The day the church remembers St Hilda seemed a fitting day to take over the position of Chair of WATCH. Back in the late 1980’s when I was at Theological college in Durham I first became acquainted with Hilda. I had struggled to understand why having felt called to offer my life to the church I met with such resistance. ‘Why’ friends asked me, ‘don’t you just become a Vicar’s wife?’ Others suggested I should become a missionary because it seems preaching in lands far away was preferable to me preaching here in the Church of England. My sense of calling was dismissed as a kind of modern day women’s lib, challenging the tradition of the church and the words of scripture.
So when I arrived at Theological college having wrestled with the scriptures and found in them such women as Phoebe the deaconess and Deborah the judge, it was a great joy to discover women from church history. Hilda, Abbess of a double monastery; men as well as women was a valued leader in the church. And she was not the only one. I learnt of other Abbesses and inspirational Christian women in this land, such as Ebba, Ethelburga and Julian of Norwich. As well as those in other places Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Sienna, Theresa of Avila to name just a few. For me this helped to ground my sense of calling in the history of the church, I had foremothers. They may have been fewer than the men, they may have been less well remembered, but they were there to inspire and encourage me.
My involvement at college and afterwards with MOW helped me not only to learn more about inspirational women from the past but to rejoice in the creative energy of women in the present. These women were asking the same questions I was asking and often suggesting radical and exciting answers. What does it mean to be a woman made in the image of God? How do I find language in which to pray that recognises who I am and who God might be? How can I offer the gifts God has given me for the building up of the church and the furthering of the kingdom? Why does what I offer meet with so much suspicion, fear and mistrust?
It is more than 25 years since I left college. In that time I have been part of the changing life of the Church of England. As a woman priest I have seen much of the fear expelled, as the reality of the vast diversity of female priests added their gifts into the mix. Yet, the suspicion mistrust and discrimination remains sometimes in blatant statements, sometimes in subtle undermining. We know that there is still a long way to go before we lose the ambiguity around women’s ministry. So it is good to be part of WATCH and exciting to take up the position of Chair at this time.
On Saturday Susan Durber reminded us that there is a radical message about gender at the heart of our faith. Firstly, men and women are made in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27)Secondly, in Christ binary human power divisions are broken down and there is no longer ‘male and female’. (Gal 3:28) She challenged us to think about how radical these statements are and what the church might witness to, if we really believed that the power divisions between men and women could be eradicated.
She also reminded us that across the world poverty has a female face. The human perpetuation of female subordination is worked out in the lives of many, many women who do not have freedom of opportunity, control of their resources or even of their own bodies. We talk now about gender justice rather than gender equality, because this is not about equalising roles but genuinely recognising the costs of viewing women as inferior to men, however fancy the language is that is used to do so.
So I hope that all of you reading this will continue to be part of WATCH. Unlike my predecessors I do not have to change the law to enable women to be admitted to all orders of the Church’s orders. Thank goodness that particular campaign is over. I am delighted to have had such gifted recent foremothers in this role; thank you Christina, Rachel and Hilary. Yet, there is so much in the culture of the church and the wider world that needs to be challenged in constructive and creative ways. We need to tell our stories so that young women will be inspired by our faith and the faith of our foremothers. We need to sustain and support each other as faithful women who are still asking the questions I was asking back in theological college. We need to work with the structures and at times against the structures, to proclaim the radical truth held in scripture that women are made in the image of God, redeemed by Christ and filled with the Spirit. These truths should change the way we think and talk about God, about the church and about the needs of the world God loves.