A counter cultural life

Lynn Jolly

Lynn Jolly interviews Sister Isabel Smyth, who reflects on the contribution of women religious to the life of the church and society.

How would you characterise the contribution of women’s apostolic religious life to the life of the church and of wider society?

I see a big contribution having been made by women religious to what we now think of as social services. Things like care of the elderly and disabled, education, health care, all kinds of social and community support for people. Much of this was initiated and delivered by women religious historically. It’s telling that the wider society has taken on these services while the institution of the Catholic Church has allowed them to become more marginalised. There are still orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor running care homes, of course. And there is the Notre Dame Child Guidance Clinic which is a great example of a social service begun by sisters and now taken on by society. So I suppose you can see that as a very significant contribution made by religious sisters to both church and society.

Nowadays religious sisters are more likely to be engaged in things like Justice and Peace, ecumenism, counselling and more informal aspects of education. Personally I’ve relished the opportunity I’ve had to work for many years in inter-faith relations. I think these are the modern examples of the same kind of thing. As we are ageing and diminishing the contribution naturally becomes more limited but not necessarily less significant. The impact is different.

I also think religious women have contributed hugely to the thinking of the church. It’s a generalisation but I think we tend to be more free and radical thinkers, less confined by established thought, more willing to push boundaries and explore. Our relationship with the institution of the church is therefore liminal and I think on the whole that is a creative thing. For example I have joined the board of an organisation called Faith in Older People which kind of brings together all of these things – a service to a particular group in society along with a quite radical way of thinking about ageing: that it doesn’t have to be all about winding down, it can actually be a time when you open up. In that sense I still see my own and our collective contribution being a prophetic thing and the power of the vowed life for me is that it removes any sense of personal ambition. We are all about the common good and, as Ignatius said, we’re called to give and ‘not to count the cost’, so should remain a very counter cultural life.

How do you think being a life-long religious has shaped your own identity as a woman?

I would say overall religious life has enabled me to become more human so my identity as a woman is contained within that humanity. The key things for me have been what religious life has offered me in the way of prayer, self-development, growth, reflection. Also the opportunities I’ve had to take responsibility and make a contribution to improving life for other people and improving the world, or my part of it. It’s difficult to say what may and may not have happened anyway of course. Some people will say that aspects of womanhood are closed off to religious women through the vow of celibacy, marriage and children obviously. For me though there have been other ways of learning how to nurture and understand and live out those feelings and experiences. For example, when my sister died some years ago I definitely experienced a sense of nurturing her into her death. It’s not an easy thing to explain but I think it was a kind of bearing of her and of my own bereavement to a point of release perhaps. Very much a nurturing experience. And there are all the other relationships and life in community which is a part of religious life, sharing a vision and a mission, that are also other ways of growing and developing into womanhood.

Libby Lane was ordained recently as the first woman bishop in the Church of England. What do you see women and the church gaining, and if anything, losing, through women’s ordination?

I see the church gaining a lot and losing nothing. Personally, I’ve never had any desire to be ordained but the voice of women has to be reflected as it is in society. As Rosemary Radford Reuther says, a theology that only identifies maleness with Jesus makes no sense. We may as well say everyone ordained has to be Jewish! One downside for women I suppose is the risk of becoming institutionalised and of succumbing to the pressure to conform to what the institution wants. Women need to be represented everywhere but I also think the feminist idea that women will make a difference just by being women isn’t necessarily true. But that’s not an argument for them not being there!

In your recent article for Open House on the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris you mentioned that the Jewish people killed in the supermarket had almost been overlooked. Do you think anti-semitism is a particular kind of racism?

Yes, in a way. It should be a source of interest and some satisfaction to us that Scotland is the only country in Europe never to have had anti-semitic legislation. Jewish people are mentioned in the Declaration of Arbroath. In the 16th century there is evidence of Jews coming to Scotland because Scottish Universities did not require a Christian oath prior to graduation.

I work a lot with all kinds of faith communities and in some respects there is a sense that anti-semitism has been around for a very long time, it seems sometimes that we have higher expectations of that community than of others and are therefore harder on them and of course things get very tied up with Israel and how people feel about the Middle East. It’s very, very complex and sensitive but I do think anti-semitism is very easily awakened. Not that it’s worse than any other kind of racism but there often seems to be readiness for it.

In your inter-faith experience where do you see the contributions women make? For example Islam is often criticised for the place women have but that’s very simplistic isn’t it?

I think so. It was a woman who started inter-faith work in Scotland, a Church of Scotland deaconess called Stella Reekie, and I think women can often transcend religious divisions. In other words it can often be womanhood that is the common thread and the unifying experience. A big difference among the Abrahamic religions is that women are visible at church, in fact the most visible! Whereas they are not in the synagogue or Mosque. But you are right, it’s all more complex than that would imply. The Glasgow West End Women of Faith group for example was started by Moslem women. Women in the Islamic tradition can keep their dowry, they can divorce their husbands. Like all religions Islam has grown up in particular cultures and under patriarchy so it is shaped by all those external factors. But that’s no different from Christianity. It’s not so long ago that a western Christian woman couldn’t have her own passport – she was a name on her husband’s. Violence against women is, sadly, a feature of all traditions. It’s very important not to over simplify and to see that what a religion teaches is usually very different from its visible, cultural form.

One of my favourite stories is about a Moslem woman in the US. She was wearing the hijab and was spotted by a child who asked her mother why the woman was wearing a veil like that. The mother told her child that that was a woman who loved God and that was how she showed her love. ‘I show mine in other ways’, said the mother, ‘and that is her way.’ On another day the child and her mother passed another woman wearing the hijab and the child pointed and called out, ‘Look! There’s a woman who loves God!’ I think that’s a wonderful inversion of the usual prejudices and misunderstandings. Of course these things need to be free choices but when they are, and they are perhaps more than we know, then they represent something quite profound.

Of course the issue for religion often is that it just doesn’t do a great job of representing or presenting itself. None of it. The bit we all share is our experience of God and that’s the bit that’s very difficult to put words on. In fact words just do harm. We’re maybe at our best when we say little or nothing. That’s the mystery at the heart of all religious traditions and I suppose of humanity.

Isabel Smyth is a Sister of Notre Dame and an Honorary Fellow of Interfaith Scotland. She serves as Secretary of the Council of Christians and Jews and the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue.




Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.