Sunday, 22 June 2014

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women as Presbyters

A celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of women
Wesley’s Chapel, London
21st June 2014

Sermon preached by Rev Ruth Gee

In the summer of 1974 I was in Taize. I had gone there with three friends to join the thousands of students ho were gathering in that ecumenical community. One day we had gone into the small village church which was kept as a place of silent prayer,I was in there longer than the others and when I came out I leaned on the wall and waited for them. And it was as I waited that I had the first experience of being called by God to ministry in the Methodist Church. I had no idea what that might involve, I wasn’t even a member of the Methodist Church at that time and it was many more years before I candidate. But, of course 1974 was the year that the first women were ordained to Presbyteral ministry in the Methodist Church in Britain.

Many of you will have your own memories of that yea and it is wonderful to have three of those first women to be ordained with us this afternoon.

Many have contacted me to say they are thinking of us today and to express gratitude for those women presbyters who have been important to them as pastors, teachers and role models.

Already today we have heard about those first Methodist women to be ordained
We have heard something of their story, we have listened to their songs.

And today we have listened to another woman’s song - Mary's song.

I Could have chosen one of a number of narratives from the Bible involving women as the focus for our thoughts this afternoon:
Mary Magdalene, first witness of the resurrection
The woman who touched the fringe of Jesus garments, coming from the edge to find healing and wholeness
The unnamed woman who came from behind to weep at Jesus' feet and to anoint him
The Egyptian midwives, Shiprah and Puah who used their knowledge and skill to oppose Pharaoh's genocide
Deborah who served as leader
 Jepthah's daughter who paid the unreasonable sacrifice of love
And countless unnamed women who sang their songs along with rest but were often unheard, their voices quiet but essential to the overall harmony.

But today’s celebration is not just for women, it is for the whole church because it is a celebration of the integrity of the church, a church that fully recognises and gladly embraces the calling of women and men.

So, instead of focusing on the story of any one woman, I invite you to hear Mary's song and to take it as your own, whether you are woman or man - it is for you
'And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour'

This is where we begin - we begin with a song of praise. We begin with the source of all our joy and all our rejoicing. We begin with God.

We begin with God, the mighty one. With God whose name is Holy. We begin with God who cannot be fully described by any word or combination of words and who is addressed by many names. We begin with God who is described as King, as Lord, as rock and as shield. And we begin with God who bends down to feed her children, with God who shelters us with her wings as the mother hen shelters her chicks

Mary’s song begins with praise and in doing so, Mary joins in with the songs of others who had gone before her, she is part of the great tradition of praise - and, very specifically she joins in the song of another woman. Hannah also had cause to exult in the Lord. She too called God Holy, she knew God who was secure as a rock. She sang of the God of knowledge and of judgement. (You can read Hannah's song in 1 Samuel chapter 2)

And Mary with Hannah sings of the wonder that God has looked on her lowliness, that God has reached out to her and done great things for her.
Mary was known by God and in that knowing she was called blessed. Through that knowing and that blessing, through the grace of God, she was affirmed as worthy.
The knowing and the blessing - being known by God and blessed by God - are at the heart of our Christian experience. And knowing and blessing are for everyone - for everyone is known and loved by God.

So Mary begins by singing Praises to God.
And then she sings of a new order, she sings of a world transformed.
Because, if God can reach out to her and bless her, then everything is possible.

Paul urges his readers: ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds’

The world Mary sings of is a transformed world, a world in which lives are transformed.
It is a world where the lowly are raised up, and the hungry are filled with good things.
It is a world where the proud and the powerful who are so certain of their own strength find that it is not enough - and they are scattered and brought down from their thrones.
It is a world where those who are certain that they can feed themselves, discover that by themselves they are empty.

Mary's hope for a world transformed, echoes the hope of Hannah and the hope of God's people through the ages.
And isn't this our hope too?

Do we not hope that those who have no food and those who have no access to clean water will find themselves filled with good things?
Do we not hope that those who use their power to trample on the hopes and dreams and basic human rights of others, will be brought down?
Do we not hope that the tyrants will be overthrown, that justice will be tempered by mercy and that everyone will be recognised as a person known and blessed by God.

Do we not hope and pray for these things.
Do we not sing with Mary and with Hannah?

The song of a world transformed is a beautiful song - but it isn't an easy one to sing.
It wasn't easy for Hannah as she handed her child over and travelled just once a year to Shiloh taking the robe she had lovingly made for him.
It wasn't easy for Mary as she watched her son responding to the God who knew and blessed him. It wasn't easy for her to stand at the foot of the cross.

I love Elizabeth Frinck's sculpture, 'The Walking Madonna'. Among other places it can be seen in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury'. This is a strong and determined woman. A woman who has seen life and known suffering. She strides towards the city, her journey has been hard and long. It hasn't been easy for her. This is no impossible blue and white, perpetual virgin. This is a real woman, a woman who is etched with life - and I can identify with her.

It wasn't easy for the women who responded to God's call to be presbyters and were ordained in Bristol in 1974.  They began to pave the way for the rest of us, and we followed in a way that is not smooth but that is well marked.
Today I give thanks that within the Methodist Church there is no role that is not open to women  - that is a precious and rare thing.

But we cannot be complacent because there are still those places and gatherings where women who are ordained know what it is to be seen as unusual.
We still know what it is to be accepted in some places with curiosity or caution. We still know what it is to have our calling and identity as presbyters denied by some because of our gender, because of an integral part of our being.
There is pain in that and it is a pain shared with others, with men and women who find themselves marginalised or have limitations imposed on them because of those things that are an integral part of their being as those who are known and blessed by God.

In a few minutes we will sing:

Summoned by the God who made us
rich in our diversity…

Let us bring the gifts that differ
and, in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new church into being
one in faith and love and praise.

We are rich in our diversity and we rightly talk of celebrating our diversity. But, last week, as I talked with Rachel, a member of the Corrymeela Community, she reminded me that diversity can also be painful and challenging.

When we allow our diversity to divide us, when we are proud of who we are as distinct from others rather than as those in fellowship with others; when we begin to imagine that we might be worthy in our own power rather than through the grace of God; When we  begin to believe that others are better if they are created in our image and forget that we are all created in God’s image and in relationship with one another –
Then the rich and splendid diversity becomes painful difference.
Then we are conformed and not transformed
Then the world is impoverished
Then the body of Christ is diminished
Then Christ is crucified again in our midst and by our hands.

Then the beautiful songs of the kingdom disintegrate into discordant cacophony.

Then we weep and God our father and our mother, weeps with us.

‘And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow’s iron rod
Then they find that self-same aching
Deep within the heart of God.’

But that is not our vision and that is not God’s will for us.
We believe in God whose love transforms and cannot be overcome.
We believe in God who calls us on to new hope and new possibilities.
We believe in God who knows us by name and calls us to follow.

The challenge is real – we are not yet rich in our diversity – but we are on the journey and we are committed to it

We dare to dream the vision promised
sprung from seed of what has been.

Today we pray that, with God’s help, we will:
 …bring the gifts that differ
and, in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new church into being
one in faith and love and praise

Today we celebrate our ordination as presbyters and we give thanks that we have been able to respond to our calling within the family of the whole people of God.

Through his grace we are worthy.

And to God be the glory!