September 23rd, 2015
Sermon preached by the Revd Kate Rumens at the
Thanksgiving Service for Joyce Bennett
23 September 2015
Proverbs 8: 1 – 3; 22 – 31, John 20: 11 – 18
It is an honour to stand here and speak today, thank you for the invitation. I have worshiped in St Martin’s from time to time over the years – usually at special services marking the ministry of ordained women. One dark, cold afternoon in January I stood with many others outside on the steps singing the Magnificat. We had been to a service at Westminster Abbey. It was 1984 and the 40th anniversary of the ordination of Li Tim Oi. I had arrived with friends a bit late for the service; all the seats were taken so we sat on the floor for the sermon. Thus it was that I heard Joyce preach. She reminded us that we were rejoicing in a simple life of dedicated service in an Abbey building where men’s pride in political, military and poetical achievements had been proclaimed over the centuries. It was stirring stuff and those of us who were searching for a way of being in the Church of England needed to hear the voice of ordained women who had been given their priestly authority. As Joyce had. That day Joyce asked for a new approach – for the Church of England to break from the bands of tradition and use the gifts and qualities of women in the name of our common humanity. I thank Joyce for her part in making me understand my vocation. That it’s not always up to others to step forward. That God calls us to realise our potential in spite of many doctrines of unripe time.
After the service we walked here and were welcomed with steaming bowls of Chinese food – I was so grateful for your hospitality that winter day – and then we sang. Yes tradition could and would break its bands. The voice of authority was ringing in our ears.
Listen to her: “Does not wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice? Beside the gates in front of the town she cries out.” She is not new on the scene nor does she suffer from shyness. “She was created at the beginning of God’s work - and she was beside him, like a master worker daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always – rejoicing in the world and delighting in the human race.” And she is having a whale of a time. Dancing, shouting, delighting, energising. Such is she. Such is wisdom.
Yet this is not what we teach our children. Open a book and you will find that wisdom is a male owl who lives in a tree and is approached with some trepidation by the animals of the forest. You probably have to ring for an appointment and watch out, because wisdom may have woken up in bad temper. Or wisdom is a spectacled badger, again male, sitting underground in a silk dressing gown – to be consulted with deference by the intellectually less gifted.
Proverbs teaches us differently - that we do not have to go in search of wisdom. She is here among us and has always been so. Wisdom: the art of living skilfully in whatever conditions we find ourselves. Wherever we are living. Wisdom showed by Bishop Gilbert Baker when he ordained Joyce Bennett and Jane Hwang in 1971. It must have taken an amount of courage and prayer because the Anglican Consultative Council had hardly danced with proverbial wisdom earlier that year when considering the matter of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Instead, with the solemnity of the badger in his silk dressing gown it had “declared it ‘acceptable’ for a bishop to ordain a woman if the national church or province approved.” “It is acceptable, it is approved.” That is not a message of unalloyed delight that lends itself to being shouted from the roof tops.
And then the wisdom and forbearance shown by Joyce when she returned to Britain in 1983 and had to bring in a male priest to preside for the Chinese Congregation.
As Christians we understand a wise person as someone God comes through; someone who enhances the world for others, who generates joy – not by a great effort at cheering people up (God forbid) but just by being themselves. Christina Rees in her tribute to Joyce said, “Because she was such a lovely, measured, and inspirational person, she didn’t just make women’s ordination look like a good thing. She made it look normal, which was the best thing she could have done for the Church.”
Those who have got the knack of wisdom: those who are constantly and courageously standing in a place where the light comes through. Wisdom as she was from the beginning. She who is God’s co-worker.
So tell the good news as it is. W come to that new beginning in the resurrection garden. God the gardener tells the woman who loved him “go to my brothers and say to them… Mary Magdalene went an announced to the disciples I have seen the Lord and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
She is still raising her voice; again she is called to speak out – from being at the entrance of the portals now to the whole world. Go tell.
Painters love the earlier part of this resurrection exchange (John 20: 17): “Do not hold on to me.” Titian puts Mary in voluminous white and red robes kneeling and leaning in towards the risen Christ out there in the landscape. With the sheer weight of her garments it will take time and great skill for her to lumber to her feet. There is no urgency here. We trust that Sutherland’s Mary dressed for the twentieth century and reaching out towards the gardener on the stairs could rise from her knees and spring into action more speedily. As so often, these are sideways Marys – she is in profile. We can’t really hear her when she is turned away from us like this.
Raphael paints Mary Magdalene standing opposite St Paul in his Saint Cecilia altarpiece. (A work commissioned by a woman.) She is a figure of authority there on the right in the foreground, her face turned out towards us, the viewer, turned towards the world she is instructed to speak to. This woman does look capable of running and shouting the Gospel to a reluctant and needy world.
May the God who dances in creation, who embraces us with human love, who shakes our lives like thunder, bless us and drive us out to fill the world with her justice. Amen