From 1662 for 400 years Anglican congregations were publicly addressed as ‘Dearly beloved brethren…’ For the first 300 years I doubt if one lady worshipper (‘sister’?) felt in the least slighted. Oh, the ignorance of those dark days!
I say for 300 years because I suppose Mary Anne Evans or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or some such advanced lady in the congregation would in the nineteenth century have found the phrase uneasy. It took until 1928 for the Prayer Book revisers to hit on the non-controversial address ‘Beloved…’ However, Parliament seemed to feel the innovation was a bit much, and voted the new Prayer Book down.
In our own time the very offices which enshrined the phrase are fading from view, and officiants, who may be of either sex, prefer to advance on their flocks with toothy smiles and say: ‘Welcome to our Mothering Sunday service.’ We all do it; and only very advanced (or retarded) gentlemen feel the sexist nature of that day demands some egalitarian reference to the other sex.
I joke, tastelessly perhaps; but I do seriously wonder whether political bias has persuaded us to forget how interested in the theology of women the Church was, after poor St Joseph virtually disappeared from the gospels. It is no use my developing that theme and dealing with the cult of Mary, and the talk of Mother Church, and the work of the ladies to whom the supposedly disgraceful St Paul paid tribute, because everybody seems convinced that ladies of ancient times, rather than being a vital and respected part of society, were mere dumb ciphers whose views were less regarded than those of Lurkio the slave.
Ruth, Jezebel, Calpurnia, Portia, Julia and the priestesses of various pagan cults might not have agreed – and they, unlike Mary Magdalene, Eunice, Priscilla, Felicitas, Perpetua and others, were outside the Christian Church, where St Paul’s view was clear and typical: ‘though woman cannot do without man, neither can man do without woman, in the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11.11].
That sort of fairness is lovely, but crude egalitarianism must be the dreariest and most destructive creed ever devised.