Sunday, 12 March 2017

Women of the World Festival - Smashing the Stained Glass Ceiling

Opening Remarks to introduce discussion groups at the Women of the World Festival, taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, 12th March 2017

It’s good to be here and I feel privileged to be able to share a few thoughts with you on stained glass ceilings and the question of whether it’s possible to be religious and a feminist.

I’m a Christian and the bit of the Christian family I belong to is the Methodist Church. 45 years ago, following a long struggle, Methodists in the UK agreed that women could be ordained as presbyteral ministers. It was a huge step forward – all structural barriers to the equal participation of women in the life of the church and its ministry fell away – great news – those who disagreed licked their wounds and got on with adjusting to a new world order, meanwhile the activists sighed a huge sigh of relief – and if you listened carefully you could hear the tinkling of broken glass as the stained glass ceiling seemed to come tumbling down. A lot has changed since that momentous decision and yet…

Structural change – tick!
Cultural change – still a work in progress.

The majority of Methodist members are women and yet the leadership of the church remains predominantly male. I’m one of 33 District Chairs in the UK, only eight of us are women. Of the eight senior leaders in our Connexional Team, only two are women. The policy, strategic and financial committees of the church are majority male in their membership – one or two of our more pastoral committees have just over 50% women members.

But none of this is why I think it is alright to be a person of faith and a feminist. I believe my faith compels me to be a feminist!

In the story of creation – we are told that God created women and men in God’s image – equality, there at the outset – there when creation was whole, and complexity and diversity were taken for granted. Whatever we understand the myth of the fall of humanity to mean, our world faiths have in common the desire to move towards the peaceful co-existence of all God’s creatures. The prophets of old repeatedly called on their people to treat each other and the stranger with fairness, equity and respect and Amos echoed God’s desire in his words,
“let justice roll down like waters,
                  and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Further than this – central to my own faith is Jesus, who called us to love God and to love our neighbour – who came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, deliverance to the oppressed.

In the end, for me, the call to feminism is not really about how many women leaders there are in my church and it is not about whether I wear lipstick or how modestly I dress – it is about a response to the world in which I live.

A world where women do most of the work and receive a pittance in return – at the current rate it will take 70 years to close the global gender pay gap, in addition shouldering the bulk of unpaid care work limits women’s opportunities.

We live in a world where girls are forced into early marriage, trafficked for their labour and their bodies’; where prostitution is an inevitability and the market demands the commodification of our bodies.

Globally just 1 in 5 parliamentarians is a woman, and I shocked myself when I read that by thinking – ‘oh that’s not so bad!!’

Across the world one in three women will experience some form of physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime. I live in a country where women’s refuges are closing, not because we do not need them but because our political leaders choose not to treat the safety of women and children as a priority.

I live in a world where girl babies are killed or aborted because they are of less worth than a boy child; a world were nations that the UK trades with, prevent women from driving and having full access to work and education.

I want to smash the stained glass ceilings – not just as a matter of justice but also because the church misses out when it fails to use the gifts of all its members. Much more importantly, I want to use my prayers, my actions, my opportunities to speak to anyone who will listen, to call for women and girls to be treated with full respect and dignity and to be liberated to live life in all its fullness. The call to feminism echoes the prophets’ teachings and the message of Jesus Christ – how can I be a person of faith and not be a feminist?