In Praise of Old Women

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the Church of England comes to the rescue.  This summer a couple was married in the church of St. Mary’s and St. Martin’s in the town of Blyth in Nottinghamshire.  After the Vicar, a lady named Kate Bottley, tied the matrimonial knot with the words, “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder”, she then led the newly-married bride and groom in a pre-arranged flash-mob inspired dance.  The Vicar threw her arms into the air as the piped in music belted out, “Everybody dance now”, beginning the hip-hop song of the same name by the group C. & C. Music Factory.  Vicar Kate and the newly-wedded couple began to dance with hip-hop gyrations, the Vicar’s priestly stole swinging wildly as she gyrated.  A number of people throughout the congregation rose to their feet and joined in making similar gyrating dance moves of their own.  It was all pre-arranged of course, and the bride spent eight weeks rehearsing the dance moves at the local church hall.  I scanned the video of the whole spectacle to see if I couldn’t find Rod Serling sitting somewhere in the congregation, since I had clearly entered the Twilight Zone.  Those with hardy constitutions can view the spectacle here.

For me the main interest of it all consisted not simply in watching the Church of England’s stately liturgical tradition disintegrate before my eyes (rather like the Church of England itself). Rather it was in the actions of two old women in the congregation. When “Everybody dance now” gave place to a rousing “Celebrate good times, come on!” by Kool and the Gang, a pair of elderly women rose from their pew, walked rather unsteadily arm in arm down the center aisle, and left. They did not look pleased. I suspect that they did not leave because they felt that everything was over (in fact the priestess’s gyrations to “Celebrate good times, come on” were just starting), or because their own dancing skills were a bit rusty. I suspect they left because they had been taught since their childhood that this was not the way you behaved in church, and were appalled by what they saw taking place around them. Their silent and scarcely-noticed exodus spoke volumes, and in their own little way, they were performing a vital function which humble Church folk have performed for centuries. That is, in perhaps unconscious obedience to St. Paul’s dictum in 2 Tim. 1:14, they were guarding the deposit.

According to the Orthodox bishops who responded in 1848 to Pope Pius IX, the function of guarding the apostolic deposit of the Faith and preserving Orthodoxy devolves mainly upon the laity. In their letter they wrote, “The guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the laos itself.” And it seems that prominent among this vigilant laos are the women, especially the old ones.

This can be seen in a number of ways, and not just within Orthodoxy. Most people are familiar with the sight of the forbidding and formidable baba in the Russian church, scowling at impiety, shouting at those with seemingly impious behaviour, and generally acting as if they owned the place. North American sensibilities recoil a bit at the baba’s roughness, but in fact their roughness was often the last line of ecclesiastical defense during the dark days of Soviet oppression, and their indomitable spirit helped to save the church there. Such formidable women are not just found in the Russian church. In environments as different as the Afro-American churches of the United States one can find a similar cadre of women, large black grandmothers often sitting together and amply filling a pew. They look and act as the self-appointed guardians of church order, and woe betide anyone present who falls afoul of them. Like their Russian sisters, they fulfill a valuable function. In their own way, they are guarding the deposit.

My purpose in writing is not just to praise these old women, but to suggest that the function of watching over the apostolic deposit of faith and worship is not uniquely theirs. In the days of Soviet oppression, many people abandoned their posts in the church, leaving these women to do that work alone. (Perhaps this abandonment accounts for some of their scowling.) But their task, as the bishops writing in 1848 reminded us, is the task of all the laos, not just of old women. Whether the encroaching threat be Soviet Communism or western secularism, the task of us all is stand guard. That guard duty may include scholarly argumentation, earnest pleading, or calm denunciation of error and persuasive statement of truth. It may, if all else fails (as it clearly has in England) include silently leaving. But whatever circumstance Providence lays before us, our duty remains the same. The old women have given us an example. We must join them in guarding the deposit.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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