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Are You There God? It’s Me, Ellen: Compelling case for young critical progressives to make Catholicism a broad church

From hilarious episodes from Ellen Coyne’s childhood to devastating interviews with abuse survivors, the emotional balance of this debut book is so well-judged

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Feminism and faith: Ellen Coyne

Feminism and faith: Ellen Coyne

Feminism and faith: Ellen Coyne

It’s always a little awkward, writing a book review when the author is a staff writer for the newspaper it’s running in. No matter what, the review is always received with some suspicion. So it feels important to cite my credentials: first, I’m a freelancer. Second, I have met her only once, and in passing. Third, I have been a huge fan of her journalism for years and so, while my outlook is biased, my expectations are high. Coyne’s clear and sensitive reportage on Ireland’s most controversial subjects — the National Maternity Hospital, the many abuse scandals committed by the church, the Eighth Amendment — has made her a household name, and all before the age of 30. In a world where journalism feels reduced to a series of ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ statements, her dogged pursuit of the facts is almost pleasingly old-fashioned, and important work besides.

With Are You There God? It’s Me, Ellen, Coyne riffs on a familiar Judy Blume title and gives us an utterly unfamiliar take. She begins the book with her First Confession: in the weeks before the abortion referendum, she blurted out to two friends: “I think I might be a Catholic.” This uncertainty is the central tension of the book. On the one hand, Coyne is a journalist who left the church many years ago, and associates it primarily with abuse, scandal, conservatism and cover-ups. On the other, she simply likes God. Her rural upbringing in Waterford is infused with jolly spiritualism, where ghosts and spirits exist cosily alongside altar service and weekly Mass. She loves the magic and the ritual of the Catholic faith. She likes and believes in prayer.

“Being a young woman covering reproductive rights makes people instinctively see you as some sort of unreliable narrator,” she writes, as she recounts the years of sexism and abuse she has faced over her commitment to a pro-choice Ireland. But her feminism and her faith, she writes, is more complex than that. Like many pro-lifers, Coyne has “always believed that life begins at conception”. She is careful to say that, while many women she respects believe in the “bundle of cells” angle, and that abortion is neither a hard choice nor a traumatic one, she does not. “The reasons I had for voting Yes were Catholic ones,” she writes.

“‘This isn’t a Catholic country any more,’ they said. Oh, but I thought, it is. This is the most Catholic thing we’ve done in ages… The country voting in favour of an approach that was more compassionate and understanding felt to me like a country that was very much in line with Catholic values, and that was starting to feel important to me.”

Disturbed by her own defensiveness of the church, Coyne begins a meticulous, two-year journey in finding out exactly where she stands. She interviews a bevy of extremely charismatic priests, as well as a lesbian Church of Ireland minister. These are some of the book’s strongest and most emotional scenes, where she reveals that many priests are leaving the church because of their frustration at how inherently corrupt it is. But it’s this fundamental unfairness, a Fr McDonald argues, that should bring Coyne back to the church. He tells her that the church’s future depends on young, critical, compassionate parishioners like her grow — and, ultimately, to survive. “Don’t let the bastards write you out,” he urges.

It’s a rich, exciting, optimistic argument that Coyne comes back to again and again: that, when we flee the church because we don’t like how it’s being run, we allow others to “literally keep the faith”. We also get an insight into what happens when so many leave the church — namely, that the gulf of parishioners is closed by people who are attracted to Catholicism for the wrong reasons. Conservatism within the church, Coyne discovers, is on the rise. For the sake of balance, the book would benefit from having these voices in its pages. Sadly, almost nobody who represents this ideology agrees to be interviewed.

The emotional balance of this book is so well-judged that it’s hard to believe it really is Coyne’s first book. She goes from hilarious episodes from her childhood to devastating interviews with abuse survivors, and none of it feels jarring or insensitive. It has a masterful pace and rhythm. Unlike many journalists who venture into non-fiction, she never gets bogged down by her research or overwrought in her arguments. The writing is clear, unadorned and easy to understand. And all the better for it: this is a book that deserves to not just be read, but to be a galvanising force. My hope is that it will start a revolution.

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Are You 
There God? 
It’s Me, Ellen by Ellen Coyne

Gill, 272 pages; paperback €16.99; e-book £7.99


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