Reading Luke 10. 38–end
Preacher Jonathan Evens
Maude Royden, Elsie Chamberlain, Isabella Gilmore, Betty Ridley, Una Kroll, Christian Howard, Monica Furlong, Joyce Bennett, Florence Li Tim-Oi, Constance Coltman, Margaret Webster.
I wonder how of these names you recognise? I originally found out about these women through the website of Women and the Church (or WATCH) who point out that, though they were all icons in the campaign to get women ordained, as with many women’s lives, they are in the ‘hidden gallery’ of history.
To give you a very brief flavour of some of their stories: Elsie Chamberlain was the first female full chaplain in the RAF; Una Kroll famously shouted, ‘We asked for bread and you gave us a stone’ (a reference to Matthew 7:7-11) when in 1978 the General Synod refused to allow women to be ordained, creating the momentum for the Movement for the Ordination of Women to be formed; and Florence Li Tim-Oi was the first female Anglican priest, ordained during the war to serve behind Japanese lines in China. Since beginning my ministry at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I have discovered more about the ministries of Joyce Bennett and Florence Li-Tim-Oi, in particular, because of their connections with that church.
WATCH argue that, although women have been a majority in the church, their ministries have mostly been hidden in the background, carrying out children’s work, making tea, cleaning, in the office, caring for neighbours, letting the vicar know when someone needs a visit. In other words, fulfilling the sort of role that Martha seems to have played in the Gospel reading we have heard today.
Martha opened her home to Jesus and his disciples. Providing hospitality and welcome to strangers was of vital importance within Judaism and in Middle Eastern culture generally. The rabbis taught that Abraham left off a discussion with God and went to greet guests when they arrived at his camp in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. He ran to greet them during the hottest day on record and served them the best food he could put together. Based on this example, the rabbis say that taking care of guests is greater than receiving the divine presence.
When Jesus sent out his disciples to prepare the way for him to come to towns and villages on the way to Jerusalem, he told them to look out for and stay with those, like Martha, who would welcome them. So, Jesus’ words to Martha are not intended as a denigration of the role she is fulfilling, which has a vital place in Middle Eastern culture, but point instead to an alternative role which has eventually led to the point that we have reached relatively recently in the Church of England of ordaining women as priests and bishops.
Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to what he said. That was the usual posture of a disciple of any teacher in the ancient world. But disciples were usually male, so Mary would have been quietly breaking the rule that reserved study for males, not females. Martha was possibly not merely asking for help but demanding that Mary keep to the traditional way of behaving. Jesus, though, affirmed Mary in the place and role of a disciple: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus refused to be sidetracked by issues of gender when faced with women in any kind of need and consistently put people before dogma. Luke’s Gospel not only reports that Jesus had female disciples, but specifically names them in Luke 8. 1-3. Throughout his Gospel, Luke pays particular and positive attention to the role of women; presenting women, not only as witnesses to the events surrounding the birth and resurrection of Jesus, but also as active participants in God’s Messianic purposes.
This counter-balance to the patriarchy of the time was necessary in order to signal the value of both women and men in God’s plan of salvation and their equal importance in the new community that was the Church. The Epistle also emphasizes this for us through its claim that all things in heaven and on earth were created through Jesus and for Jesus and that, as he is the head of the body, the church, in him all things hold together. All things means all of us; whatever our differences of gender, race, disability, sexuality or religion. Christ holds all together in his body, the Church; meaning that, while we all have a different parts to play, we are all equally valued and necessary if Christ’s body, the Church, is to function as he intends and reveal him as he really is.
The Church of England has made significant recent progress in this respect in relation to gender equality, with women now increasingly taking their place alongside men as bishops and at every level in the Church of England. Those women named on the WATCH website played key roles in the early stages of the journey that has led to this point. This was recently reinforced for me, as I had the opportunity to attend with others from the congregation at St Martin’s, the consecration at Canterbury Cathedral of Jo Bailey-Wells as Bishop of Dorking and then, that same evening, host at St Stephen Walbrook an ‘At Home’ for WATCH during which our curate, Sally Muggeridge, celebrated her first Eucharist while also becoming the first woman to celebrate the Eucharist in that church.
While the Church of England has made significant recent progress in relation to gender equality, there is much further to go in relation to other aspects of diversity as the conversations at General Synod this week regarding sexuality and disability indicate.
In a debate at Synod on Nurturing Senior Leaders in the Church of England, Revd Zoe Heming spoke about the Church as the bride of Christ. She spoke of Christ as “the one who rode into Jerusalem on a ridiculous, baby donkey, yet eclipsed the Roman horses and chariots and their victory parades.” By contrast, though, she expressed immense frustration that the Church, Christ’s Bride, continues to look so very different to her Groom, when it comes to nurturing the vocations of disabled people.
“The essential characteristic of our church,” she said, “must be of unlikely people living, serving and leading in counter-cultural ways, where the weakest are not tolerated, pitied or accommodated but prized, cherished & followed. This needs to be deliberate and visible for all to see – and maybe even mock, as some undoubtedly will have done, that day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on his donkey.”
Whether we use the metaphor of the Church as the bride of Christ or as the body of Christ, we are called to model our lives and actions on Christ. In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus holding together sisters who have become frustrated with each other’s choices. He affirms the different ministries which both have as, although his response to Martha can appear critical, he has already received and welcomed her ministry but wants to also affirm that of Mary as well. Similarly, we, like Martha, can practice and value the ministries of welcome, hospitality and service of all and, like Mary, can practice and value making Jesus the central focus of our lives and learning. While our focus today has been on the ministry of women, this is as inspiration to us all to work towards and work within the full equality of all within the body of Christ, the Church. Amen.