Bishop Hugh speaks out on gender based violence
Of all the hundreds of shocking images to have come out of the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s the ones from the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol that have most seared themselves onto my heart. The young, heavily pregnant woman with her polka dot pyjamas, desperately running down the bombed out stairs and then – thank God – photos of her with her new born baby shortly afterwards.
Other photos were much more distressing – soldiers carrying pregnant women on stretchers out of the shattered ruins of the building. Some of them we now know, did not survive.
It is women who suffer most in war. They suffer most because civilians make up 70% of those caught up in violence, they suffer because the majority of refugees are women, they suffer at the hands of soldiers, they suffer because women always suffer when law and order break down.
And what we see in Ukraine, and South Sudan, in Afghanistan and the Yemen, and in all the other hidden conflicts around the world, is the extreme end of a spectrum of disadvantage, discrimination and violence experienced by women in every society – including ours.
Amongst the most shocking of the statistics that could be listed is this one: 1 in 3 women around the world experience physical or sexual violence.
1 in 3 women around the world experience physical or sexual violence.
And that’s why the Mothers’ Union is so involved with and committed to the No more 1 in 3 campaign. And I stand with you in that, and I am committed to playing my role, as a man, as a husband and father of three girls, as a church leader and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, in that campaign and in speaking against gender inequality of any kind.
And it is men who need to take the lead in this – not in the way men so often take the lead, by taking over, but by acknowledging that the problem is largely ours. That it is men who perpetrate acts of violence against women, men who benefit from discrimination and that it’s men who need to change.
And as we do so, we need to acknowledge – I need to acknowledge – that Christianity and the church have contributed to the inequality that we see around us. We know that the bible includes stories of violence against women, and that those stories have been used to tolerate, condone and even promote discrimination and worse.
But the Scriptures are a complex tangle of narratives and voices, perspectives and people. And while we must acknowledge that there are ‘texts of terror’ that speak of violence against women, there are also, sometimes hidden away and sometimes there in plain sight, other voices; voices that undermine inequality, which call out injustice and which refuse to allow us to tolerate any kind of violence against women.
And top of the list of those voices, is Mary.
And today, we celebrate the story of one of the great women of history; we celebrate the first time we meet Mary.
Astonishing, strong, brave, imaginative Mary. Faithful, creative, prophetic Mary. Generous Mary. Mary, mother of God.
But even Mary, the woman whose consent changed the world, has been used to shore up male power and authority. Mary, who was so brave and bold in saying yes to God, despite the shame it would bring upon her, has been over spiritualised and robbed of her personality.
Mary, who gave her active consent and, in her own power and authority, said ‘yes’, has been portrayed as a mere vessel, there simply to carry a baby.
Mary, who must have had calloused hands and rough feet, has been painted as a pure, white-robed ghost, floating above the dirty world.
But still, even through all the projections and attempts to keep her silent, Mary speaks. And she speaks with authority.
She tells us that God always seeks consent. That when he calls us to do his work, however big or small, it’s an invitation that he makes, and that we can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
And Mary tells us that to say ‘yes’ requires strength and a willingness to be bold. That saying yes might well mean getting our hands dirty and may well lead us to suffering, as well as to joy.
And she reminds us that at the heart of God’s work is scattering the imagination of the hearts of those who are proud enough to think they’re in charge; it’s bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly; it’s filling the hungry with good food; it’s sending the rich away empty.
And this is the mother who brought up Jesus. The one who taught him, who shaped his imagination and who introduced him to the world, to people and to his work.
This strong, faith-filled woman, who saw the injustice of the world and called it out, was the one who shaped Jesus’ mind and imagination.
No wonder Jesus treated women differently. No wonder he broke taboos, refused to allow a woman caught in adultery to suffer violence, hung out with women you weren’t meant to hang out with. No wonder he was able to be tender and gentle, to express emotion. No wonder. Mary after all, was his mother.
And so today, as we celebrate the work of the Mothers’ Union around the world; as we celebrate the faith, creativity and strength of you, and our 4 million sisters and brothers, let’s look again to Mary – the real Mary, and hear her voice rise up to speak to us today. And hearing her, commit ourselves again, in whatever context we live and work, pray and lead, to a just world in which women can live in peace, in which women can be equal with men, in which we together, can work for justice, mercy and an end to all violence.
In the face of the war in the Ukraine, of what we know life is like for women in so many places, in the light of the fact that 1 in 3 women will suffer violence, that’s a big commitment. An impossible commitment perhaps.
And the angel said to Mary, ‘nothing will be impossible with God’ and Mary replied ‘here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word’.
The Rt Revd Hugh Nelson,
Bishop of St Germans
Preaching at the Mothers’ Union annual service
March 26, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-14, Hebrews 10:4-10, Luke 1:26-38