Christina Rees is a writer, broadcaster and member of the General Synod of the Church of England. She is a tireless activist for equality in the Church. Christina pops up as a talking head on many issues, primarily the current battle in the Church over the ordination of women Bishops. The reason for my interview was not to get the latest soundbite, but to scratch beneath the surface of one person who is influential in making changes in our society; to find out if they are human or not and to try and reveal the strands of experience that make them who they are as humans and what distinguishes them as agents of change.
Christina grew up on a boat, a wooden schooner, which her father had bought in 1946. Built at Block Island, off Long Island in the USA, The Tappan Zee measured 38 feet over all and was 14 feet wide. Christina, together with her father, mother and two siblings sailed the oceans and inland waterways more or less continuously from the age of 5 to 15, beginning their incredible journey in 1958. In the introduction to her first book, Sea Urchin, she writes:
We know how to relate to people if we see their cars or sip tea with them in their houses and speak to them about their jobs, but how do we relate to people who have discarded all points of reference, who have abandoned the set criteria used to determine exactly who they are and where they fit in society?
WW: As someone who has also lived aboard a boat for years, I connected with this immediately. It seems to throw people.
CR: It really does. And what my parents found out was that it was disturbing to a lot of their friends and also very threatening to them. You can sit around of an evening going, “wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the rat race and sail a boat around the world and bring up my children in a different way”, but it poses a question as to whether one would have the courage to do that. You become a stranger in a strange land. I got used to that feeling.
WW: Does it teach you some kind of resilience?
CR: Anyone who has been on a boat or has sailed for any length of time knows that conditions can change in an instant. It can go from being a nice, sunny, calm day to suddenly being in the middle of a white squall. And we had that a lot. There are times when, whether you like it or not, you have to knuckle down and endure things that you simply do not have to endure on a wet Tuesday at 20, Acacia Avenue. We sailed through five hurricanes. I remember holding onto the ropes with my father shouting at me to hold on because the alternative was to let the boat capsize. Sometimes, when we had all finished getting through one of those crisis times we would go down below and dab the rope burns on our hands or tend bruises or cuts. So there is a pain threshold that you experience in that kind of environment. There is also a fear threshold. We sailed through one violent tropical storm. I was down below and I had one hand on the engine and I was just reaching out to dive into my bunk, and lightning struck the mast. The electrical charge channelled down the mast into the engine and the hand that was reaching for the bunk had a strong beam of light from each of my fingers, like laser beams, and I thought, “Oh. I’ve just been struck by lightning”.
WW: It seems like a different reality to the one most people have, of fitted kitchens and watching TV. Have you totally acclimatised to the conventional one?
CR: I am always aware of several realities. I still never run a bath for myself without being absolutely amazed that I can do it, that I can actually have clean hot and cold water coming out of a tap. To me, that is ultimate luxury. I am very water conscious because we only had a small tank on the boat and we were taught from very young, I was five, when we started sailing, that you never waste water. Inside my head, even on rainy, grey days, I have the aqua blue of the Caribbean, the deeper, more teal blue of the Mediterranean and the fresh ocean spray of the Atlantic. I can smell it, I can feel it. I can revive myself with images of those years. It’s like tapping into a deep well.
|Tappan Zee, circa 1986|
WW: How do you get from these essentially elemental experiences, perhaps experiences that are certainly recorded by early Christians, to the kind of issues, such as equality in the Church, which can be seen by some as trivial and far away from the core teachings of the Church?
CR: It’s inevitable that you get involved in minutiae and detail in a place like the General Synod, but we have to remind ourselves of the real things, of the life and death issues, and this is what crises do. Life was real for people during the War. It mattered that you cared for your neighbours, it mattered that you remembered to put your black-out curtains up and it mattered that you shared what little you had. People lived in fear of the enemy and in so doing understood how to deal with that fear. This is why I think that programs like Outward Bound and other outdoor activities for children are so important. Because if children never rub up against harsh reality they are not going to be equipped to deal with the inevitable crises in life. I am not suggesting we go around making crises. There are enough of those without making them up, but they do something for the human spirit.
But to answer your question, I try to live my life with joined up thinking so that I am not saying one thing and then living a completely different life. I think it’s called integrity. And it’s also called alignment of body, mind and spirit, and so why I have been a champion for women to be able to be ordained, just as men are, is because it goes right back to my primary understanding of who we are as human beings. Of course there are shades and nuances, but we are sexed beings, and for one sex to say to the other, “you can’t do this” is a scandal. For my Christian faith, and what Jesus was all about, and what was part of his radical message, was that he was there to break down the barriers that people had built up.
WW: It sometimes looks like a political and cultural issue, but I saw a remark you made that it’s not pandering to the spirit of the age but it’s the Spirit in the age.
CR: And yes, that is what I would say; working for greater opportunities for women is not following the spirit of the age but the spirit in the age, and what I mean by that is the divine spirit that is telling me and thousands of others that this basic inequality of the sexes is wrong and has been for so many centuries. And it is time to put this right, and when you argue it intellectually you only get so far. It hits people in their heads, their hearts and in their guts. I have seen people speaking fine, supportive words but then coming out with anger and tears in a very primal way. Obviously, in their guts, they cannot accept this. So it’s a very important thing to try and work through the various strands of the argument, from the theology to where we are so they can join the dots for themselves.
There is a simple analogy, going back to life at sea in a storm. If you are out there and need an extra pair of hands, you do not care one bit whether these hands are attached to a woman or a man, all you need to know is they know what to do, they are willing to do it and they are able and strong enough to do it.
So, moving on to the issue that I am involved with, which is that of women in the Church of England being appointed as Bishops, it’s not that I want to replace a patriarchy with a matriarchy, what I want is to say, “Look. Let’s look at what is in this person. What is in their heart and mind and spirit. What is their gift?” We talk about “vocation”, and that sort of implies that there is some sort of divine gifting of this person, but suddenly, if the individual is a woman, “vocation” suddenly becomes redundant and nothing to do with God.
WW: You are not a quitter at this are you?
CR: There is something that goes back to my early formation on that boat, where quitting simply wasn’t an option. You just got through whatever it was; a shark attack, a lightning strike, a hurricane or a tornado – you got through it, even if you sometimes came out with battle scars.
WW: Let’s talk about the new book. It’s called Feast and Fast – Food for Lent and Easter, but it is not just about giving things up.
CR: I think we live our lives in seasons. There is a deep internal rhythm to life that we in the West override all the time. We override our desire to sleep, to hibernate – perhaps curl up under a duvet, maybe emerge for Christmas and then go back to bed until Valentine’s Day! We are dealing with our bodies. We are people of the Earth. We need water. We need food and some of it becomes who we are so it’s very important to get what we eat right. If you override too much of this stuff, you have people imploding and feeling very unwell. The book is my attempt to say that we are body, mind and spirit and it will take some thoughtfulness.
WW: Of late it has occurred to me that people are not very attuned to the elements, or themselves for that matter, and when we are deprived of the artificial support systems we have built, even for a few days, we become disoriented an even fearful.
CR: There are circumstances where the weather or some accident or crisis takes us completely by surprise and we become vulnerable. We shouldn’t go into a tailspin if our train is five minutes late. We should not feel anxious if we lose power for a few days. When things like that fail it reminds us how human we are, how human we are and how reliant we are on things like electricity. We ignore them when things go well, but in a crisis we become acutely aware of how vulnerable we are.
Sea Urchin, the story of Christina's odyssey aboard the Tappan Zee is currently out of print but is sometimes available on Amazon and eBay.