Sunday April 17th was Methodist Women in Britain (Wesley Ladies Fellowship) Day. Worship was led by Rev Roberta Topham and at the beginning of the service she told us that she came from Northern Ireland, so people did not need to speculate about where she might come from during the service. We began worship with the call to worship Genesis 1.27 about the creation of human beings, male and female before singing ‘Praise to the Lord Almighty, the king of creation.’ Roberta used prayers for Woman’s Sunday written by women; Suzanna Wesley and Hildegard, both prayers of praise were followed by confession and the Lord’s Prayer. Roberta explained that Wisdom was seen as female. The reading from Proverbs 8.1-7, 22-24 and 29-31 gave another version of creation. We then sang ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.’ We heard Paul’s personal greetings to various helpers, including some significant women, who he greeted by name in Romans 16.1-8, 25-27. We sang a hymn I had not heard before with very appropriate words, ‘God of Eve and God of Mary’. The gospel reading was a dramatised reading based on John 4.7-29, the Samarian woman at the well.
In the sermon Roberta explained that she was going to look first at gender equality in our world for which Christ died and explore how women fare in it. Secondly she was going to look at the contribution of women in the church and thirdly how to be male and female together and offer light to the world. She said that a woman who came out at midday to get water on her own was obviously ostracised in her society, as the woman from Samaria was. Most women would come for water, as it was heavy work, early in the morning before it got to hot and not alone and then in the early evening when it had cooled off. Roberta visited Israel in May but it was still 42 or 43 degrees and felt like an oven. You could do nothing after 9 in the morning but stay in the air conditioned hotel. It was obvious that she was shunned by others. When Roberta was in Jordan, a more traditional society, it was not right for a woman to speak to an unrelated man. Sometimes women are the hardest on those who act differently. The Samaritan woman was astonished when Jesus as a man and a Jew spoke to her a woman and a Samaritan. To find a male and female conversing alone in public was just not done. She was further astonished when she realised Jesus knew that she had been married 5 times and the man she was living with was not her husband. 5 husbands might have died or 5 might have divorced her and abandoned her. Women who had been divorced or were widowed had no power or protection in society. She would be in a dire situation, living on the edge; women needed men or they had a poor quality of life.
It is the same today in parts of Asia, where women go missing. If women go out in the street uncovered they can be shouted at and abused. There are honour killings if women do not marry chosen partners. A significant number of baby girls are aborted or killed at birth as boys are preferred. More boys are born but more boys die in infancy but girls tend to live longer. Now as a result of the practice of getting rid of female babies there are 8% less women in Pakistan and China. In the West we don’t kill girls, but there is a pay gap between women and men; female bosses earn a quarter of what men earn. There is still a way to go before women are treated equally.
Jesus valued women and gave the Samaritan woman his time and attention. They had quite a theological conversation, as Jesus was willing to listen to her too. She could be regarded as the first apostle as she went to tell everyone in the village about her encounter with Jesus. She was no longer embarrassed about her social position and just had to share her experience of Jesus with them. It is important to educate women in poorer countries to combat poverty. The Methodist Women in Britain support the lowest caste girls, the Dalit girls, by funding hostels, so they can send their girls to school. Our women empower their women.
Many women have used their voices in the churches down the ages. It is thought that there were early female church leaders like Priscilla and Phoebe who, it was thought, was entrusted to carry Paul’s letter to Rome. Phoebe probably had a sacred commission as a deacon, or leader or wealthy patron benefactor. Jesus like Paul was the recipient of the patronage of independent women. Women were mentioned in the gospel in Luke’s gospel, who paid for the ministry of Jesus. By the end of the second century inequality crept back in. Hildegard the daughter of a knight became a nun at the age of 18. She set up a monastery in the 1100s and wrote music and plays. Susannah Wesley encouraged her son John to let women preach. Women preachers have a fine tradition in the Methodist Church. In 1890 women could become deacons and women were ordained in 1974 in the Methodist Church. Roberta does not consider herself a woman minister, just a minister alongside others; she just brings who she is to ministry. Women can be deacons or presbyters just like men.
Roberta’s third point was the root of all this is God; he described the human beings he created as male and female. God holds us together in a partnership of male and female in all our diversity. Jesus treated men and women equally but then the church later lost its way. Women are still so often the downtrodden. Roberta said it is great to celebrate as Methodist Women in Britain who continue to speak for the voiceless. God created male and female.
We sang ‘Summoned by the God who made us rich in our diversity’, before Roberta led the prayers of intercessions for justice in God’s world. Worship concluded when we sang, ‘Sing praise to God who reigns above.