NEW WORLD PECKING ORDER
Address to the Mothers’ Union: The Annunciation 2022
It is hard to get to the original Mary because she has become much bigger than the quiet Palestinian teenager who was visited by an angel, but it is worth the effort. Her most famous words begin with: ‘my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ and follow on from the news that she would give birth to the Messiah.
I don’t expect her hymn of praise followed on that quickly from this revelation. The angel said to Mary: ‘the child to be born…will be called son of God’. All parents have aspirations for their children; no-one has ever heard their unborn child bigged up like Mary. It was a stunning observation, but note her first response was not: ‘that’s amazing, I am so happy’; it was ‘how can this be, since I am a virgin?’
Rather than jumping for joy, she was already doing the calculations. What would the rumour mill dream up? Her unexpected pregnancy nearly led to a permanent separation between Mary and Joseph based on its apparent scandal. As usual, scripture is minimalist in its description, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. One of these may be that when God moves in power, he leaves some unexpected but unavoidable bruises.
The story of Jesus is bound up with John the Baptist, but the story of the two men starts with Mary and Elizabeth, the two women behind the greatest and the second greatest men to live. Neither of them expected their babies. Elizabeth was overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy. The husband Zechariah had been asking God for a child for years but had lost belief in his prayer along the way and was rendered mute by God at the outcome. For months thereafter, Elizabeth was her own spokeswoman, sharing the news and the plans with the neighbourhood. After Mary’s news, it was her, not Joseph, who sang her heart out with one of the best hymns of praise in history. In a highly patriarchal culture, where men did the talking and the acting, Elizabeth and Mary had agency and did their own comms work.
It's worth reminding ourselves of this after centuries of mansplaining theologians.
Every generation tends to think it is the most liberated and enlightened of all, only to find the next one thinks it is more so. There is a special risk round the position of women in society today, and that is to assume we have arrived at the goal of equality, however understood. Women in this cathedral, of whom there are many today, will know this is not the case. The journalist Mary-Ann Sieghart has written a well-researched book called The Authority Gap which shows the ways in which women in the workplace are challenged more, criticised more, and overlooked more in meetings; how men with less understanding of an issue than the women they are talking to still shamelessly act like they know more. How men learn from an early age to dominate conversations and debate. All these are questions we should respond to in the Church because of our calling to ‘clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’ (Colossians 3:12) – all qualities that when practised give space and time to those whose voices are hushed in wider society.
But the challenge we face is even more urgent than this. It is one that the Mothers’ Union has the capacity to address in its 2022 theme of transformation and which it has already begun to campaign on: and that’s the increasing risk of violence that women face today. There are three spheres of this and two of them are long established. The domestic home remains the place where women are most at risk. The number of recorded incidents of domestic violence increased 6% to the year ending March 2021 – a total of nearly 850,000 cases. And these may be the tip of an iceberg. In the previous year, it was estimated that 1.6 million women experienced domestic violence. In the UK, two women are murdered every week by a man they know. If we had terrorist statistics like that, there would be deep changes to the way we live. But the murder of anonymous women, away from public gaze, has not registered as it should.
The other space where women are at risk is in public. Female victim of murder by male strangers are rare, but receive wider publicity when they happen. Behind these smaller risks lies a much bigger foundational risk, especially for young women, of being sexually harassed in public. One recent survey of women between the ages of 18-24 found 97% of them had been sexually harassed.
The third and final sphere in which women are at risk is online, where they are twenty-seven times more likely to be abused than men. And the abuse is often indescribably vile, with platforms devoted to the grooming of young men to hate women and blame them for all their problems. The abuse is designed to subordinate women to men and drive them out of the public world into a private sphere where they cannot have wider influence.
It may be far-fetched to imagine it, but we can be sure that had Mary and Elizabeth received and shared their news in today’s world rather than the first century’s, they would have been torn to shreds online. So much for progress.
May I encourage you in the Mothers’ Union on two fronts. The first is to thank you for your fidelity and undiminished focus on the welfare of families and communities. The second is to cheer you on in the focus on violence against women. It should not be left to women to mount this campaign, but by your presence you are speaking up for women who are voiceless and afraid in this world.
When Mary spoke up, there was humility with an unexpected twist. In her hymn of praise, she acted like a woman who knows her place in the scheme of things, not as a downtrodden woman being dutifully silent around the men:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty, she says.
These words have a revolutionary feel to them, imagining a new world pecking order where everyone swaps places. And Mary knew where she fitted in: not at the foot of the table but on a level with those who sit on thrones.
In the end, Mary endured more than most as she watched her adult son be tortured to death. We can’t go to the place of emotional abuse Mary suffered because it is so dark and awful. But some do. Mary’s value to the voiceless, the abused and the dispossessed of this world cannot be overstated. An inspiration to us as we seek to bring down the abusively powerful from their domestic thrones today, so the lowly can at last be lifted up.
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