The season of Advent is a season of waiting. We look back to the first Christmas and wait with Mary for the birth of the Christ child. I remember those last days of waiting when the pregnancy seems to have gone on forever and you are weary of carrying this child, longing to meet them in person. The timing is provisional, you have the bags packed and the various plans in place but until those contractions begin you are just waiting with no real control. The labouring then needs to be endured and worked with before the newborn baby is safely in the world.
Advent is also the season of waiting for justice. The news channels constantly remind us of the injustices in our world. Individual wickedness that leads to individual tragedies. The economic systems that perpetuate inequalities of wealth, leaving many in grinding poverty. The wars and oppression that swell the refugee crisis and destroy homes and livelihoods. The devastation of our planet and the perils of climate change. St Paul tells us that creation groans in the pain of labouring longing for the kingdom to be born.
As members of WATCH we can find ourselves feeling weary as we continue to wait for justice within the church in which we belong. The issue of how women can flourish within the Church of England continues to require our vigilance and energy. We rejoice that things have changed. As I write this letter I have just heard the sad news of Jean Mayland’s death. Jean was one of the pioneers of women’s ministry being the first woman to be licensed as a Reader in Sheffield diocese in 1974. Later, training for ordination, she was one of the women ordained in 1994 and a campaigner in MOW and WATCH. She did live to rejoice that some of what she campaigned for – women in all orders of the church’s ministry – was achieved, but she continued to campaign for full gender justice in the church throughout her life. (See Announcements below for information about Jean’s funeral service, 21 December at 1.30pm)
As we rejoice in those women who are engaged in different kinds of ministry in the church, we note that there is still a sense of struggle. Our analysis of the Ministry Division statistics shows that there is still a significant gender gap amongst younger ordinands. Why is this? We have continued to raise our concerns and I recently met with the national young vocations officer Rev Em Coley to look again at what we can do. Is there unconscious bias in vocations processes? Why is maternity provision still brought up as a concern?
A nagging worry is that the lack of younger women might reflect the fact that they are not in our churches. The ambiguity around women as preachers and priests which supports the exclusion of women from certain pulpits and altars does have an impact on how the church is perceived by women. Mutual flourishing still seems to focus mainly on how we maintain safe spaces for the minority who do not accept women as priests or preachers. The riches of feminist theology and liturgy still seem to be a minority sport.
Can the church help young women to experience a God who speaks into their lived experience? When will we really proclaim, as a church, that women are truly good enough for God?
It can feel that we are wandering in the wilderness getting no closer to the promised land. We almost miss the days of campaigning for women bishops because we then had a clear target. Culture change, beyond legal reform, is trickier to pursue, and takes a long time.
Covid has impacted on all of us in different ways. We have all learnt to embrace new technologies. For WATCH this has had gains and losses. We have benefitted from online meetings that have enabled people to get together at little cost. From two AGMs to committee meetings, Liturgy days and focus groups we have used ZOOM successfully. Yet, for all the benefits of the ease of online gathering we have missed being in the room together. We have missed the informal conversations and the community that comes from being present in person. We will, like many organisations, be exploring how to make the most of what we have learned in online meetings and live streaming to make the next AGM and other events hybrid.
Personally, the last year has been tough for me. I stood aside from November until June and am extremely grateful for the way Esther Elliot and Felicity Cooke stepped up and chaired WATCH over that period. I am also grateful for the prayers of so many of you. Esther has stood down from the National committee and Felicity, having been elected to General Synod is moving from vice chair to be the coordinator of GS WATCH. My two terms as Chair of WATCH will end at the AGM in the autumn and WATCH will need a new chair. Please pray for the right person to offer to serve and encourage any who you think might be suitable to get in touch.
My thanks to all of the trustees and for Claire Creese our very calm secretary and Eve West our administrator.
Mary arrived in Bethlehem and the time came for the baby to be born: Emmanuel, God with us, the light and hope of all creation.
At some time in some way we do not understand, the merciful judge who so loves the world will establish justice. There will be an end to suffering and a righting of wrongs.
Meanwhile, we live in the here and now doing our best to work for the values of God in the communities and institutions to which we belong. We do not lose heart, for the God we serve is faithful and longs for all she has made to flourish in harmony.
May the light and hope of the Christ child touch you and those you love this Christmas and may we find renewed strength for the coming year.
Chair of WATCH
Thank you to Rev Ally Barrett for permission to use this drawing