Today I am returned from the service of celebration of the 20th Anniversary of women being ordained at St Asaph Cathedral, Wales. To remind us that we are still radical we had a small picket of people calling upon us to adhere to the scriptures ‘that women should keep silence in churches’. We were there because we had been there 20 years ago when our good friend Kath Southerton was ordained as one of the first women priests in Wales. We took our 2 year old daughter who is photographed in the arms of the presiding Bishop Alwyn.
It is significant for me that we were there 20 years ago and it is significant that I was there today, because this is part of the struggle we face as women to be treated as of equal value with in the world including within our faiths. And misogyny and discrimination remain and most particularly in the two areas of my life I am most passionate about: the maternity system which deals exlusively with women birthing and in the Church whose starting point is God’s love for all regardless of gender and creed and status in life.
Bishop Rachel, first woman Bishop in England gave the sermon. She took as her readings the story of Ruth(!) and the resurrection story of Mary Magdalene in the garden. These were both women, she said, whose context was shaped by the decisions of others.
In the story of Ruth we have a woman whose context is shaped by the decisions beyond her control. A Family of two parents and their sons migrate for work to a neighbouring country. The sons grow up and marry two local girls. This is in a culture where marriages are financial and social contracts where women are commodity as much as people. Tragedy strikes and the Father and sons die leaving the women without the protection of a legally recognised (male) head of household and means of living. Naomi, the mother in law decides to return to her own people where she maybe able to afford some living and protection amongst family and tribes people. Her daughters she releases to return to their families where they would be married off (perhaps as second hand) to another man/family. Ruth looks at the choices she has – shaped by her context and the decisions of others. None of the choices are easy but she chooses to take the risk of going with Naomi, setting aside her own culture and nationality to, in effect, become a daughter of Naomi – her people, her God – taking the risks of an all female household. All ends well for Ruth as with some more courage (and the cunning and audacity of the two women) she marries a wealth relative of Naomi – Boaz – becoming one of the very few women to be named as an ancestor of Jesus in Matthews Gospel. Rachel said that this was a woman taking life changing chances in a context limited by the decisions of others – this is the context of all – men women and children – but very much so for children and women.
Bishop Rachel is the first woman Bishop, but over the last 20-25 years since women were ordained priests in the British Anglican Church there have been many women as clever, as wise as suited to the role of Bishop who have not been ordained due to the ongoing discrimination of the Anglican Church. This will continue to be the case for many years until Women Bishops are the norm. The context of women priests is framed by the decisions of others’, individual women priests face this truth as they follow the path of their vocation.
And so I want to say to my daughters and to my female friends out there. We operate in a context framed by the decisions of others. This can empower us (such as anti discrimination legislation, some maternity laws and the mentoring of women ahead of us) but the decisions can also be limiting – many women I know, myself included have injured ourselves against the glass ceiling – and historically this has often been the case. Our efforts are in the context of a millennia of patriarchy – if we think our steps forward are very small we have to set them in this context – the story of Ruth set in the second millennium BC reminds us of this.
And sisters and daughters, if you have worked hard, you are talented and qualified but you don’t achieve what you should, do not blame yourself (as we so often do!), look at the context shaped as it is by the decisions of others. If you seek to bring about change to benefit women – and I think here of the midwives, birth workers, maternity activists and mothers themselves and you fail ( as I have) or your victories are not great and soon eroded, or you burnout ( as I have), then do not blame yourselves, remind yourself that you have been taking life enhancing action, taking life changing risks in a context that is shaped by the decisions of others.
Today we celebrated 20 years for the women who made it to ordination in the Welsh Anglican Church, whilst remembering the many more who worked, campaigned who suffered much and received little in the years before and since. Today we celebrated with the first woman Anglican Bishop of England celebrating in a few days the consecration of the first woman bishop in Wales, commemorating 20 more years of missed opportunities for the gifts and talents of women in Wales.
Today I also remember the many women priests of birth, the midwives and the doulas, who have empowered and enabled women to make their own healthy choices for birth. I celebrate we who have campaigned so women can choose a birth at home, in water, in a midwifery led unit, with a midwife she knows and trusts, to have impartial information and support whatever her decision. Our successes and failure speak of courageous selfless women taking life changing risks in a context shaped by the decision of others. Sisters we do what we can, we do not blame ourselves for what we can’t and we call on our daughters to stand on our shoulders to take the work forward. Amen