DJ: What then will be the role within the Church for women? The Church has always been very creative at finding different ways in which people can serve the Lord. Many women, certainly younger women, feel that some of the older forms have either disappeared or declined or become more marginal. Do you feel that we are entering a time when perhaps there will be new forms in which women can serve?
VN: Just a bit of a historical perspective might be helpful. From the middle of the 18th century, there was a great flowering of apostolic women. The achievements of that have been quite astonishing, both in this country and abroad. Women pioneered the whole pattern of Catholic education. There's a book called Without the Flaminian Gate — the essay on women in that volume is a revelation about the good work women from this country do in China and across Africa. In Birmingham diocese, the educational system was built up by the Sisters of Selly Park. Birmingham priests were told to obey the Bishop, but never to cross the Sisters of Selly Park. That's power in the best sense of the word, creative initiative and taking responsibility for it. Bishop Ullathorne [1806-1889, the first Bishop of Birmingham] was very remarkable in his partnership with two sets of women: the Selly Park sisters and the Dominicans, even to the point that he chose to be buried in the Dominican church rather than the cathedral. He was laid alongside his great colleague Sister Margaret. There's a huge heart there that can really inspire.
In those days, if a woman wanted a top-class professional career a religious order was the only way. That's fallen right off. That leaves the ancient orders, they're mostly enclosed. They're the really tough challenge. They will find a real revival. People are ready for a challenge. Youngsters are less inhibited by the history of the last 60 years or so. All of those movements will find a refreshment. And then there will be new forms of apostolate. This morning, I had a meeting with those who serve as lay chaplains in secondary schools. The vast majority were women. Perhaps half the head teachers are also women. Catholic education remains a huge field of leadership for them, but so do some of these more "nurturing ministries". In Birmingham, there are groups of women working in an unobtrusive way with prostitutes. They have an enormous impact on some of the most vulnerable women, slowly rescuing them. Women will be the pioneers in all those frontiers of brokenness that are very clear in our society. Women will lead the way in those and I welcome that.
DJ: Can I move on to the question of the Church's relations with the state? This is an area where you've actually got quite a lot of experience, specifically over the question of Catholic schools. You famously took on Alan Johnson, the then Education Secretary, and secured concessions from the government, though not all of the ones you wanted. Do you see any particular threats on the horizon? I imagine things of particular prominence will involve matters of sex education, which will become compulsory for all students regardless of faith and which on the face of it would seem to take away a very important freedom, a freedom of conscience that parents and indeed the Church have had up to now. How is the Church going to preserve its distinct moral position as a witness to wider society when it's under such constant pressure?
VN: I think that our position in Catholic education is reasonable. I'm still grateful, slightly surprised, at the statement that the government in 2007 called "Faith in the System", in the teeth of public criticism of schools of a religious character (my preferred phrase, not "faith schools"). The government said in a very public way that it supported schools of a religious character-they are a crucial and lasting part of the educational system. They deliver well both academically and in terms of human and spiritual development and in terms of social cohesion. The government has not changed from that position at all. So our relationships there are satisfactory. Indeed, there is good co-operation for the most part on those issues. That's the context in which the review of sex education was undertaken. Some of its findings were accepted, we will see how the recommendations are enfleshed.
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