Editorial: Serious about change?

It's 120 years since women won the right to vote in New Zealand. For institutions like the Anglican and Catholic churches, however, events barely more than a century old can seem perilously fashionable as they consider women's place among the clergy.

Anglicans have just named the first woman bishop in the British Isles, Pat Storey becoming the Bishop of Meath and Kildare in Ireland. More will follow as the Scots and Welsh have also voted to allow women to become bishops, though traditionalist thinking has confounded such attempts in England as recently as last year.

New Zealand was the vanguard of that change in the Anglican church worldwide with the appointment of Bishop Penny Jamieson as Bishop of Dunedin in 1989; in June Helen-Ann Hartley, herself English, became this country's country's third woman bishop.

Anglicanism, in general, is still altogether nouveau compared with the ancient and so-often-immobile Catholic Church, which is undergoing some startling indications of rejuvenation under Pope Francis.

At this stage the changes might be called more symbolic and rhetorical than substantive, but that would be to underestimate the inertias that the South American pontiff is seeking to correct, and the forces he is himself bringing to bear.

This does not go as far as supporting women's ordination as priests. He's not doing that. But it was far from just an empty exercising of his authority when he went against liturgical law from the annual symbolic rite of re-enacting Jesus' washing the feet of his 12 apostles. Francis chose two girls; one an Italian Catholic and the other a Serbian Muslim. That was a provocative gesture signalling changes which seem likely to amount to a heightened role for women in the rites of the church.

This goes beyond ceremonial stuff. Francis has acknowledged, at least in general terms, that what he calls "deep questions" being posed by women in the church about their role must be addressed. As well, using a phrase likely to be repeated by in many a household in many another context, he said that "the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions".

None of this should be taken as an indication of impending changes that would amount to anything resembling what the secular world, nor even some other churches, would regard as true equality of the sexes. But something is surely happening here and it is worth keeping an eye on - if only on the basis that if the Catholic Church can change, there's not much that can't.

Francis has certainly been saying much that would encourage more liberal elements, most recently his warning that the church has locked itself up in "small things, in small-minded rules".

That wasn't a coded reference to the church's bans on gay marriage, abortion and contraception, which can dominate its teachings. The comments don't represent any fundamental backdown on those issues - and that, in itself, will remain a deal-breaker for more than a few of the church's critics.

But the Pope's words were a strikingly clear indication that Francis sees the church as imbalanced. Too condemnatory and insufficiently supportive. He likens its more rightful role to that of "a field hospital after a battle".

And it's certainly looking as though the big wide world still needs as many of those as it can get.

The Southland Times