|Original painting by Sarbani Bhattacharya|
At first I thought these were some kind of bad joke, the sort of thing someone had thought up just to catch you out, not anything that would actually ever happen in real life. They were all so difficult - whether ethical issues - abortion, divorce - or complex funeral, wedding or baptism scenarios; or just some random, knotty issue that someone had come to a priest with, hoping for a listening ear, perhaps a cup of tea, and a little bit of clarity in the terrible muddle of daily life.
Then I discovered they weren't made up at all. They were apparently all real scenarios about real people (with names changed, of course).
So we would sit there in College, in little groups, on our plastic chairs, on a sunny weekend when other people were going round B & Q or doing the ironing, and we would ponder something like this:
'Jean, a long standing member of the PCC, comes to you in some distress. Her daughter, Bernice, who is 22 and lives in a registered civil partnership with her partner, Susan, 24, has had a baby, Jacob, after an affair with a male friend. Bernice asks whether you will baptize him. In conversation with Bernice and Susan, they tell you that in fact Bernice had become pregnant by artificial insemination, but had not told her parents this. What would you do?'
And mostly we were thinking: 'What would I do? Well I think the most sensible option would be to go back to teaching/nursing/accountancy/housewifing/whatever it was I was doing before I completely abandoned all common sense and imagined I could be an Anglican priest and find any sort of a way through all these pastoral mess ups.
Sometimes the group would be divided about the right course of action, because, believe it or not, there are no easy answers. Sometimes we argued. In fact, I cannot imagine theological training without all the arguments. Sometimes, in the stress of the moment, we would inadvertently crack open the gender debate.
For example, a heated argument broke out on the back of this one:
'Vanessa, a professional woman in her mid-forties, is considering an abortion. She became pregnant despite taking full contraceptive precautions and having completed her family twenty years ago. Her older child has a genetic condition which has severely affected her physical and emotional health. Although there is a one in four chance that any subsequent child may develop the same condition, no screening test is available to predict this problem before birth. Vanessa feels very unwell and is already taking time off work due to severe morning sickness and says she has no compunction about seeking an abortion. Her husband, who has always been critical of abortion on demand, has more scruples. They are both Christians.'
We were asked to consider the stakeholders. I weighed in and suggested husband and wife might well be feeling differently, and that it was Vanessa, for whom most was at stake, because it was she that would carry the baby and give birth to it. In other words, the mother feels differently from the father. Fathers in the group were outraged. They felt that the husband would stand to lose just as much if the baby was not carried to term. Why stress the mother's anguish over the father's? It was plain wrong, and sexist. They imagined how they themselves would feel. I imagined how I would feel. I thought about the three children I'd given birth to and the one we lost. Feelings ran high.
There are ways and ways of arguing. I hope I learnt that in discussions about difficult issues, everyone's viewpoint is coloured by his or her own experiences. Men feel as strongly as women. There is no such thing as 'the view from nowhere'. But it raised an interesting question which I've never resolved. Do mothers feel differently about children to fathers? Is it right to identify some quality of being towards children particular to mothers, just because they carry and give birth to them?
Whilst not wishing either to elevate or denigrate anyone's role in raising children, I'm always struck by Mary the mother of Jesus, and how it was said by Simeon of her, 'sorrow, like a sword, will pierce your own soul', in prophetic reference to the destiny of her son the Messiah, and to all that she would suffer herself over him.
And as the beginning of what I believe is commonly known as 'empty nest syndrome' looms its ugly head, I admit I have always imagined that the one left inside the nest, deeply grieving for what is passing, is the mother bird.