BISHOP OF JAMAICA AND THE CAYMAN ISLANDS ON THE OCCASION OF THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN IN THE DIOCESE AT A SERVICE HELD IN THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY THE VIRGIN, MOLYNES ROAD, ON FEBRUARY 6, 2014
I want to take this opportunity to extend congratulations and best wishes to the female clergy who today are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the three-fold order of ministry. I do so on my own behalf, as well as that of my brother bishops, clergy, and members of the laity across the Diocese. We give thanks to God for that pioneering group of ordinands, those who have followed in their footsteps, even as we remember with thanksgiving those who have died in the faith of Christ.
The privilege was mine to preach at the ordination of the first group of women to be made priests almost two years later, Bishop Neville having chosen to preach at the historic ordination to the diaconate. It is for me a privilege to preside at this anniversary service two decades later.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, in every age you have called out men and women to be your faithful servants. We believe you have now called us to join that great company who seek to follow you. Grant unto us today and always a clear vision of your call and strength to fulfill the ministry assigned to us. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful, Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.
Most families at some time or other have the experience of the family member who constantly tries to shirk domestic duties. For example:
– the male sibling who tries to charm his way around his sister(s) in order to get out of domestic responsibilities, rooted in part by that socialization which suggests that it is more appropriate to the female role;
– the sibling who pays the others to do his/her chores;
– the shirker who always “soon come” but that moment never comes.
To these shirkers today’s gospel may seem to be just up their street – the kind of text one needs to answer all critics.
Before we arrive at any conclusion as to what is being said here in relation to shirkers, let us explore in more detail the picture we have painted for us in the gospel for today.
- There are two sisters, Mary and Martha who live together (sisters of Lazarus).
- With the presence of a guest in the house, namely, Jesus, one sister attends to all of the chores associated with hospitality. The other makes herself available to her guest, perhaps even hoping that she would be served some of the food and drink by her sister in the process as well.
- Martha, the busy one protests the imbalance and seeks Jesus’ rebuke of her sister for her apparent neglect and misplaced priority.
- Jesus refuses to issue a rebuke and, in fact, affirms the choice which Mary has made. On the surface it seems that Jesus, by his response, is saying that the domestic chores associated with hospitality are not primary at this moment. Here is the perfect answer which every shirker seeks. But this story is about far more than the shirking of responsibilities. In fact, it is not about the shirking of responsibilities at all. So what then is this story in the gospel for today about?
What is it that Luke wants us to understand in recounting this incident for us?
- 1. The story represents an attempt to address the ongoing issue of charity and service versus the practice of the contemplative life and religious discipline.
From the very early years of the Church’s life, the question of priority in regard to these matters arose. To what extent should such things as the proclamation of the gospel (preaching) and the worship life of the Church take precedence over the exercise of charity, works of mercy, and Christian service?
The issue seems to have been a concern for St. Luke at the time of writing. In the Acts of the Apostles, which is attributed to him as its author, he portrays the appointment of the Seven whom we have often come to call Deacons, as arising out of a need to address the issue. As you should all be aware, when the Church began in the New Testament it was made up of Jews, and the inclusion of gentiles came later as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles. The issue in this situation centres around the distribution of the alms, relief supplies, to the gentile widows. Some persons were complaining that the distribution was not being done on a fair and equitable basis. We just have to recall the kind of uproar which takes place in this country when it is alleged that the scarce benefits of housing or jobs are not being distributed fairly to people of both sides of the political divide. Indeed, recent utterances from a leading member of Parliament regarding those who “do not count” when it comes to the distribution of public benefits controlled by elected officials, is of relevance.
The earliest notion of the ordination of women and their involvement in the fulltime ministry of the church in this Diocese involved the separation of these two aspects of the church’s mission and ministry, as the deaconesses were first assigned to the ministry of service, hospitality and charity. They were among the earliest to be involved in what we today call the inner-city – working in Denham Town, Windward Road, Tower Hill, and right here in Maverley, to name a few. They were involved in the establishment of the Nuttall Memorial Hospital, which was at one time a primary centre for the training of nurses in this country. They were also involved in pioneering work in education, primarily at St. Hugh’s High School and St. Hilda’s Diocesan High School. They also worked with women and children in congregations and communities. Meeting in this Church of St. Mary the Virgin, we cannot but celebrate the ministry of the late Deaconess Alma Hurford in this place and community, even as we recall the memory of the late Rev. Sybil Morris, from the first batch of female ordinands who also served in this congregation. Not to be forgotten was the hospitality which they provided through the Deaconess House, as a place for retreats, and where many of us were first introduced to “high tea”. They were not actively involved in the sacramental ministry of the church or preaching, and were not even allowed to be chalice bearers in those days. As one former deaconess pointed out to me recently, their preaching was not through the pulpit or the spoken word, as it was through acts of charity and compassion.
In the context of conflict in the Acts of the Apostles, an appeal was made to the apostles that they should intervene and perhaps take over the distribution themselves. The decision of the apostles at the time was that neither the proclamation of the gospel nor the distribution of the alms to the widows should be allowed to displace the other. Each has its rightful place. To that extent, the ministry of women in the early years in this Diocese was justified as the appropriate complement to the sacramental and pastoral functions exercises by the clergy, who were all male at the time.
This same issue is discussed throughout the New Testament period in terms of the relationship between faith and works. So, for example, James in addressing this issue in his Epistle says in chapter 2:26:
So faith apart from works is dead.
Here in the gospel it is the same issue which is under consideration. Jesus seems to come down firmly on one side, namely, that represented by Mary. To that extent, it may appear as if Jesus has vindicated one position while rejecting the other. This is a challenge which the Church faces in every age. Many outside of the boundaries of membership of the Church often want to tell the Church what ought to be our priority and what we should be doing. Those who usually see the Church primarily in terms of a service organization indict us for not doing enough of service and charity, and like to emphasize this position when they want to show how the church has failed. So they would encourage us to leave the worship behind and go do outreach in the community. The same response is forthcoming when the church enters into public discussion on issues of morality as it relates to politics and life in the society in general. Let me deposit the notion that there is perhaps a primacy to which Jesus is pointing in the response that he makes to the choices made by Mary and Martha respectively, rather than a pithing of one against the other. Charity and service must emerge out of and be balanced by a contemplative and disciplined religious life (worship), otherwise it runs the risk of losing its focus. The primacy does not represent a negation of the one, but a putting into a right perspective and balance of the two.
- Perhaps Jesus is pointing to the distortions to which charity may be subjected when pursued as an end in itself, losing sight of its motivation and even some of its humanity.
a) One of the most distressing experiences is to encounter persons who, out of a desire to be helpful, make a mess of a situation. Consider the case of an informal community which, as it developed, was without running water for many years. They had to find creative ways of accessing water from neighbouring institutions and residents. A neighbouring church got involved and started to advocate with the political leaders and the National Water Commission for running water to be provided for the community. After a number of years water was finally provided. On the occasion when the official launch of this project was taking place, one of the members of the church community got up and made a speech. He said in part, “now that we have gotten water for you at last, the next project we are going to take on is the light”. At which point a voice was heard from the back of the audience, “ A who tell you say we want light dung ya”.
Or consider the way in which we sometimes treat the ageing and the elderly. Many of us operate with the adage, “once a man, twice a child”, and proceed to treat our elderly parents and relatives as if they have no right to participate in decision making and in maintaining a sense of selfhood through the retention of a measure of control over their life, all done in the name of charity and care.
At the time Jesus visited Mary and Martha he was facing Jerusalem and the reality of the Cross. Perhaps Jesus was distressed and weighed down by what was ahead of him – this very human person wrestling with life’s options with the prospect of conflict, suffering and death. In this state he was visiting familiar friends and a familiar environment before moving on.
Perhaps we have experienced the terminally ill person who seeks to visit persons and places of significance as the reality of the shortness of their life hits home. All of us have heard of persons who insist that they want to go to their home or place of birth before they die or even die there, and even some insist that if they die they want to be taken back to the familiar place of birth etc. to be buried. In my experience I have worked with persons who have asked to visit their old family home and family burial plot and just to spend time sitting or sleeping on the tombs of some special deceased family member to whom they were close. The reason for this is that there is a kind of contemplative attitude and aura which seems to absorb the person and his/her attention and which is lived out among familiar people and places of the past.
It may be that Jesus, in visiting Mary and Martha, was looking for the solace and the companionship which he was accustomed to find in this place and in their company. Somehow Mary picked up the vibes and made herself available, while Martha failed to take note of Jesus’ need in the moment. Perhaps Martha could not handle Jesus in this state. We know from experience that members of the same family handle a crisis or the terminal illness of a member or a death differently. Some say that they can’t deal with the tears and the sadness and so they stay away from such experiences and moments. Perhaps Jesus just needed quiet and a place of reflection and, perhaps this is just what Mary provided.
I know that when we think of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, we generally see it as one in which Jesus is speaking in a didactic mode, teaching Mary something, while she sits as a passive listener. But what if it is not about teaching, but of Jesus pouring out his heart to Mary, a compassionate and caring listener? Perhaps it is not unlike the ministration of women to Jesus in which he was at the receiving end, like the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-phoenecian Woman whose daughter was ill and who had that wonderful engagement of Jesus after he turned down her request for healing her daughter. May I venture to suggest that the outcome of that encounter was that both Jesus and the Woman left that moment with an enlarged world-view.
It is interesting, if not disturbing to think that this happened to one who repeatedly asked of those he healed, “What do you want me to do for you?” Now perhaps he did not need to do for others but just to have someone to listen to him. Perhaps, in this relationship with Mary, Jesus is affirming that quality with which women are endowed, which allows that sensitivity and compassion which we as men, trapped in cognitive, often miss. One of the things we sometimes seem to forget as we think of the powerful and the famous is that they have some of the same basic human needs which we have. The challenge is to hear and to be responsive to persons in their need, even those who seem to be the strongest and most resourceful, and not be misguided by our agenda of charity.
- The anxiety and worry which can contribute to a loss of perspective on what is needful for the moment.
We need not attribute any ill motive to Martha. Perhaps she was so delighted to have Jesus at her home that she was going to really lay it on for him. It is so easy for all of us to find ourselves in her position. Consider for a moment, the special occasion when you have family members visiting from abroad, a special visitor has come by, the boss visiting, or even the Rector may be coming by for a visit. Many are the stories of persons who have been invited out to dinner by hosts who want to make the event so special or who miscalcuIate the amount of preparation necessary, that they have some hungry guests who are almost collapsing before the meal in served. No wonder some persons never accept a dinner invitation without taking a bite of something before leaving home.
Perhaps Martha lost her sense of perspective by her anxious preoccupation, and may have been better served by a different set of priorities. It is interesting that some biblical scholars in interpreting this saying of Jesus argue that when Jesus said to Martha that “one thing is needful”, he meant that only one dish was needed, not a whole range of things. This to my mind sounds a bit farfetched. Perhaps in this response of Martha we may see a paradigm of life. We can become so anxious and worried about things that are of lesser importance and as a consequence lose our sense of perspective on life.
Our Diocese is currently at a place at which we run the risk of occupying ourselves with the things that are of a routine and maintenance nature and not really critical to our mission and ministry at this time, while losing sight of the bigger picture. We are all aware of the crisis which confronts us as a church with decreasing membership, the ageing of the congregations, diminishing finances, a paucity of vocations to the full-time ordained ministry, and the absence of a significant cohort of young people, to name a few. And yet, the attempt to find solutions and to make significant strategic changes run into constant frustration and opposition, and raises question as to whether we are prepared to take significant steps that will lead to creative changes and forward movement in the life of the church, or whether we defend and retain what we have always known, and the balance with which we are comfortable. A move toward a positive engagement of these challenges will lead to a level of uncertainty and vulnerability concerning the outcome, at least for a while. But if, as we assert, it is God’s Church, then we must at least be prepared to plant the seed and allow God to take care of the growth.
If the distorting effect of anxiety and worry is not to prevail, then we need to work towards a sense of balance in life. Perhaps this was the path chosen by Mary.
St. Gregory of Sinai is cited as saying:
Whoever finds grace finds it by means of faith and zeal….and not by zeal alone. However painstaking our work, so long as we omit to surrender ourselves to God while performing it, we fail to attract God’s grace, and our efforts build up within us not so much a true spirit of grace but the spirit of a Pharisee. Grace is the soul of struggle. Our efforts will be rightly directed so long as we preserve self-abasement, contrition, fear of God, devotion to him, and the realization of our dependence on divine help. If we are self-satisfied and contended with our efforts, it is a sign that they are not performed in the right way, or that we lack wisdom. (AGP page 220-221)
- The impact of personality factors on our choice of religious expression and the nature of our religious experience, as well as the defining role of a sense of one’s gifts and calling from God.
One of the things I learnt early in the process of training as a counselor is that the School or Theory which one uses must somehow be consistent with one’s personality. For example, one of the treatment units to which I was exposed was that concerned with Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation. This made me deeply aware that there are some approaches to counseling with which I cannot be comfortable. Many such programmes include a lot of confrontation and the ability to be rough and tough with those caught in the grips of an addictive cycle. Additionally, some counselees do not respond very well to some treatment modes which are too aggressive. But, we don’t have to be professional counselors to know this. There are times when we encounter individuals who are facing certain challenges in the home or in the workplace, and we are quick to offer advice –“why you don’t just tell off the man and stand up to him”. The truth of the matter is that the person to whom we are giving such advice may never follow through on such advice as it is not their style or way of dealing with situations.
The same principle seems to carry over into people’s religious choices and expressions. Perhaps the story in the gospel for today is at heart about siblings with unique personalities which determine their approach to religion, one being given to the introspective/contemplative/interactional approach, while the other being given to a mode which is more expressive of works of charity, service, and action. Perhaps Jesus saw in Martha’s request to rebuke Mary, a request to negate her uniqueness. Individuals choose their religious expression based not just on theology but on experience and personality needs. So the attempt to change another person’s religion on the basis of religious argument will not necessarily work. In the same way, some persons may never come to our kind of church and we in turn may never see ourselves being a part of their thing. Even within a single denomination, uniqueness of religious expression will be evident. So some people want to have hand clapping and raising of hands during prayers and singing in the Anglican Church, while there are some Anglicans that, if you “kill them dead”, they will never do these things. We need to understand the Church as having a place for all these unique personalities, to see the gospel as affirming of the uniqueness of each person, and not attempt to bring about a system of conformity so as get everyone to fit into the same mold.
But that uniqueness may not just be a feature of personality, but arise out of an awareness of one’s sense of the gifts with which he or she is endowed, and the vocation to which he or she is called. So here in the story we may in fact be looking at two women who are differently gifted.
Traditionally hospitality has been linked with the feminine and the spiritual with the male in patriarchal society, a situation which is still evident in Jewish and Muslim traditions, and in areas of Christianity where headship of the family is attributed to the male and with it the responsibility for being the priest and nurturing the worship and growth of the members of the family. There is a book written by a female theologian by the name of Megan Mckenna and published by Orbis Press, entitled Not Counting Women and Children. It takes its name from the story of the feeding of the five thousand as recorded in St. Matthew 14:21 in which the author, in making his summation of the incident notes that “those fed were about five thousand men, not counting women and children”. McKenna argues that this is another manifestation of patriarchy which discounts the value of women. So Martha’s gifting for hospitality is somehow natural and normal for woman, but what of Mary? It is here that some of the traditional opposition to the ordination of women has been stuck.
Can Mary, the feminine figure be the symbol of the religiously gifted who can minister to others, even as she was present to her Lord? In this regard, it is interesting to note that a certain priest who was vehemently opposed to the ordination of women, had a profound change of heart when he woke up from surgery in another diocese and country in which women were already being ordained, and discovered that the Chaplain who was present by his bedside to minister to him, and with superb pastoral effectiveness, was a female.
- 5. Finally, whatever interpretation we give to this incident, it is clear that Jesus did not negate the one as requested, but affirmed the value of each.
I want to suggest that in these two personalities, Martha and Mary we encounter the feminine, not masculine and feminine, and are therefore being challenged to see the complementarity of the hospitality and spiritual ministration and expression in the feminine characters of Mary and Martha. Together they become as it were the corporate feminine personality. To that extent both are appropriate expressions of the feminine, whereas the objection to the ordination of women has been to maintain a dichotomy in this dynamic based on gender.
In the struggle for acceptance of a sense of giftedness and call, this has often created a schizophrenic experience for women who felt that they had to ape masculinity to be accepted or suppress aspects of themselves in order not to rock the boat.
Some few days ago I was at a Consultation in Ghana, and one of the participants was a female clergy from Brazil, a bright and articulate woman, even in English, which is not her first language. She told about attending gathering of the WCC in a country in which women were not ordained and being confronted by a priest who asked her, why do you want to be a man? To which she responded, “I do not want to be a man, I want to be the priest who God has called me to become”.
The call to women in ministry, which has been fulfilled over these 20 years, is to bring together in their person these two aspects of Christian mission and ministry, hospitality and spiritual presence and ministration, to the people of God in their person. These two sisters, ministering to Jesus as his face is set toward the Cross, constitute for us the paradigm of the way in which the dichotomies which we have used to exclude women from ministry is invalid, and our way forward must be guided by the giftedness and call of each person to ministry whether male or female.
The inclusion of women in ordained ministry has brought diversity and richness to the life of the church, as it has allowed men and women to bring their complementary gifts and sense of call to enrich the life of the Church. In the image of St. Paul of the Church as a community in which the gifts of all are utilized for the building up of the Body of Christ until we all attain to maturity, the ordination of women in this Diocese has afforded us the opportunity to more fully attain to this vision of the Church as one.
It would be naïve of me to suggest that the struggle for women to realize their call and gifts for ministry is over. There are still issues related to mutual respect, equality, and assignment to pastoral duties which are still to be resolved. I close with the words of the text I used when the first cohort of women were ordained as priests, a text which was as challenging for the Church then as it is for us today, as it speaks to the broadening of the frontiers of understanding of the inclusiveness of God’s love to embrace Jew and gentile, and now male and female alike:
So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”