21 July 2015

Tough questions that ask: ‘How is
the Gospel good news for women?’

High Leigh in the sunshine this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

“How is the Gospel good news for women?” We were asked this question this morning in the light of “The Transforming Gospel,” the theme of the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency Us (previously USPG).

The question was introduced by Canon Delene Mark from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, who is Chief Executive of Hope Africa, and Ms Sheba Rose Sultan from the Church of Pakistan. The conference is taking place in the High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon, in Hertfordshire.

Delene Mark recalled the story of Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot dead by Oskar Pretorius. But she reminded us too of the daily occurrence of women and girls being murdered and the victims of rape and violence in South Africa.

News reports about these cases are often dominated by expressions of fear of responses through vigilante violence or xenophobic violence. But actual justice for these women and girls is very limited, and most of their families and communities live in silence.

What does the Church do before they become these women and girls become victims, rather than merely responding afterwards?

Blame is common throughout South African culture, with people regularly blaming the president and the government, or the legacy of apartheid and colonialism in the past. When it comes to violence against women, the all-time favourite blame is to ask: “It was her fault?”

She told harrowing stories of child murder, people trafficking and forced prostitution. But how is the Gospel good news for women? It is only Good News if we read it and accept its consequences for us.

There are plenty of stories that are good news for women, men and creation, but when we read them we need to respond in the Church with action. We need to join together to stop these atrocities, and to stand up and say this violence is not being done in my name.

Sheba Sultan spoke of Pakistan, women and the Gospel, describing the varied lives of women in Pakistan, from tribal people with few resources and many restrictions, such as the Kalash people who believe they are descended from the Greeks who came this far with Alexander the Great, to the elite women who have lives of luxury, but who find cultural values also stop them living life to the full.

She reminded us of the assassinated prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had said women in Pakistan cannot achieve anything without tackling bigotry and intolerance, and of the story of Malala Yousafzai, the activist for women’s education and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace laureate.

Women in Pakistan are tired, she said. But Christ says: “Come to me and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11: 28).

Appropriately, we began this session with a reading of the story about the woman said to have been caught in adultery (John 8: 2-11).

‘Come to me and I will give you rest’ … the bridge at the lake at High Leigh this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford (2015)

Later in the morning we were asked: “What does a world reconciled in Christ mean for men and women?” This session was a conversation with the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and Dr Paulo Ueti, a theologian and New Testament scholar from Brazil, facilitated by Canon Chris Chivers, Chair of Us Trustees.

Dr Threlfall-Holmes is the vicar of a parish in Durham and the Vice-Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church). She is a writer, blogger and historian. Her doctoral research was on the economic and social history of Durham Cathedral Priory (1464-1520).

As a member of General Synod of the Church of England (2007-2012), she was heavily involved in the campaign to open the episcopate to women and men on equal terms.

She talked about gender justice, which is much wider than ending gender-based violence.

She shared a vision of equality for men and women who are created equally in the image and likeness of God, who are made one in Christ, who are called and equipped by the Holy Spirit, and who live with the promise of abundant life for all.

She linked “theologies” such as “complementarianism” with gender-based and domestic violence.

Dr Paulo Ueti, who works for the Anglican Alliance and Christian Aid in Brazil, asked us to consider what sort of theology we are doing to make or bring about reconciliation and equal relationships.

Community is a sign or sacrament of Christ’s presence, he said. Building community is important for being reconciled in Christ. The family is the basic cell of society, but 70% of sexual violence takes place in families. What happens to safe community in these situations?

Miranda suggested there is a similar figure in England, and said there is a reluctance to grasp the nettle that is the patriarchal structure of society. Turning to inclusive language, she said the male language in Bible translations and theology today has been imported, when the original language in the Bible and Creeds is inclusive.

After breakfast, the Revd Dr Monodeep Daniel, head brother of the Delhi Brotherhood Society and Dean of Saint Stephen’s College, Delhi, lead a Bible study (2 Samuel 13), the story of Amnon raping his sister Tamar.

Father Daniel spoke of the “silent scream.” What happened to Tamar happens to women all over the world, but while the offender is protected, women are forced into silence.

He looked at the story of Amnon and Tamar in the light of experiences of Dalit women in India who are raped and silenced. They already suffer as women who are rejected by the so-called “clean castes,” forced to live outside city walls and treated as “untouchables.”

They know God through their pain. With few exceptions, their plight has not changed since Indian independence, and their suffering is not reported in newspapers and their scream is unheard.

This morning began with the Eucharist celebrated by Canon Nicholas Wheeler, the former Priest Missioner based in Cidade de Deus, the City of God, in Rio de Janeiro. He is now the Rector of the Parish of Holy Trinity and Saint Saviour, Upper Chelsea. The daily offices are being led by Canon Andi Hofbauer, who has been the Precentor of Wakefield Cathedral since 2009.

The conference began yesterday [20 July 2015] with a welcome and introductions with Canon Chris Chivers, Jeanette O’Neill, Us General Secretary, and the staff of Us who invited us to review the past year with Us.

The lake at High Leigh this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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