Teresa of Avila and the role of women teachers in the church

Rowan Williams wrote his book before the Church of England had determined that God was calling women to be Bishops in the church. This is the background for his reflection here at the end of his book on Teresa, one of only two women who have the title Doctores Ecclesiae, Doctors of the Church, in the Roman Catholic tradition.

“Christ gives spiritual understanding where he wills (S 1.2), even where this understanding is not the kind bound up with the (male) vocation of teaching and preaching; and even so, one of the trials of the sixth mansions for a woman is the longing to communicate what is understood. ‘She has great envy of those who have the freedom to cry out and spread the news abroad about who this great God of hosts is’ (C VI, 6.3). Thus the egalitarian action of God honouring the friends of God stands in tension with facts in Church and society that Teresa believed to be simply given. God’s practice is to be witnessed to, therefore, in the construction of a community that both is and is not part of the Church’s structure: it is obedient to the discipline of the Church, but because its members are in any case outside the power system of the Church, as women, they have the rather paradoxical freedom to display the priorities of the gospel in a simpler way.

Teresa is thus an eloquent witness to essential elements of internal conflict in Christian tradition. She does not want to overthrow the continuity of the Catholic Church, to reinvent it or recover a more authentic pattern for it as a whole; she has no conception of what the Reformation is about. But she is nonetheless conscious of the gospel narrative – and the narrative of God’s whole ‘mission’ in creation, of which this is a part – as providing some critical perspectives on the Church’s contemporary reality. On the place of women in the twentieth-century Church, Teresa has no conclusions to offer. We live in a situation in which far less is taken for granted about women, and in which a radicalized religious life is no longer the only obvious way of witnessing to the freedom of the gospel in the Church.  But, by expressing in her struggles for a particular kind of community her own sense of the questions put by the practice of Jesus to the assumptions of Church and society, she keeps those questions vividly present to later generations – more vividly than if she had raised the issue of ‘the status of women’ in a coherent theoretical way.”

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