Summary of Conference: Diarmuid UaConaill

Women's Ordination Worldwide
1st International Conference

Now is the Time:
A Celebration of Women's Call to a Renewed Priesthood in the Catholic Church

Preliminary Summary Report by Diarmuid UaConaill

Our First International Conference was held in Dublin, Ireland, from 29 June to 1 July 2001. Attended by delegates from 26 countries on 6 continents, the event was voted an overwhelming success by those who participated. An impressive number of nuns and priests took part.

Although this conference focussed mainly on the issue of women's ordination in the Roman Catholic church, WOW is an ecumenical movement devoted to promoting women's ordination in all Christian churches; and the conference was attended by a small number of representatives of Anglican, Lutheran and other denominations. We were notified that the women priests of the Church of Ireland would wear purple stoles in support of our conference during services on Sunday 1st July.

The conference was opened formally by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who spoke of the spiritual violence being done to Roman Catholics by their church's ban, not only on ordaining women but on discussing the issue, and the culture of fear that has been generated among so many of the clergy and laity.

Aruna Gnanadason of the World Council of Churches was to have given the Keynote Address; but Vatican pressure on the WCC forced her to withdraw. She sent us her paper in printed form.

In her place, Rev. Rose Hudson Wilkin, a priest of the Anglican communion, addressed us. As Soline Vatinel put it, Saint Thérèse sent us a Rose! Rose spoke of the pain as well as the joy in being a black woman priest, and of the road still to be travelled in the Church of England.

On Saturday morning Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun of the Benedictine order, spoke to us about the hard road of discipleship, the way of integrity that leads us to live on the edge, in the risky places, "where nice girls don't go". Joan had been threatened with discipline by Rome if she persisted in participating. 135 sisters of the Benedictine Order signed letters of support for the monastic practice of personal responsibility and Joan's decision to attend. Her presentation was greeted with an overwhelming standing ovation by the delegates.

The other main paper was presented by John Wijngaards, a theologian and priest of the Roman Catholic church who resigned his ministry in protest at Rome's stance on women's ordination. He delivered a detailed systematic treatise on the arguments for and against women's ordination, leavened with humour, and showing how and why he himself came to support the cause.

Towards the end of the Saturday afternoon session, an international panel, the "Lesser Heard Voices", brought us news and views on women's ordination and related issues from South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Uganda, Japan and Hungary. At the end of the presentations Sister Myra Poole came in to greet and thank the women who participated. Myra had chaired the Organising Committee of the conference, but was summoned to Rome and warned that she would be expelled from the order in which she has served for 42 years, if she participated in the event. She had the unqualified support of the rest of the committee in whatever she decided, but the choice was a lonely and a painful one. After days of struggle, she chose the hard road of discipleship and integrity, for the sake of all the other women threatened by Rome on this issue.

Papers apart, the process of the conference centred on two intertwined threads: the Liturgy and the Resolutions. Proposals for resolutions were invited from members of WOW beforehand, and we hoped through them to discern the spirit of the conference, and to point the way forward. At various stages the resolutions were debated, amended, rehashed, argued over, condensed, discussed again, and voted on; and eleven resolutions were adopted.

The conference began and ended with liturgy. The Thanksgiving liturgy on Sunday expressed in song, dance, symbolism, prayer and sharing, the joyful celebration of women's call to ordained ministry.

Of course it was not all work. On Saturday evening we had a festival dinner, with musical entertainment, dancing, and a wonderful sketch by a group of delegates in which Pope Joan and the Mothers of the Church discussed the issue of whether men could be validly ordained.

Not everyone at the conference was in favour of women's ordination. A small group of courageous women came to challenge and question the issues, but they were not disruptive in any way, and their views were respected.

There was pain in this conference, and righteous anger, and the naming of injustice and oppression; but the lasting memories are of joy, love, truth, and a wonderful sense of community.