Dying to Live…

Below is a homily I delivered describing my vision as Dean of Women’s Ministry. The Gospel Reading for the day was the story of Jesus in Gethsemane…

I spent some time debating whether it was simply too much of a cliché to bring my knitting to a talk about the role of Dean of Women’s Ministry.  Perhaps, there’s a bit of mischievous irony there too.  However, the main reason I bring it is because it makes a point.  This collection of knitted scraps is intended to be a pair of dungarees.  It was intended to be a pair of dungarees for my niece, who is now aged three, but if I get my act together, they may yet fit her little brother before he outgrows them too.  Unfinished knitting projects are such a sadness.  This bundle contains hours of dedicated work, with love and goodwill in every stitch – but unless I finish the task, it will never fulfil its purpose, and that love and work will be wasted.

In our gospel for today, Jesus wrestles with his unfinished task.  For thirty or so years, he has grown amongst the creation he loved into being.  For the last few of those years, he has proclaimed the Kingdom of God in word and action; challenging, teaching, healing, restoring…  It has been hard work – the gospels tell of days spent in ceaseless ministry, too busy for food, and of a bone-weary Messiah so exhausted he slept on through a violent storm.

Yet, he knows it is not enough.  To bring complete freedom to the creation he loves, it is not enough.  To proclaim the fullness of God’s indestructible love, it is not enough.  He must complete the task, and that task will cost everything.  It will cost him his very self.  No wonder he wrestles – is there any other way?  Does he have to die?  He shouts to the heavens, he seeks solace in his ever-feckless friends, but he must face this choice alone.  And by the end of our reading, the decision is made.  He will complete his task.  He embraces his death. 

We know what happens next.  His last hours are so messy, so painful; he dies in abject failure, but… But his death is also his glory.  “It is finished!” he cries from his cross.  The task is complete and nothing will ever be the same again.  After the cross, we live in the freedom and hope of Easter.

So knitting, Gethsemane – where am I going with this?  And what does it have to do with the role of the Dean of Women’s Ministry?

Well, we live in interesting times.  We have made huge progress in enabling the flourishing of women in the Church of England.  With the admission of women to the episcopate, the last explicit barrier to the full participation of women in all orders of ministry has been removed, and we had the joy of seeing our first sisters consecrated Bishop.  Some might be tempted to say “job done” and question whether we even need a Dean of Women’s Ministry at all now!

However, I would counter that we have hardly started.  At this point, I could bamboozle you with statistics, but this is a homily and not a lecture so I shall refrain.  I’ll just share one personal anecdote.  When I was a curate, feeling called to parish ministry, I looked around for contemporaries who could model this way of living and leading for me, to encourage me that this might be possible.  I could find very few examples.  Reading the Ministry Statistics for 2012, I am not surprised, as they tell us that there were just 59 incumbent or incumbent status women under the age of 40 in the whole of the Church of England that year.  That works out at just over one per diocese on average.  I think X was ours.  Men under 40 in incumbent status roles were not exactly common either, but there were 279 of them, meaning that you might be able to find half a dozen in most dioceses at least. 
I tell this story because behind statistics lie people: congregations worried about what it might be like to be led by a woman because a man has always been in charge before; women struggling to identify their call to priesthood because no one else their age and gender is doing that; women hesitating to offer for stretching jobs or roles because of concerns about families or other domestic responsibilities; or leaders hesitating to invite women to stretching jobs or roles because of their family commitments.

The legal barriers to the full participation of women in the ministry of the Church of England may have gone, but the statistics and stories suggest that cultural ones remain.  Until we tackle this culture, we have hardly even begun.  Like Jesus in Gethsemane, we can look back on years of costly, wearying labour, and so much good achieved, but unless we are prepared to finish the task, there is a real risk it could all be for nothing.  And to finish the task, we too have to die.

Dying to sin and dying to self are central themes in the Christian story – both are painful but life-giving processes in true discipleship.  What might such dying look like in the context of women’s ministry?

First, we need the death of the Default Male.  The default male is a phrase coined by artist Grayson Perry to describe the default settings for normal in our society – normal lives are the ones white, middle-aged, middle-class men lead; normal opinions are the ones while, middle-aged, middle-class men hold; what is important or valuable to the agency of white, middle-class, middle-aged men is what is regarded as important or valuable to society.  This is not to suggest that all white, middle-aged, middle-class men are the same, but that people from this demographic will have a cultural and historical locatedness which gives them a particular perspective on life.  This perspective has its own insights and its own blindspots.  There is nothing wrong with this perspective on life either.  The problem arises when it becomes the default setting that shapes our theology, our liturgy and our working practices.  If these are all designed around the preferences of the default male, then most women and many other men who do not conform to this pattern, will struggle to fit and to flourish.

Ending the reign of the default male and allowing his voice simply to be one valid voice amongst many will be a painful process. For those brothers who have never had to consider or question their assumptions – and those sisters who share their point of view, for we are not binary opposites and our experiences overlap – for those brothers and sisters, it will be difficult to surrender the right to automatically be right.  It will be difficult to recognize the need for new ways of being and doing which are not necessary to them.  Yet this is a death that they need to die to allow mutual flourishing.

So, do the men have to do all the work?  Absolutely not, for the Perfect Woman must die too.  Who is the Perfect Woman? Sadly she is not the sassy, business-minded, community and family leader we find in Proverbs 31; she is not the Warrior Prophetess we see in Deborah; she is not Mary flouting societal conventions by putting discipleship over domestic chores…  Nope, the Perfect Woman is a much less biblical construction: the silent selfless good girl, who avoids conflict, recoils from ambition and always thinks of others before herself.  The Perfect Woman has no “self” to die to, as her self is almost entirely defined by the expectations and needs of others.  While this caricature is – like most caricatures – extreme, I would expect it to resonate with many women.  And I repeatedly find that in conversations with women, the spectre of the Perfect Woman impairs their abilities to set boundaries, speak boldly and be all that they might be.

The Perfect Woman sounds a complete nightmare – doesn’t she?  However, the walls that keep us in are also the walls that protect us from having to step out into the unknown, walls that prevent us from being truly vulnerable and being truly seen.  Giving up the stifling safety of the Perfect Woman also has its dangers and pain.  Yet, for women to flourish, she too must die.

A Dean of Women’s Ministry will have a part to play in both these deaths.  She must gently but consistently remind those brothers – and sisters – who share the Default Male point of view that their perspective is just one amongst many and deserves no special privilege.  She must also challenge the concept of the Perfect Women, held by both women and men, and encourage her sisters to be brave and bold and vulnerable.  It will not be easy.  In fact, sometimes it looks pretty hopeless.

But she would do it all in the name of the one who turned utter hopelessness into unending hope, who turned a painful, messy death into indestructible life.  She will do it all, convinced that the glory of God is humanity fully alive; and that women and men flourishing together will better point our world to the source of all life, Jesus.  So let’s finish the task and die – and see all that God will do.

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