St Bride's: Sermons

Women Take Centre Stage

Luke 1: 39 - 45

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39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda;

40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.

41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:

42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.

45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

Women Take Centre Stage

Two women meet. Both excited, both frightened. Mary, a young girl of about 16, has been told that she is pregnant when she is not yet married and that the child she is carrying is from God. Elizabeth is also pregnant, but she is a much older woman who for all her life has been barren, and now she too is to bear a special child: she too is fearful. So the younger woman seeks support and comfort from the older woman, and together they rejoice in a dream coming true - and all that God will do through their sons, Jesus and John.

Right at the start of the Gospel story of Jesus women take centre stage. And if you remember, right at the very end of the story, there are women again in the limelight. Mary at the foot of the cross, the women taking spices to anoint the body of Jesus, Mary Magdalene meeting the Risen Christ in the garden, women - the first to announce the Resurrection. And all through Jesus' life story women play prominent  roles - in many ways just as prominent as the men.  And again in the life of the early church we have references to the role women played in the life of the Christian Community.

At the beginning, middle and end of Jesus' life women play a significant part in his earthly ministry and in God's plan of salvation. Now this is very interesting considering that the position of women in Middle Eastern culture, then as now, is largely that of subordination to father or husband. Women stay in the background and are often invisible in such cultures so it is remarkable that there is such a vivid picture gallery of women in the Gospels, indeed throughout the pages of the Bible.

So what has gone wrong since then? If women could be so closely associated with Jesus and his mission, then why has it taken the church so long to recognise the role that woman can and should play in the church today? Where did it go wrong?

The rot set in with Paul, or rather taking some of Paul's comments on women as normative for all time. It continued with St Augustine, who taught that original sin entered humanity through the woman; so frightening that holy men escaped into the desert to join monastic orders to avoid temptation and sin and by the middle ages a strongly patriarchal culture had become established which has endured right up to the twentieth century.

In spite of this the ministry of women has been distinguished with some notable figures, down the centuries - our own Brigid, Harriet Monsel, Clare of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Ávila, Hilda of Whitby, Josephine Butler, Joan of Arc. From Florence Nightingale, to notable nineteenth century nuns, to Elizabeth Ferard, the first deaconess in the Church of England in 1862. Women have been ordained in non-conformist churches since the late nineteenth century, but the first woman to be made a priest was Florence Tim Oi in Hong Kong in 1944.

In the latter part of the twentieth century we have seen Episcopal churches in the Anglican Communion, and from 1994 the Church of England, ordaining women as priests. There are, of course, those who believe that this whole process has been a completely wrong turning. Arguments are put forward about the subordination of women to men which Paul particularly teaches, about the inability of a woman to represent Christ at the altar as a male priest can, about the impropriety of one part of the universal church 'going it alone' when the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches has so far turned their backs on the idea.

I believe there are strong and convincing arguments against these views, which sound increasingly odd in an age when women have shown themselves perfectly capable to be leaders in business, banking, then law, the arts, medicine and education; let alone the fact that we have been receiving women's ministry in the Church for about 150 years, the last 20 years as priests, and it has clearly borne rich fruit. By their fruits shall they be known.

Women's ministry has enriched the life of the church, illuminated the Gospel in many ways, brought feminine warmth and compassion to ministry, and a healthily pragmatic outlook to the church's decision-making structures.

And where do we see models for this ministry? Here in the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, our collective foremothers, Mary and Elizabeth, acknowledging the work of God in each other, able to exult in what God has in store for them, supporting one another in following their vocation, bridging the generations in tracing the wind of the Spirit in their time; rejoicing, being happy in their challenging situations because they believed that God is faithful and strong, even when we are weak and hesitant.

Our Church has ordained women to the priesthood, and it will consecrate women to the episcopate. Today we rejoice in the examples of Mary and Elizabeth who said 'Yes' to God and we pray for the ministry of women everywhere, and lift up our hearts in the words of the song Mary sang 'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord'.

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