America voted an African-American to be president for the first time ever at the beginning of November. The world is feeling the shift. Men and women of all races and backgrounds, from all across the globe, will surely find new hope in their possibilities for the future. But a female priest? Are we ready for that?
Well at least she’s not Catholic. Over the last few years, assistant chaplain Caroline Gordon-Walker of Saint-Germain-de-Belvès in the Dordogne region of France has become a local female leader in the Anglican community. In a religious world where men continue to claim the majority of high-level positions, this assistant chaplain has broken the religious boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable for priests in France.
In the Anglican church, women are allowed to lead as well as to be married with a family, but in some circles, it is still rather unorthodox. Apart from some lingering apprehension, Caroline, who came to the Dordogne in 1992, says she has always felt accepted as a female priest by the French. “I’ve been very welcomed here,” she says, from her gorgeous stone house with stunning views onto the Dordogne countryside. “It’s been heart warming.”
There are about 125 Anglican chaplaincies in the Diocese of Europe, which is the 44th Diocese of the Church of England headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican chaplaincy of Aquitaine was first created in 1825 in Bordeaux and is home to the chaplain, the only paid member of the chaplaincy. When Caroline first arrived in the Dordogne, there were just four centers – now there are eleven. With the help of the incoming chaplain Paul Vrolijk (who will be based in Bergerac starting in January), Curate Gill Strachan, plus 10 clergy and readers, Caroline moves around the centers offering her services, usually hosted in unused or shared Catholic churches. “It’s very generous on the parts of the Catholics,” she adds.
The former London think-tank economist says she originally came to the Dordogne to retire. But soon, she started working as a lay assistant in Limeuil and eventually realized that she wanted to take her religious convictions further. Before she knew it, she was renting out her house to finish up religious courses at the Theological College in Durham, England and sharing an apartment with four others like a university student. “We’d all go out to the pub together,” she says. “It was lovely.”
Caroline was then ordained as a deacon in Bern, Switzerland and moved to Poitou-Charente to work as a curate for three years. In 2003, she was ordained as a priest by the Archbishop in Canterbury before returning to the Dordogne in 2005 to claim her current position as assistant chaplain.
Back home in the Dordogne, Caroline says that her primary mission is to provide services in English. “The whole idea is that people should be able to worship in their mother tongue,” says Caroline. “We’re doing something Pentecostal by allowing people to understand their religion.” Caroline says that most of her members are retired but that a new batch of younger people are joining the church. Most have a limited amount of French or find understanding French religious terminology difficult.
While most members are actually Anglican, many come from other branches of Christianity in order to participate in an English service. Regardless of the type of member, the numbers have grown enormously since she started – from 24 to 106 in the Limeuil centre, plus 323 total members in the department, 500 during Easter services and 1500 at Christmas.
“People come to us with different expectations,” Caroline says. “Different centers have slightly different flavors. The interesting mixture is working to meet the spiritual needs of the people here.”
If all are welcome at Caroline’s services, does this also include gay and lesbians, who have faced complications when entering into certain Christian circles? “I don’t think we understand enough about homosexuality. But there does seem to be a lot of research that shows that a genetic component is involved,” says Caroline, adding that in ancient Greece, it was considered strange if a man didn’t have a boyfriend along with his wife.
“There are many worse sins than sexual ones… Greed, cruelty, pride, violence, envy, prejudice and hatred are far more damaging sins, but are often not given as much prominence.” Still, she says, “As a leader, we wouldn’t necessarily think it was appropriate… just like it wouldn’t be if a married man left his wife, remarried and then reappeared to try to lead services.”
The Anglican community does more than meet for prayer and communion. You can join a ladies club or hiking group at the Dronne Valley Church, or take part in one of the fellowship groups at Dordogne Valley. If you need help with a marriage or funeral in English, the chaplaincy can work with you and your family. During Christmas, there will be plenty of services, plus markets, bazaars and fairs. A newsletter comes out of the Chaplaincy of Aquitaine every month to keep members up to date.
As Christmas approaches, Caroline beckons English speakers to visit her services no matter where they are in the Dordogne and hopes most of all that they will learn the lesson of acceptance. “My Christmas wish?” she thinks for a minute, “I’d like everyone to love their neighbors as themselves.”
Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine Worship centers:
For more information on upcoming services and special Christmas programs, contact http://www.chapaq.org.