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Jane Williams: 'The Changing Face of Women'

Posted on: March 3, 2005 12:41 PM
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From the Episcopal News Service (ECUSA)

Text of address delivered by Jane Williams during the 110th annual meeting of the Episcopal Church Women of the Diocese of Los Angeles, 25 February, 2005, in Glendale, California (Copyright 2005, Jane Williams, reprinted with permission)

28 February, 2005

When I was teaching in a theological seminary, I had the great privilege of teaching a course on the recent history of the Anglican Church, and teaching it to Christians from many different parts of the world. One of the themes we looked at in the course was the changing role of women in Anglicanism, and I have often thought since that I should have incorporated into the course the stories of the women I taught, as sort of living examples of what we were actually talking about. Most of the women I taught were training for the ordained ministry - in itself inconceivable at the beginning of the last century, which was where my course started. Many of them were juggling training with spouses jobs and children's needs, and expected that to be the pattern of their working lives. Some of them were equipping themselves to be clergy spouses, and they particularly liked this quote The model wife - 'she should be indefinite in personality, not too opinionated, aggressive or distinctive. Her protective colouring should be subfuse, therefore, she should be neatly, but not too smartly dressed; she should wear suitable clothes suggesting poverty and unworldliness, but not so shabby as to prove an embarrassment to those she is with...

'Naturally, the wife should be willing to perform the less agreeable tasks about the church and parish that time and tradition have long ago allocated as her portion ...' A clergyman's wife should be 'entirely functional, like a good strong chair to be sat upon.' (From Eileen Bailie ... The Shabby Paradise. Gill p221).

Some of the women I taught were going into the mission field, and some were returning home to Africa or Korea, equipped to lead and teach in their own countries. I think of one woman who is now teaching in a theological college in the Congo. At least, I hope she is. I have not heard from her for some months, and the Congo is a country in a state of desperate uncertainty. A woman like her who has stepped out of her 'traditional' role in the family, is unmarried and in a position of authority could so easily be a target in a frightened society. I am terribly proud of her. She did her MA dissertation in English, which was her third language. She is part of the changing face of Anglican women, and through her courage and intelligence, she will help to make change possible for others, too.

Then I think of another woman, also going to teach in a theological college, this time in Asia. I haven't yet heard how her college has been affected by the Tsunami. Even without natural disasters on that scale, her sex and her low caste would put her in an unenviable position. She got a PhD in a language that she learned in adulthood. She is helping to change the face of women in her country, too.

And if my women students from just a few years of teaching demonstrate just how much women have achieved and are now contributing to the life of the church, that is a pattern that I see repeated everywhere I travel in the Anglican world. Last year, I joined Anglican women from all over the world meeting to observe the UN's Commission on the Status of Women. The issues of poverty, education, justice and safety that the UN is concerned about are all issues that these women could speak about from their personal experience, and that they are involved in doing something about. Women running AIDS programmes, women teaching and preaching, women in government, women holding families and communities together. The list is endless. I am truly proud of what women are giving to the life of the church.

But I am also aware that although there have been remarkable changes in the things that society and the church permit women to contribute, some things never change. Women and their dependent children are still poorer, on average, than men. Women are still more likely to be left alone to bring up the children that they could not have produced without the help of men. Violence against women is terrifyingly high, and is a routine weapon in war. Despite the growing number of women's voices in public life, 'women's issues' can still be treated separately from the issues that are supposed to affect the whole human race. Imagine a minister for men's issues, and you will see what I mean.

The simplistic question we could ask ourselves is this: are we changing society and the church, or are they changing us? It is a simplistic question, because it assumes something I don't believe, which is that encouraging women to achieve what they are capable of must in some way change our nature. I do not want to go back to an age - which actually probably never existed anyway - when women were voiceless and subservient. But I still worry about women. And I don't want to blame women for the increasingly disastrous family patterns that we see in the West, but I am anxious that we don't seem very much happier than our mothers and grandmothers were, or any more sure of our worth and our purpose in life. A recent book by the British theologian Tina Beattie, entitled Woman, suggested that if you research the kind of articles that fill most women's magazines in the West, this is what you would deduce about modern woman: she is 'Somebody who worries about her weight and her appearance, is fascinated by Hollywood stars, has improbable sexual fantasies while fretting about her sexual performance, and is quite possibly being beaten and abused by the man she shares her home with' (Beattie, Woman, Continuum 2003, p.43). While that is clearly a generalized caricature, it is depressing enough to give us pause. And I wonder if we, as Anglican women, can offer any insights out of our faith into this problem? Perhaps the courage and creativity of some of the Anglican women I have been talking about could begin to lead us in our thinking about what it means to be a Christian woman today, and what we have to offer.

The season of Lent is a good time to be thinking about what we have to offer and what we are here for. Although it is traditionally seen as a time for 'giving things up', we can very easily forget what we are doing it for. We mark Lent for 40 days because that is what Jesus did. We are told that at his baptism, he heard God's voice saying 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' This word of love and affirmation from God marks the beginning of Jesus's mission, and he needs time to think about it and work out if he can do it. That is why he goes into the wilderness for 40 days of preparation. Now he knows for certain who he is, he has to find out what that is going to mean.

And that is why we keep Lent, too. We know who we are. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God, and we give him pleasure. But what does that mean for our daily lives, and how can we as women hear God's words of approval addressed to us? For Jesus, it meant facing his own needs and ruthlessly submitting them to God. It meant deciding under all circumstances to put God at the centre of his life, rather than himself. But if that sounds like a hard road - and it certainly was, in Jesus's case - it is worth remembering that what drives Jesus is knowing who he is. He is the Beloved Son of God, and he does not need any other kind of affirmation. We are not Jesus, but thanks to him, we can share his relationship wit the Father. Because Jesus made the choices he did, we too can know that we are wholly loved and affirmed by God. That will almost certainly mean that some of the things we thought we needed and desired have to give way to God, to make room for our growing exploration of who we are and what it means to be the beloved children of God. We are no longer people driven about by whims and temporary desires, we are people with a purpose and a vision to share with the world. Women have not always been given the words of affirmation that we need in order to carry out our mission. A lot of the roles that women have traditionally fulfilled have been almost invisible, so taken for granted that it never occurs to anyone to say 'Well done, beloved daughter'. If Lent is a time for putting God back in the centre of our lives, it is also the time to hear him say to us, 'You are my beloved daughters, sisters of my son.' God's affirmation can give us the strength to work on the changes we long to see in the world, for women and men alike.

When the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, early in the fourth century, - stick with me, I promise you this has some connection with what I have just been saying - Christianity suddenly became a public religion. A whole set of things followed from this. One of them was a change in status for the small persecuted religion of the followers of Christ. Another was a lot of legislation to back up that new status. It is fascinating to see what kinds of things a newly-Christian lawmaker thinks are essential to uphold the Christian faith. But one of them was to outlaw face-branding. Before that it had obviously been quite a common practice to brand a slave or a thief in the face, where it would be immediately obvious. The Christian Emperor Constantine abolished face-branding on the grounds that it would mar the image of God in which the slave and the wrong-doer were made, just like everyone else.

There are, of course, all kinds of mocking things that could be said about that. For example, it might have been more convincing if branding of any kind had been abolished, which it wasn't, as the terrible history of slavery over the 1500 years that followed Constantine showed all too well. It might even have had more logic to abolish slavery altogether, on the same grounds, that people who are all made in God's image surely cannot own each other without danger of diminishing that image? But that was the kind of logic that took time to filter through -- sorry, sorry lengths of time.

But even if we can think of more thorough ways of demonstrating in our legislation that we believe all people to be made in the image of God, still it was not a negligible thing to do, to outlaw face-branding. It demonstrated some instinctive understanding of the incarnation. Our redemption is never just a spiritual matter. It involves our bodily lives, both as individuals and as societies. What you do with your body and the bodies of others demonstrates something of what you believe about God. If you treat your own physical being and that of others with contempt, you are unlikely to understand why God should choose to become human. But equally, if you treat physical well-being and comfort as the main purpose of life, you are unlikely to understand the cross of Christ.

I wonder what our modern equivalent of face-branding might be today? What do we need to do to symbolize our belief that God became human so that we could become beloved children of God? What would demonstrate to ourselves and our world that we are made in the image of God? What is it that most obscures that image in others and allows us to treat them as though they were different from us? I would like to suggest that the answer is poverty. Our economic and social systems are designed to hide from us the fact that all over the world other human beings are dying, needlessly. Every day, women and children die of entirely preventable poverty. They die of disease and hunger when there are cures and food enough for all in the world. Of course, when something makes us notice the plight of the poor, we react with compassion and generosity. When we see their faces on our TV and computer screens, we cannot conceal from ourselves that they are human beings as we are, and that their state could so easily have been ours. The fantastic response of the American people and others to the victims of the Tsunami shows that we do know that all people share a common humanity, and that if one is diminished, so are we all.

Christians would call that knowing that we are all made in the image of God. But the trouble is that for too much of the time, it is possible for us not to see the real people, the people just like us, who suffer day in and day out from an endemic poverty that we in the rich West could prevent. (And let me make it quite clear that I am speaking to and about myself here, not just about others.) Our way of life can only be sustained by keeping other people in poverty.

I remember when we went to Southern Africa in the days of apartheid being really taken aback that the good Christian people white people that we stayed with often had no idea about the conditions in which their black maids and houseboys lived in the so-called townships. But their way of life depended on not knowing. If they had really seen conditions in the black townships, they would have had to change, or else admit that they were not, after all, good people. And that is how it is for us nowadays, rich Christians in a world of poverty. This is the new slavery. We believe that we would fight for justice, that we would always stand up for the rights of the minority, the oppressed, the persecuted. But our energy-hungry lives give the lie to that.

When Jesus went into the desert to come to terms with God's call on his life, he faced his deepest needs and saw them for what they were. He faced his hunger, his need for security and love, and his longing for power. They are basic human needs, and we all have them. But Jesus saw that our needs can become the things that define us, and he chose, instead, to be defined by God. He chose to be defined by what he could do, in God's service, rather than what he needed. And out of that, our salvation is born. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he discovered that deeper than any other need is the need to be what we are made to be -- the children of God.

CS Lewis, the famous author of the Narnia books, also wrote a book called Til we have faces. It is not as well-known as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it is just as profound. It is the story of a woman called Orual who decides to bring the gods to justice. She decides to confront them and demand that they see the error of their ways. Orual's life is in many ways brave and heroic. She is a plain, unwanted child, unloved by anyone, except her adored younger sister. Through sheer courage and strength of character, she wins through to become Queen after the death of her hated father. She wears a mask to hide her ugliness, and people gradually come to believe that there is something very powerful and mysterious hidden under that mask. She governs well and wins respect, but all the time her anger with the gods is building inside her. The gods are liars and cheats, because they make it impossible for you to believe and then punish you for not believing. They make you long to love and be loved, but then laugh when every love is shown to be an illusion. At last, Orual's beautiful younger sister is taken away to become the bride of a god, and Orual decides that enough is enough. She follows her sister, Psyche, determined to show her what the gods are really like. Orual is given a chance to bring her case against the gods in the heavenly courts. She is stripped naked, even her mask is taken from her, so her face is exposed for the first time in years. She stands up, and prepares to read from the huge book that she has been compiling all her life, that will show the injustice of the gods. But what comes out, instead, is a mean, selfish, raging voice, whose chief complaint is that the gods have not made her wishes central to the universe, and have not made it their main business to give her everything she wants.

'The complaint was the answer', she tells us. She realizes that, for the first time in her life, she has heard herself and seen herself, without masks, veils or delusions. She understands that the gods could not possibly have spoken truthfully to her, because there was no 'her' to speak to, only a myriad of poses and masks. 'How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?' she asks.

The myth on which this story is based is not a Christian myth, and Lewis does not attempt to make it into one, but Orual's discovery is a profound one. Essentially, she discovers that we have no faces. Instead, we have a whole set of masks, based on our own needs and desires. We construct for ourselves whole personalities that will win us pity, or power or approval, but what we forget is that the masks hide us from ourselves, as well as from others. We become so adept at masking our true selves that we have no idea what we are for, or what we are like. Like Orual, we try to make the universe revolve around our own needs and desires, but the problem with tht is, that we don't actually know what they are. And then we wonder why we are never happy, never satisfied. But how could we be satisfied, when we do not know ourselves? We cannot give ourselves what we need if we do not know who we are.

Lent is a time to hear the still small voice of God telling us who we are. We are his daughters and sons, beloved and chosen. All our other needs and desires can then begin to fall into their proper place, where they serve that central fact about ourselves. In our growing certainty of who we are, we can begin to see all God's children in their reality, too, our brothers and sisters. We can all take off our masks before God, so that we can show him our real faces and hear him speak to us.

While I was preparing for this talk, and this time with all of you, which I have been looking forward to ever since Martha first wrote to me, a couple of years ago, I have tried and tried to find words to convey what it is that I want to say to us as women. At this critical time in our church's life, is there anything that we as women can do to change things, as we discover who we are in the sight of God? Everything I tried to say sounded stereotyped and false. It sounded like another kind of self-image that I was trying to impose upon women, rather than a way of looking to God for our reality. I do think, looking at all the magnificent women I have met from around the Anglican world, that women are still more focused on building and maintaining relationships, rather than systems; that women are more interested in negotiating settlements than saving face, that women can still empathise with other women, simply because of our shared womanhood. But I have no idea if that is innate to our being, or just an accident of history. I fear that as women, quite rightly and properly, get more and more drawn into the organization and hierarchy of the world and the church, they will become less and less distinguishable, for good and ill, from men. So let us use what is ours to give, now, and use it well. Let us take this opportunity, now, this Lent, to see ourselves as we are. We are utterly valuable, because we are God's children, and so we will go out and fight for the abolition of face-branding, wherever we come across it. We will not allow our brothers and sisters to be branded by poverty, and war and hunger and death. We will shout with our longing to see their human faces, made in the image of God, and allow them to see ours, too. We women know how to care about faces. Worrying about what we look like can be a burden, but what if we take our concern with faces and make it a strength? We will care about the beauty and dignity of all our sisters, as we care about our own.

I came across that wonderful passage in The Lord of the Rings (I don't think it comes in the films), where Eowyn, the warrior princess, faces the Ringwraith and the Nazgul Lord of Darkness. She stands over the fallen, terrified figure of the Hobbit Merry and defies the terrible might of the Dark Lord. She does not know whether she can win, or whether she can do any good at all, she simply knows that she must try. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may', is what she shouts. Not perhaps the greatest battle cry, but so moving. We can all manage that much. She simply knows that she will protect the hobbit and defy the Darkness. She centres herself in all that she knows of goodness, and does not allow fear to wrench her out of herself.

Episcopal women have done great work, here in Los Angeles over the past century, and elsewhere. You have discovered the joys and strengths of being women together. You have changed the face of poverty and low self-worth for very many people, in this country and elsewhere. You should be justly proud of that record, and I know you will not stop now. To wipe out all the things that brand the faces of our sisters is a daunting goal, but a gathering like this makes me feel that we have the energy and the commitment to do it, provided we do it together.

So that is all I really want to say tonight. We are God's beloved daughters and sons, and we must not be tempted to let anything destabilize that central fact of our being. From that certainty, we can reach out to each other, and we can stand against darkness, and hinder it. I truly believe that as Anglican women, if we will believe what God has promised, we can stand as a great force of light against the darkness of poverty and disease and needless death, and we can hinder it, well and truly.

© Jane Williams 2005