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by Mary Roe
from Signs of the Times, No. 29 - Apr 2008
In the Church Times of 8th February, I read an article by David Self in which he recalled being given "My Prayer Book (for Men and Boys)" before his Confirmation, in the 1950's. In 1945, I was on the receiving end of the earlier version, "for Women and Girls" , (in a pink cover), the contents of which almost led my feminist mother to boycott my Confirmation. Her concerns arose from the section of self-examination of conscience before receiving Holy Communion and (I can't remember how) she managed to see the version for men and boys (in its blue cover). This did nothing to appease her. The boys were asked to check whether they had hit a smaller boy, been guilty of foul play in a recognised sport, such as football, boxing, etc. They were also required to confess if they had been disobedient to their parents, their teachers or any other person in authority, and if they had been punctual in arriving at school and done their best work at all times. There may have been a question about kindness to dumb animals, too, but God was clearly seen as an omnipotent but benign headmaster.
The questions we girls had to ask ourselves included, "Have you ever steamed open a letter addressed to someone else to read what it said?", "Have you spread malicious or false tales about a friend?", "Have you failed to keep yourself and your home clean and tidy and help your mother with the housework?" "Have you been guilty of the sin of pride if you were given good marks for a piece of schoolwork?" and "Have you been tempted to wear lipstick or nail varnish?" Apart from the dodgy theology of the last (since when was it a sin to be tempted?) I think we can see where this spiritual director was coming from, and why my mother was so incensed. Obviously, the boys were all fine, upstanding specimens of Christian British Manhood, guilty at worst of letting their natural exuberance and horseplay get a little out of hand, whereas we girls were morally flawed creatures at best, and the majority of us were seen as naturally corrupt. When my mother raised the matter with the vicar on one of his tea-cadging visits, he was quite mystified by her attitude and reminded her that "That is how it is - it's all there in the Bible; go back and read Genesis chapter 2.
Towards the end of the course, the boys and girls were segregated again (we always sat on opposite sides of the aisle in church) and the boys went to the vicarage drawing room round the log fire on Sunday afternoon for a pep talk the contents of which one can only guess at. We girls were sent to the cold, damp vicarage room and a woman from the diocesan office of what used to be called "Moral Welfare" was sent to tell us what was required of us as Christian women in the adult world we were about to enter. I remember her now, appearing to us to be much older than she probably was, lank hair strained back and wound round her head in pigtails, horn rimmed spectacles and a totally flat chest in her cashmere twinset. She started by telling us that even if we experienced severe pain each month, we were not to complain but rejoice and thank God for this promise that in the future (the far distant future) we would be given the privilege and responsibility of bearing children. This led to setting us straight as to our responsibility in relationships with boys; we must remember at all times that men are created to "Go forth and multiply" according to God's command (Genesis again!) but that in order to ensure that children were brought up in stable, loving homes with a father at the head, in loco Dei, we had the responsibility to see that conception occurred only within marriage. Should we ever find ourselves "in trouble" we must accept the fact that it was all our own doing, must never attempt to blame the poor innocent boy whom we had ensnared with our evil wiles, just as Eve had seduced Adam (see above) and must accept whatever chastisement or misery came our way as a consequence.
I personally went home that December day cold and depressed, feeling that I should be heartily repenting of my sins, especially that of being born female, as well as a whole load I hadn't committed personally, but which other members of my sex had.
This mood didn't lighten much before my Confirmation (I still don't know quite why I went ahead with it - just timidity, I suspect), when we slunk up to the Bishop's feet with thumping headaches brought on by the linen veils pinned too tight above our eyebrows (no little bridal outfits allowed in a church which was "catholic" when it suited and reformed when it didn't).
So when did I shake off this oppressive burden of being a Christian, with all the shine removed from my vision of the future and regain the confidence that I am indeed a child of God, made in his image and capable of joy and laughter in God's name?
I would like to say that it was my regular attendance at 8 o'clock Holy Communion on the first Sunday of the month, but since we were not allowed even a glass of water before leaving home and I almost always fainted and never made it to the alter to receive the sacrament but was out in the porch with my head between my knees at the time, that wouldn't be true.
It was, in fact, not attendance at worship or receiving the sacrament which showed me the wonder of the world - it was people: Christians and non-believers, old and young, but mostly women and definitely not the team of celibate clergy who had overseen my Confirmation. They would be horrified to know that one of the brightest lights in my firmament at that time was a high class, red-haired Jewish prostitute, who had rented our spare room when escaping the blitz and whose company my mother continued to enjoy, although she was never invited round when any of my numerous "aunties" came to tea. Lesley was intelligent, witty and had a wonderful line in the typically Jewish wry self-mockery which manages to mock the stuffed shirts (and clerical collars) of the establishment.
Since that unpromising Confirmation, on 16th December, 1945, I have come to know the joy of worship, the comfort (in the full sense of the word) to be found in the sacraments and when I move house, I look for new friends mostly, but not exclusively within the Christian family where I am. The question that arises from this is, "Do we underestimate our power as individuals made in the image of God, to fulfil the purposes of our Creator in the world, and hasten God's universal kingship?
Mary Roe is a retired RE teacher, lay reader, widow of a bishop, and member of the Modern Church Council.