Friday, 20 February 2015

Vicar's Study: Let the Women Speak

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at Christ Church Cathedral. I am doing some volunteering there to get some experience of the life and work of a cathedral and my first day involved a tour and a brief insight into its history. During the tour I was surprised and pleased to discover that the patron saint of not just the cathedral but also Oxford University and the city of Oxford as a whole is St Frideswide.

Born around 680 Frideswide is credited with founding a church, a community of women, around which it is quite likely the city of Oxford grew. There is little historical detail of her life still available to us but there is a shrine to her in the cathedral which historically drew people from across the country seeking healing. Today it is still a place of prayer and sanctuary. Frideswide is tucked away in the corner of the cathedral and I had previously known hardly anything about her. And yet her name means 'Strong Peace' and she stands as a foundation stone that a whole city grew around.

I was particularly surprised by this female founder because my time in Oxford has frequently been rather a macho affair. Though the church is full of inspiring women, who are many times its real back bone, the voices that emerge most loudly are often the male ones. The history of the church is dominated with stories of men, the portraits that line the walls of our theological college are nearly all of men.

Even now working and thriving in the church as a woman takes a steady resolve and a good deal of wisdom. Though a lot of progress has been made I often feel that the difficulty that the male dominated nature of the institutional church poses for women is poorly understood or reflected upon. One way, it seems to me, that this can be addressed is by remembering and honouring inspirational women in both our heritage and in the present.

This last week I have been reading a book called God's Troublemakers - How Women of Faith are Changing the World by Katharine Rhodes Hendreson. I've found it a hugely inspirational read. Not only does it chart some of the significant achievements of women in the modern day at addressing some of society's greatest needs but it also looks at how women are doing so uniquely and with a different model to that which has gone before. One of the exciting facets of these women's work is their connection to the grass roots which drives their activism to change the system.
Rather that being distant from the problems they are attempting to alleviate, such as domestic violence and child poverty, these women place themselves at the heart of it. This is significantly different to what we experience of many of our senior leaders day to day who often seem to have lost touch with the 'real world' and the people in it. I wonder if having an experience of alienation, for whatever reason, is raising up some interesting leaders. Put simply if you have experienced discrimination perhaps you are less likely to discriminate. Perhaps we can begin to generate leaders who refuse the lure of the ivory tower and dominating power and instead seek to raise people up and value the human connection as a primary driving force for their work.
I'm encouraged that when I am ordained in the Cathedral it will be in the shadow of a great woman. It will help me to remember that those women are there in our history even if we sometimes forget to celebrate them. It will remind me that it is perhaps not so strange after all for me, as weak as I feel, to take my place in the church. That, as women, we have a heritage too and we can go on as leaders in the future with confidence in our place, following in the footsteps of those women who have gone before us.

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