one of the witches in Macbeth. “When shall we three meet again.” I wore black for that. It fitted the part. Is that what a priest does, fit the part? I look around the room. Sandra is wearing black jeans, a Save the Whale tee shirt and Doc Martens The boys are wearing whatever boys wear. Rob has got Jesus boots on again – that's his concession to his future role I suppose. He was a Goth until a few months ago he told me. .Did God mind? God's too big for that. Brian has on a tweed jacket that probably once belonged to his dad. It has ancient leather patches on the cuffs and elbows. Trudy is coming down with a cold and is huddled inside a fleece. The other girls are wearing skirts and tops – warm ones mostly, it is still only March. Julie is wearing a pair of those hairy boots that you see in Sunday supplements, a mini skirt and a top that just about covers her boobs, but only just. Most of them are wearing cardigans, but if the third years are anything to go by we'll soon all be wearing darned tights and woolly tops. I've got on my red woolen dress, high heels and the only pair of tights without holes. You can always tell when it's the end of the month round here. All the girls start wearing trousers and socks, because they can't afford tights. Perhaps thats why priests wear black robes – they cover everything. I remember when I had appendicitis. They had to call a doctor out of bed. He arrived wearing a white coat like they all do. He seemed to be wearing trousers and a jersey, but the bottom of his pajamas were showing. In church last week I watched the choir. All dressed alike in black surplices, white tops and frilly collars – and then afterwards in the vestry I saw flowery dresses, smart suits, a pair of overalls, jeans and football shirts. But they only do it once a week, unless there is a wedding. Black can be elegant I suppose, dramatic as well. The communion is like a drama. You are retelling the Last Supper and yet it's more than that. This time everyone can participate. I think of priests I know – men mostly of course. Their outfits often seem to reflect their theological positions – Father Bryan with his long and shabby souterne. Dozens of buttons and the tiniest of collars Almost, but not quite a Roman – the only obstacle the love he has for his wife. Brian Collins with his broad collar and broad evangelical views. I thought of the vestry I had been in recently. On the wall were photographs of the last dozen or so priests. All men, all in black, all had tried to serve God and people and all had succeeded to a greater or lesser degree.

Is it my femininity I'm worried about? Nah! I'm definitely feminine as anyone can see. Wasn't it the Vicar of Dibley who said “These rather give it away don't they?” pointing to a pair of what my biology teacher called 'secondary sexual organs.' 36D and I'm terrified of spiders. What can be more feminine than that? I know Dawn French is only playing a part, but she pulls it off doesn't she and she wears black mostly, while Alice goes more for the fluffy pink, yet both are very much female and magnificant with it in their own ways. I wonder if they've got a dvd of it in the library? She had to overcome opposition of course – she was a woman after all, but joking aside I think the villagers are very fair – they give her a go and she has to prove herself which of course she does – magnificently. I am going to be a magnificent vicar, but more, a magnificent woman – in black or not.

Got a long way to go of course. Four and a half more years in fact - lots of Greek, Hebrew and theology of course, but also lots of other things – people to meet, sermons, meetings, baptisms. Lots and lots of practical theology. Has Andrew Walsh got a girlfriend I wonder? I'm going to his church next week to help with the youth service. We'll have to practice the guitar bits. I wonder what his vicarage is like. Most of them these days are modern and tiny and beige, but I must admit I'd prefer one of those Victorian jobs – room for a library and a dirty boots room. The trouble with the modern ones is that there isn't room for committee meetings so someone is always sitting on the floor or perched on the end of a settee – and so you end up holding them in the parish room if you have them – and the heating doesn't work, because it's set to come on only half an hour before the service. When I go to some places I wish I'd chosen electrical engineering. Andrew trained as a plumber he told me so at least there will be hot water. And I know his last holiday was in Burgundy so we won't be drinking Ribena.

Coffee break – did she set an essay? Sandra will know. Got to hurry or the boys will get all the doughnuts. I really must try and sit nearer the door next time. Now I realise why Sandra sits there. She'll go far that one.Wonder what's for lunch?

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