On the Feast of St Mary Magdalene on 22 July 2014 at St James’s Church Piccadilly London, the Revd Lucy Winkett gave an address. The text is below.
as the river meets the sea…
A friend of mine was telling me that she was on a train last Monday following the proceedings of General Synod on Twitter. Much was being said in all directions and so she was happily reading at pace the content of the debate. This is someone who has been part of the campaign for the ordination of women for over 40 years and so her interest, you could say, was high.
Just before the vote, as those of you who were there will testify, a time of silence was asked for. Silence to think, to pray, to absorb all that had been said.
My friend on the train, suddenly was cut off from the conversation she had been following as the tweets stopped. She was transported back from her virtual participation in the debate to looking out of the window in the real train in real life. And after 40 years, she suddenly found herself thinking, “what do I really feel about this?” “something may be ending” “what is the future now”. “I think, I hope, maybe, do I? that everything is about to change”.
Those two minutes, the silence before the decision, for some of us, the moment before the miracle, is reminiscent of the spirit of the readings for today for Mary Magdalene. Where great drama is unfolded in strikingly undramatic style.
Because the voting last week was just the latest in a long line of votes at evening PCC discussions, at deanery synods and chapters, Diocesan synod meetings, talking over endless coffee breaks about whether votes would pass or not.
The debate has been being had for years: and from MOW and WATCH, a huge torrent of words and paper, drafting of statements, letters, redrafting, making judgement calls on tone, on clarity, conversations on standing outside for hours in November, whether the banner looks OK, what song to sing, how we didn’t like being called feisty or strident. How we hoped both for peace and respect in the oppositional debates we took part in but also hoped too that we were indeed, as many who didn’t want us ordained suspected, the thin end of a very large wedge. The days in the basement of the Deanery at Amen Court in the generation before email; organising mailings, letter writing, stamp licking, the writing of prayers, the bravery of the St Hilda Community, the hilarity of the magazine Spare Rib, the flavouring of points of order and grave speeches with the production of ironic tea towels, the use of satire and irony and cartoons and fun. The relationships between women variously belonging to acronyms such as GRAS and MOW, MOW and WATCH, WATCH and AWESOME, and now the optimistically named Transformations Group.
It is as if this mighty river of prayers, and words, and liturgies and papers and letters, which has flowed beneath and around us, a river that has sometimes threatened to drown us, whose current we have tried to ride and sometimes tried to control but which has been flowing irresistibly on; it is as if we who have been riding this tide have finally, finally, can’t quite believe it, finally reached…………. the sea.
The future is before us: vast and precious, oceanic and unpredictable. Our energy and hoping, our drive and imagining of this future has carried us to the ocean and now we know, deeply, that things don’t have to be as they are.
It’s always struck me in John’s gospel that the moment of resurrection happens off stage, not recorded explicitly. It is a tender gospel: an intimate conversation in a garden is the revelation to Mary that something absolutely new is announced. Jesus has gone, and she is not yet able to take hold of him. A heady mix of fear, exhilaration, trepidation and relief.
We are well used to the paradox in the church that what feels like joy and relief to one feels like anxiety and even disaster to another. This happens on many different subjects in many ways and has been happening since Paul sailed away from Barnabas in the Book of Acts. The important things are how we pray for one another, recognising the paradoxes for what they are, never being afraid to say, and attempt to live what we believe to be right, and learning ever better to disagree well.
So at this moment after this particular vote, I want to say a word about many of you who are gathered here and others who are wishing us well tonight who, like my friend on the train, have kept faith with this vision for much of your lives. And within those, I want particularly to talk to you who are lay. I heard a Church Army officer preach not long ago and he started his sermon by saying “I am what’s known as a member of the laity….. which is Church of England jargon for…. a person”.
Women and men, not ordained, some maybe thinking they might have been but others clear that ordination was not for them, have turned up on wet nights to meetings when you would rather have been at home with baked beans on toast; you have spent summer evenings you would rather have been in the garden going yet again to another synod meeting where you know you’re going to have to say it ……..again.
I and my colleagues here, women ordinands training now, women who are even now being asked if they will serve as bishops, would quite simply not be able to follow our own calling if you had not done what you did. Generations of women have lived and died believing they were called to the priesthood, but it simply couldn’t be. Those of us who are blessed to be in this generation, stand on your shoulders; it is you over the years, more than clergy or bishops, who have led us and made the case over and over again to your vicars, your Bible study groups, your PCCs and within the wider church structures. And, while of course all of us from every point of view have made mistakes along the way, and our spirit now is thankfully a spirit of forgiveness and grace, it’s important to acknowledge here that over the years, you have been told to stop, you have been told that you are betraying Scripture, or that you are threatening the unity of the church. You have been told that you are putting the church you love in peril. I want today in this eucharist to say thank you to you for not giving up when at times it must have seemed very bleak and you must have wondered if it was worth it.
There is one other point of connection I want to make between the saint we celebrate today and the journey that you have been on. And that is the attribution of mixed motives. Mary Magdalene, perhaps more than most saints, certainly more than most Biblical figures, has been the object of much speculation and projection over the years. From Pope Gregory in the 6th century, what were her seven demons? From successive religious leaders and theologians strong supposition that she was a prostitute? And fascination persists in our own day; from the writers of rock musicals: was she in love with Jesus? and from the writer of popular fiction: did she marry him?
The motives of Mary Magdalene in not only following Christ in life, but not leaving him in death is the stuff of many a film and sensationalist novel. And her role as apostle to the apostles, the one who proclaims the new future Christ brings, has historically been overlooked.
But despite all these speculation about motives, the fantasies and anxieties that
surround Mary Magdalene as they have often surrounded this debate, I want to suggest that at the heart of the gospel, at the heart of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, at the heart of the discipleship of Mary is simply love.
And love, for us has sometimes looked like persistence or grief. And the expression of love can look like admin or marching or dancing or tears. Love can look like writing an article, making tea for a flask to share on the way to Church House, calling a friend after the meeting that left her sad. Love can look like respect for another view but holding your ground. Love of God can be accepting your place, the only place you can be.
So tonight we thank God for this eucharist, for the story it tells of brokenness and healing, of bread first eaten by slaves in peril and the rich wine of the wedding feast. We thank God for Jesus Christ’s offering of all that he had and all that he was for the life of the world he came to save. And we thank God for the women and men who are with us in this sacrament who longed to see this day: who died before they knew that their efforts were not in vain. After our prayers, which will be led by Lindsay we invite you to come and light a candle during the aria I know that my Redeemer liveth which was sung at the memorial service of Monica Furlong: to remember those who have gone before, but also to give thanks for the witness of someone you want to remember today at this moment of change.
I close with the prophetic imagination of Isaiah whose encouragement is to look to the future, as we will do in our last hymn; to look outwards towards a society full of need and injustice; to look beyond us and our debates to the deep, complex and often paradoxical circumstances of what we laughingly call real life.
Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, be strong, fear not. Here is your God. Amen.