Thanks for the ministry that has been, and looking to the future
The Venerable Canon Sonia Roulston preached at the Annual Anglican Women’s Service held at Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle on 6th June 2017. Women from around the Diocese of Newcastle, as well as many from further afield, attended. This service was part of the Anglican Women Australia Provincial Conference being held at Club Macquarie, Argenton, for which Sonia was the Chaplain.
Today we are celebrating the ministry of women – giving thanks for the ministry that has been, and looking to the future.
We celebrate the ministry of women today in a particular context in our Diocese – for we are celebrating 30 years of the ordained ministry of women this year. In fact we (women) think it is such an important celebration, we’ve celebrated it twice! And now we are 30 and we’re all grown up … aren’t we. At the very least 30 years is two generations of people. Women in ministry at every level is part of life as we know it.
As I was doing some pre-reading for out anniversary services I came across the following history:
- Girls’ Friendly Society groups in the diocese began forming in the mid-1880s. By 1888 there were enough groups to form a Diocesan Council. GFS in those days was particularly concerned with providing a place for young women, especially in an age when they were much more vulnerable – a real issue in those days. For example, there is a parishioner at Morpeth whose (perhaps) great grandmother arrived on a boat in the mid 1800s – aged 17 – her parents had died en route, and so concerned were they for her safety that she was not allowed off the boat without a husband… one was quickly found! It’s an extraordinary story to our ears! It is in a similar context that GFS has its origins.
- Enquiries about Mothers’ Union began in 1907 when the Mrs Stretch, wife of the then Bishop, called together a group of interested women to discuss to discuss bringing Mothers’ Union to Newcastle. This was in response to a request from the English body to promote the spread of Mothers’ Union ‘throughout the Empire’. Mrs Stretch was, however, was not a well lady, and so it was another 10 years before the first group gathered.That group was in the Cathedral Parish and they are celebrating their centenary this year.
- Anglican Women is a relative newcomer to the scene, forming in 1960, as an umbrella for ALL the women of our church.
- Through the 1950s and 60s women of our diocese took up the opportunities for training at St Christopher’s College or Church Army and became parish workers. These were a dedicated group of women lovingly remembered wherever they served. Deaconess House was not part of the scene here, though it had provided similar opportunities in other dioceses.
- I was a bit startled as I scanned the history to find that women only sat on Synod in this Diocese as recently as 1978! I was startled because I was in High School by then … and at Maitland Girls’ they were teaching us that the world was open for women! Perhaps Synods move more slowly? Anyway, in 1978, the bishop said in his opening address to the Synod:
“May I extend a special welcome to those 12 ladies who have been elected to Synod for the first time and say without any degree of patronage that we look forward to enjoying your company and the contribution that you will make. Having you with us makes the 39th Synod a very historical and significant one”.
You might be interested to know that at our most recent Synod slightly more than half the house of laity were women!
- To finish this reflection on where we have come from, we celebrated the ordination of women to the diaconate in the Australian Church in 1986, and here in 1987; women were first ordained priests in 1992, and it is great to welcome Bishop Kay Goldsworthy here today, who was consecrated a Bishop in 2008.
There is much to give thanks for as we celebrate today. And we give thanks not only for these public ministries, but also for the often unseen and yet essential ministries of so many women in our churches – as Sunday School teachers, GFS, children’s ministry, and youth group leaders, organists and choristers, women who have cleaned our churches, arranged the flowers, washed linen, worked in catering guilds and op shops, typed newsletters, welcomed people to church, served morning tea, visiting the elderly, and more recently joined those teams serving at the altar. And I could go on.
We celebrate today the ministries we share in our church. We give thanks for the many women who have taken their place in church life, often quietly and humbly, and who have been a force for good … by … and through … the grace of God’s Spirit.
As we think about these women, I remember a friend of mine, a clergy daughter, once telling me that her faith didn’t come from her father – it was his job … but through the old ladies of his church. To quote her, “They had something special and I wanted it!”
What our readings today remind us is that women have ALWAYS taken their place in church life, and served as they could.
In his letter to the Romans, the latest of Paul’s letters that we have, he greets the many leaders of the church in his day. We have heard part of that list this morning. In the whole list Paul names 28 church leaders, 10 of whom are women. The women he named are:
- Phoebe – a deacon whom Paul praises highly;
- Prisca (or Priscilla) with her husband Aquila, whom Paul calls ‘fellow workers’. Significantly Paul names Prisca first, indicating that it is her faith and leadership that is the more significant;
- The list goes on to include Mary (we don’t know which Mary), Tryphena & her sister Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus (probably Mrs Simon of Cyrene), Julia, and Nereus’ sister…
- And then there are Andronicus and Junia. Poor Junia suffered the fate of having her name turned into a man’s name for generations – until the most recent translations. How did this happen? Most scholars agree that though Paul was evidently quite happy to work alongside Junia and acknowledge her gifts, Bible translators were not!
Everett Harrison, reflecting on this list, wrote:
Prominent in this list are women. They occupied various stages of life – a wife, a single woman, and a mother – and all are represented as performing a valuable service for the Lord. Evidently Paul esteemed them highly for their work’s sake.
The Gospels also contain a number of significant women. One of the more prominent women is Mary Magdalene – the first witness of the resurrection. In John’s Gospel we hear of Mary going to the tomb on that first morning, filled with grief, we heard how in her grief she was unable to recognise Jesus: “They have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have laid him”, and we have heard of her recognition of the risen Jesus when he calls her name – Rabbouni! Jesus then sends Mary to tell the others that he is risen.
Extraordinarily, in that culture, the first witness to the resurrection is a woman … and not a perfect woman. It is Mary Magdalene whom Jesus sends first with this precious news. For this reason Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Apostle to the Apostles”.
Michael Jensen writes of her:
This woman, with her history of being afflicted and tormented, is the one through whom the rest of the Christian church gazes on the risen Lord. It is through those eyes, blurred somewhat with tears, that we see Jesus alive. It is through her hands that we touch his walking feet, and feel the warmth of his living flesh.
She is our first, surprising witness. She’s unlikely as a witness, but being unlikely makes her reliable. … You’d think, if the story were made up, that the presence of Mary Magdalene would be eclipsed: that her honour of being the first at the tomb, and the first to see Jesus would be taken away from her by the embarrassed men, who thought that they should be the heroes in this story. But, like her, with her, we gaze upon the extraordinary truth: that Jesus, the one who was crucified, is now risen from the dead.
Today as we gather our theme is Thanksgiving for the Ministry of Women. And we have reflected on that ministry as it has shaped us today. Not only in our context, but also through Scripture. We have heard how Paul gathered men and women of all stages of life around him to share in leadership, work and life of the early church. And we’ve heard of Jesus calling Mary Magdalene to go and tell the good news.
Like her (and all those before us) we too are called and sent – called to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, and sent to share in word and deed the good news we have received.
Our full theme is: “Thanks giving for the Ministry of Women: Facing tomorrow in the Spirit’s power”. And that is exactly how we shall go as we go forward … sent into our future … whatever that is … trusting in the Spirit’s power with us … and likewise with the many women … and men … who will follow us.
As we do let us remember to be faithful in all we do, to trust God, and to offer ourselves willing in response to God’s call in the ways that we can today … just as so many of our forebears have done … for it is true: we are sent in the Spirit’s power.