24th December, 2017
One of my mentors, Jenny Harrison, once told me a story. She told me of the church she grew up in. It was an Anglican church in another part of the world. It was in the time before liturgical reform had really taken off. In those days the high altar was pushed against the wall, and when the Eucharist was celebrated, the Priest stood with his back to the congregation.
As a young girl, my mentor remembers having a conversation with her vicar. It went along these lines. “When I grow up, I will pull the altar out from the wall so that when I celebrate communion all the people will be able to see what I’m doing.” Her vicar responded to her by saying, “But Jenny you are a woman. You won’t ever be able to become a priest.”
When Jenny told me that story I could feel it’s power. It hit me like a kick in the stomach. It was a powerful reminder of the many ways in which women have suffered under patriarchy. It was a moment of innocence lost, which is truly tragic, because it did not need to be lost at all.
That was as much of the story as Jenny told me, but it was not the end of the story. Because I was lucky enough to know her, I was able to fill in the real ending of that story, and the good news is, it was a happy one. You see, that priest who crushed a child’s dream all those years ago, was wrong. Jenny was not among the first women ordained, but she, like many others in this part of the world over the last forty years, was able to train and then be ordained as a deacon and then as a priest. Thank God, for that!
I was only a year old when the first five women in this province to become Anglican Priests were ordained at Holy Trinity Cathedral. In the months and years following, hundreds more have followed in their footsteps, including women who have been part of this community. My own mother can be counted among them as are a significant number of my close clergy friends. But the thing is, for me that is completely normal. I can never remember a time when there were not women in leadership in our church. The bible is full of amazing, inspirational women who have offered their lives and service to God in many ways. Christian history would not be what it is without the faithful witness and leadership of women in every generation. It follows that women today should be celebrated for all that they bring to every aspect Christian community.
I’m fortunate in that I was raised in a family of strong women. When I was young my father worked every long hours and was absent from family life much of the time. This meant that the greatest influences in my life were my mother and my two sisters. It was an education to which I am indebted to all three of them.
From a very young age I learnt what it meant to be privileged simply because I am male. I learnt that we lived in a world where certain obstacles that existed for those I was closest to, did not exist for me simply because I was of a different gender. But far more importantly, what was instilled in me from the very beginning was that the only way this would change would be if men like myself, cared about the challenges faced by the women who I looked up to. Their struggles, had to become my struggles.
It turns out that this is a huge part of the Gospel message. Time and again the example of Jesus was to care deeply enough about the needs of others that he made them his priority, even when there was no expectation that he would. That is a deep expression of love, showing that we care deeply about the needs and aspirations of others even when we stand to gain nothing from supporting them.
In the last few months a series of scandals have come to light. Hollywood executives, politicians, actors and others have faced accusations of some appalling behaviour. The shocking nature of these scandals is, firstly, how in many cases the behaviour was widely known about and yet many women were so disempowered that there was no way for them to speak out. And secondly, the extent of sexual harassment is so great that many many people seem to accept that it is an everyday part of life. What a terrible thing to learn about our world, that so many women are silenced, and so many people think that sexual misconduct is in some sense normal. But sexual harassment is not normal, it is not ok, and no one should ever feel that they have to put up with it, or that nothing can be done about it.
As a man, who holds a certain position in this community, there are things I can do about this state of affairs.
• The first is, I can listen. I can listen to the stories of others, and make room for those stories to be shared.
• I can tell our young people that they should never put up with inappropriate behaviour, and if it happens they need to know who they can talk to about it.
• I can make sure that I am never a passive bystander. What that means is that if I witness one person making another person uncomfortable in some way, I will do something about it!
• And lastly, I need to take stock, to ask myself if my behaviour has been all that it could be and to admit when I have made a mistake, because we all make mistakes at times.
If I commit myself to these actions I am choosing to uphold the worth and dignity of all people, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or orientation. It is not an ethic based in guilt, or shame, it is a personal decision to make our communities safer for all people. These are personal commitments, but they are ones you are more than welcome to join me in.
Listening to the stories of others, caring about their well-being and actively challenging systems that permit abusive behaviour to occur are gospel imperatives. Great gains have been made in our society and many enjoy opportunities and experiences denied to previous generations. 40 years of women being ordained in this part of the world is proof of that. Yet, there is still work to be done in other areas of life. Complacency is the enemy. Equality is a goal that we must continue to strive for, for the wellbeing of all people.
Today I am going to conclude with a prayer. It is a prayer that was offered by Reverend Jean Brooks at the recent celebration of 40 years of Ordination at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Jean was one of the first five ordained here in Auckland 40 years ago and I’m using it with her permission. Let us pray.
God of liberation,
You dance alongside and ahead of us,
delighting in expanding our ideas of the possible.
Be with us as our journeys of discipleship unfold.
Give us the courage to measure everything we do
by fullness of life for the earth and her peoples.
May your Spirit enliven us
as we re-dedicate ourselves to your service.
In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant