It is a pleasure to take pat in the BlogTour for The Girl’s Book of Priesthood by Louise Rowland. This book has a title, which may steer readers away from what is an entertaining, realistic and honest approach to what is simply a woman doing a job, which is ‘owned’ by men. Leaving aside faith and religion for a minute, this could apply to any career considered to be a purely man’s domain.
About the Author
Louise Rowland grew up in Bournemouth and studied English at Cambridge. She went on to work as a speechwriter, journalist and copywriter – including 11 years in Munich, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam. She has a Masters in Novel Writing from City University, where she won the course prize. She lives in London with her husband and has two grown-up daughters. The Girls’Book of Priesthood is her first novel.
About the book
Meticulously researched, The Girls’ Book of Priesthood is being published to coincide with the anniversary of women’s ordination in March.
‘I mean, you know, someone says “woman priest” and you think the whole grey-hair-bobbly cardigan-house-full-of-cats thing, right?’
Margot Goodwin is a young curate struggling to survive her trial year in the parish, when everything and everyone seems hell-bent on stopping her. Success would mean becoming a fully-fledged priest, something she feels profoundly called to do. Failure would not only prove her father right, but would also delight all the antis who consider women priests at best a joke, at worst, an abomination. But from the very start, Margot faces a multitude of challenges, both personal and professional, from the hostile teenage daughter of her host family, to the married parishioner she is hopelessly drawn to. Can she convince everyone – herself included – that she’s more than a lipstick-wearing, part-timer with a PhD, and realise her long-held dream of becoming a priest.
Louise Rowland on writing The Girls’ Book of Priesthood
What inspired you to write the book? I started writing the book as part of the Novel Writing Master’s at City University. Initially, I was very keen to do something around the idea of the cuckoo in the nest’: a stranger renting a room with a dysfunctional family and the tensions that would create.
The ‘stranger’ then became a male curate (a character loosely inspired by a young trainee priest friend). That in turn opened up a whole raft of new questions. What kind of person would choose to be a priest? Where would his personal boundaries lie, living cheek by jowl with a messy family set-up? How would he be treated by the teenagers in the house –, by everyone he met in the ‘real world’?Could he ever check out and simply be himself? But it was when I decided to make the central character female that the whole book really came to life. If the role of priest is a tough call for men, try doing it if you’re young and female and likely to encounter a whole extra layer of prejudice and stereotypes (and that’s just from your colleagues).
I wanted to explore who exactly this young woman was; what motivated her; why she didn’t just go off and live a ‘normal’ life; what kind of sacrifices she’d have to make. Would she be able have a relationship without feverish prying eyes?
What research was involved in it? I was lucky enough to be able to interview around twenty female priests around the country: some of them right at the start of their journey at theological college; some knee deep in training on the job in parishes; and one or two who had been amongst the small initial batch in the mid 90s – including a woman who had marched down Whitehall, banner aloft, like a clerical suffragette.
Did you uncover anything surprising when talking to these women? All the time. How diverse they were as people and how far they confounded the lazy stereotypes: women priests as earnest, frumpy, make-up and men-free zones – well-meaning but completely out of step with the modern world. The women I spoke to shared a razor-sharp intelligence – and most revelled in a robust gallows humour, underpinned by a very clear-eyed appreciation of just what they were letting themselves in for. And several of them were exceptionally glamorous – even in a dog collar!
This is not a ‘Christian book’ – but does it stem from some form of personal experience of the Church or religious faith? I didn’t set out to write a ‘Christian book’ in any sense. What gripped me as a writer was the potential internal conflict of a young woman who desperately wants to fulfil her profound sense of calling – but who also craves the things that most other mid-20s millennials want. A loving relationship, a sense of personal freedom, control of her own identity … fun.
My family and I are part of the congregation at a socially liberal Anglo-Catholic (ie choir, robes, female and gay priests) church in central London. As one of the current church wardens, I help out on a voluntary basis on the administrative side.St Mark’s is an entirely fictional creation – but its depiction undoubtedly draws on insider knowledge of how that whole world works, its rhythms and challenges and some of the personalities that tend to inhabit it.
Faith itself is a very private matter for me – and always been subject to constant questioning, as I think it is for many people. One of the women I interviewed talked about her branch of the Church of England as being very comfortable with ‘not knowing all the answers or having all the certainties’. I’d put myself firmly in that middle of the road camp –sometimes hesitant but still hanging-in-there. I once read an interview with David Cameron where he compared his religious belief to the radio signal in the Chilterns: it comes and goes, at times falteringly weak, at others, clearly defined. To me, that’s the perfect analogy!
(Q&A provided by Muswell Press and Louise Rowland)
Although it may be a blasé and sweeping stereotypical statement – the role of women as the listener, the advice-giver and the problem-solver, is one that has always been attributed to our gender. Perhaps unwillingly when it comes to the same traits in leadership roles, and it is most certainly met with distrust in the role of leadership as it relates to religion and faith.
Revered in the role as the nun, the subservient celibate mistress of the faith and married to God, but regarded as too emotional, not level-headed enough and well let’s just say way too female to lead a flock to their salvation. Always in the supporting role and never in role of the hand of God.
At times I felt this was more about the way society perceives women in general, than just the adjustment and acknowledgement of women in priesthood.
Adding to that particular sentiment is the attitude of her friend Clarissa, who seems to be trying to squeeze Margot into the role society expects her to inhabit, instead of supporting her attempt to win over the patriarchal religious institution and the attitude of both the members of her church, her family and the leaders of said institution.
What resonated with me was the notion that the flock believes the priest belongs to them in some way. A special in-the-flesh messenger straight to God, which automatically means they can infringe on privacy and try to dictate attitudes, clothes and behaviour. Perhaps more so when the vicar/priest is a woman. They forget the person is doing a job and because faith is all encompassing and a 24/7 job, it leaves no room for self-thought or even just the occasional stint as a free person.
I think perhaps the expectation of this book is one of a preachy heavy-handed attempt to look at our existent or non-existent relationships with faith, and the difficulty society has in accepting women as leaders of faith and religion. The latter is true, but Rowland is clear on the notion that this isn’t in any way supposed to be a book about Christians or Christianity, and it isn’t.
It is a story of a woman trying to combine her career choice, and the opposition she faces in a job made-up by men, ruled by men and where the rules are set in stone by men. At the same time she is a normal woman, who wants to have a relationship within the confines of those strict rules, and is trying to navigate the difficult stormy waters of her own emotions and the expectations of her family.
In a way it reads like a sleuth come rom-com with a hefty portion emotional turmoil and political side-stepping thrown in for free, and let’s not forget the sanctimonious attitude of the church towards enlightenment and progression. Just as DNA changes and evolves to withstand and survive environmental changes, so must society and the people within it.
This book has a title, which may steer readers away from what is an entertaining, realistic and honest approach to what is simply a woman doing a job, which is ‘owned’ by men. Leaving aside faith and religion for a minute, this could apply to any career considered to be a purely man’s domain.
Rowland surprised me with this subtle and realistic portrayal of Margot. It has the charm of Father Brown combined with a contemporary voice. It is also a reminder of humanity, of simplicity and of kindness, and yet it is also a wake-up call to chisel away at the archaic systems still at the helm of our ships. It’s time for diversity and equality to infiltrate the crumblings walls of years of patriarchal oppression and automated obedience.