The Women of the Church of England and the Women of Inle Lake

Here is a question: what do the women of the Church of England and the women of Phanung Daw Oo Paya, a temple on Inle Lake in Burma, have in common? I admit it is an arcane comparison. Nevertheless, it struck me after having read an article in the April 26, 2010 issue of the New Yorker that talked about “The battle within the Church of England to allow women to be bishops.”

One branch of the Church, a conservative enclave called Forward in Faith, is digging in its heels on the question. In the report of resolutions voted on at its 2008 National Assembly the members “noted with thanksgiving the fact that the Bill to allow women to be ordained as Bishops in the Church in Wales failed to obtain the necessary majorities.”

The article makes it clear that this is a tough issue for the Church of England. The General Synod has appointed a committee charged with considering revision of church law to allow women to be bishops. A member of that committee, a Forward in Faith-er, is quoted as saying, “Can you imagine my pain if I have to kneel at the altar with a woman’s body under those robes?”

Well, frankly, I can’t. There is an old adage: clothes make the man. This individual would have it otherwise: women make the clothes.

In any case it was this plea on the part of the unknown committee member—I assume he was a he—that recalled the sign I saw in the Phaung Daw Oo Paya.

Inle Lake is famous for a yearly festival when four of its five Buddhas are placed on a boat covered in gold-leaf and paraded around for all the lake-dwellers to see.

Why only four of the five? The story goes that on the first circumnavigation of the lake all five Buddhas made the trip. But at one point one of them fell overboard. Naturally, everyone was frantic and spent a very long time trying to recover the lost Buddha. They gave up in despair and returned with the remaining four to the temple. There on the altar was the fifth Buddha waiting for them. Water weeds dangled from his shoulders like an old woman’s shawl.

When Nancy and I visited the Buddhas, all five were sitting in the center of the altar looking like frozen moments in the life of a golden lava lamp. For over a century worshippers have pressed tiny little Post-it Note size swatches of gold leaf onto the bodies of the Buddhas. They have been honored in this fashion for so long they have lost all semblance of their outer shells. They have become obese, literally gorged on gold.

Let me return to the question I started with: what do the women of the Church of England and the women of Phanung Daw Oo Paya have in common?

At the foot of the altar of the five Buddhas is a sign: LADIES ARE PROHIBITED. The lake women may not approach the altar. It seems to me that this is what the women of the Church of England and of Phanung Daw Oo Paya have in common. They may go so far but no farther.

When we entered the temple I refused to approach the altar to get a better look at the gold fattened Buddhas.

“You have my permission,” Nancy said. “Go ahead.”

I never did.