A Sermon preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams

on Mothering Sunday, 11 March 2018

#metoo, #timesup, International Women’s Day, International Women’s World Day of Prayer. Can you spot the connection! If you haven’t joined the dots, the connection is ‘women’ and today is Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day, which is also about women. Certainly, all mothers are women – even if all women are not mothers.  And I want to say something about women this morning although I suspect my comments are aimed more at men.

Over the last few months what we have seen and heard seems nothing short of a global revolution – a sea-change in the national dialogue about women and, indeed, international, as the issues are certainly not restricted to western countries. To what extent it will create real, lasting change, remains to be seen. Simply, this spontaneous and grass-roots movement is seeking to expose and challenge behaviours and attitudes that have been long-standing and deep-seated in cultures and societies around the world – including the church.

After the Weinstein scandal broke last October, women and girls were encouraged and emboldened to reveal the level of sexual abuse they had suffered at the hands of men – particularly through the ‘metoo’ hashtag on Twitter. Within two weeks, two and a half million women from 85 countries had responded, sharing stories of their own experiences at #metoo. I don’t know what figure it is now. Time magazine named “the silence breakers” – the women who spoke out about abuse, assault and rape – as its “person of the year”.

One prominent sports star said: “Women are able to share their experiences, from Sydney to Suffolk. “Suddenly, we realise we’re not alone. And our experiences are being believed. For the first time, men are understanding what women have suffered for centuries.”

I think it’s true to say that this movement has highlighted what most women already knew, that sexual abuse and sexual harassment are realities in the lives of countless women around the world. The difference is that men are now unable to ignore it – or I hope so.

I am a feminist – I believe all Christians should be feminists. The definition of feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men” The focus is on equality, not female superiority, sameness, or any of the other things people sometimes think of when they hear the word “feminist.” I think Jesus was a feminist – he seemed to treat women equally to men. At our Ash Wednesday service, we considered the example of ‘The woman caught in adultery’ (John 7:53–8:11), although maybe ‘The woman freed by Jesus’ might be more appropriate! If you don’t know the story, the religious leaders – men – brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery – demanding that Jesus pronounce that she be stoned according to the law. (This was a patriarchal society in which a woman had almost no rights). I hope that, like me, when you hear this story, the first thing you want to ask – shout even, is: ‘where is the man who must also have been caught in the act of adultery?’ He is not mentioned or brought for questioning! Right back in our founding stories of Adam and Eve we see the man trying to blame the woman – not much had changed in the time of Jesus. What about today?

But how does Jesus respond to this humiliated woman standing before him? Well, with characteristic love and mercy. “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more”. For those of you that can see no further than the sin – Jesus acknowledges it, but his response was simply to set her free from any condemnation – both his and the crowd’s. It’s a powerful picture, where the men in their self-righteous legalism and misogyny were shown their place – basically, that they, too, were as sinful as she. We all screw up – in that sense we are certainly equal. But the response of Jesus was to offer life and freedom. Again, and again in the gospels we see Jesus treating women as equals – bringing healing and life and mercy. (the woman at the well, the woman who touched the hem of his garment, his close personal relationship with Mary and Martha, his affirmation of the woman who washed his feet, and what about Mary Magdalene whom Jesus entrusted as a witness to the most important news the world had ever heard) – despite the fact that a woman’s testimony was worthless in that society. And all this in a strongly male-dominated society. All these women Jesus treated with dignity and respect. Our speaker at the Lent course is suggesting the word apprentice is an alternative word to disciple or follower. Men, if we are apprentices of Jesus, what does his life say about how we are to relate to women?

Feminism is a word that shouldn’t need to exist because women and men should be treated equally – particularly in the church. At the very first mention of human beings in Genesis 1:26 we read ‘God said, Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness and let them have dominion… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ For those who see the creation stories as formative and normative, this should be the overarching motif when we come to understanding the relationship between the sexes: both men and women are created equally in the image of God. God is not a man. When he created people in his image he created them male and female. That gives us an enormous insight both into who God is and who we are. And, if we believe that, we shouldn’t need to be told to respect and treat men and women equally.

In his letter to the Galatians 3:28 the apostle Paul says: ‘For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

Those seemingly intractable features that mark us out as different and separate – those things we use to identify ourselves over against the other – are now no longer applicable, as our identity is now in Christ alone. So, Paul says our identity is not in our race or ethnicity, It should never be in our wealth or standing in society, or even in something as seemingly-fundamental as our sex – it is in Christ. As Christians, our relationships, and in particular how the sexes relater to one another, are transformed by Jesus. The obsession with sex, gender and sexual difference which consumes certain parts of the church is a ‘majoring on minors’ if, in fact, all these distinctions are absorbed in the overwhelming reality of Jesus Christ.

At this point, I was going to list to you some of the facts and figures around this whole area of gender inequality and how it affects women in any area of life you can care to mention. And, however bad it is in the west, it is often far worse in other countries. The statistics are overwhelming and irrefutable (although a quick look at any prominent woman’s twitter feed or newspaper comments section shows that it doesn’t stop men trying).

So, to the men here. Have we been complicit in reinforcing inequality – in our words, our attitudes, our actions? Have we colluded with the world – perhaps unknowingly, in making women feel less than us? You may not consider yourself a major offender, but the term ‘microaggression’ has been coined to call out all those seemingly-small offences – the looks, the odd comments, the stereotypes, the victim-blaming (you know, ‘well, she asked for it’ or ‘she shouldn’t have dressed like that’), the wage gaps (actually headline news in the papers this morning) and the implicit bias that exists in a world built by and run by men – all those things that we, as men don’t notice  but which all have meaning and value in the scheme of things. (and maybe even many women don’t notice because they’ve come to believe that ‘that’s just the way the world is’). Fortunately, Jesus never said that and neither should his apprentices.

If you are struggling with the MeToo movement or struggle with ‘International Women’s Day’ or the whole concept of feminism, have you asked why? Have you considered what buttons are being pushed in you and what underlies your responses? Have you asked ‘what would Jesus do?’ (a question all apprentices of Jesus should be asking all the time).

I would like to offer two challenges to us men: First, don’t engage in ‘Whataboutism’. So, when someone says ‘International Women’s Day’, you say what about men? It’s something many of us do – men and women in all sorts of areas – but it is a way of avoiding, and dismissing a view or argument. There will always be another side to any story, but whataboutism never leads to honest and open engagement – but rather shuts down discussion. Second, and more importantly, we need to listen.  Listen to the stories of women – young and old. Allow yourself to be affected by what you hear – many of them will be challenging, and uncomfortable and embarrassing. But listen – really listen, and consider your response only in the light of what you hear.

So, to the women here who have been unfairly judged and unfairly treated, not paid enough, not valued, because you are a woman. Women who have been on the receiving end of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Do you know God made you in his image and because of that you are worth something and have inherent value? To be made in God’s image means that something of God pervades your whole being– it’s a shocking and exciting thought. Do you believe it? Yes, you can read the words on the page. You can hear them preached – but do you know and believe it in your heart? Does it inform your view of yourself and how you live? Knowing that, according to Genesis 1, you are made equally with men in the image of God, that you were created to be co-rulers of the earth with men, and that, regardless of what you are told, or see or read elsewhere, you have purpose… and value… and meaning?

Well, I appreciate that this isn’t your usual Mother’s Day sermon and it is probably addressed more to men than women, but as I said, all mothers are women and society and the media are currently putting you centre-stage and asking some paradigm-shifting questions– questions to which, as we’ve seen, the church already has answers (even though history shows that for great chunks of our history we have, too often, chosen the path of subjugation and control.

I believe God is moving in what is happening in the world at the moment. Yes, it’s messy, mistakes will be made, motivations will not always be good, but it is my prayer that what is happening now will both empower women and challenge men that we might live together as equals with dignity and respect for each other as people made in the image of God and where the distinctions of male and female are subsumed into the overarching reality that we are all one in Christ.