THERE are two recurrent themes at this year’s meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, ACC-17, in Hong Kong. One is discipleship; the other is gender. Or, more specifically, women.
The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu Fearon, went off-script at the end of his address on Monday morning to propose that women should be a “fifth instrument” of the Communion. It was meant as a compliment, in recognition of the unseen, unappreciated work of reconciliation and progress done by women around the globe — a way of “bringing our women into a proper focus within the Communion”.
It fell to the Director for Women in Church and Society at the Anglican Communion Office, Canon Terrie Robinson, to correct him gently the following day: to have a special place for women would imply that the other instruments (Lambeth Conference, ACC, Primates’ Meeting, and the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury) were still the preserve of men.
Canon Robinson was launching a new set of study materials for use in theological colleges around the Communion, God’s Justice: Just relationships between women and men, girls and boys. The report describes how sexual violence against women is a direct consequence of unequal power relations between men and women, and seeks to equip Anglican leaders to combat gender inequality.
Among its proposals are: “Women and men working together to . . . encourage men to stand up for women who are marginalised and abused, and women to stand up for men who work outside gender stereotypes; encourage men to give space for women in the public arena and women to give space for men in the domestic arena; ensure shared decision-making and leadership; . . . celebrate and work positively with gender differences.”Anglican Archives/Neil VigersCanon Terrie Robinson, Director for Women in Church and Society for the Anglican Communion Office
Canon Robinson’s short address to ACC members was one of the most powerful of the week. She described starting work in the Anglican Communion Office five years ago, and wondering what should be her focus.
“The answer soon came to me in the form of an email from a bishop. The text of the email simply said: ‘Lord, have mercy.’
“Several photographs were attached to the email. I clicked on just three of them, the first, the second, and the last. The first two photographs showed the killing of a young woman by a group of men. The last photo showed her dismembered body. I didn’t open the rest of the photographs.”
The photos had been sent by an African bishop, but it was clear, Canon Robinson said, that they had originated on another continent, in a cold climate, as a form of trophy or warning. The men were wearing thick jackets; the woman was naked, bound, and gagged, her eyes squeezed shut.
“This was about power, the abuse of power, and about rendering another powerless. It was about sin. I realised that the women’s desk could become a point of contact for any woman or any man in the Anglican Communion who was doing something, or wanted to do something, about violence against women and girls.”
She spoke about the many initiatives around the world, often under-resourced, often relying on the energy of women.
“But, for real and lasting change, we must tackle and transform the particular social norms, attitudes, scriptural misinterpretations, and behaviours that sustain and exacerbate unjust power relationships between women and men, girls and boys — whether this is in households, in churches, or embedded in the systems and structures that affect our lives. . .
“Christian values, teachings, and stories simply allow no room for ranking, power, and entitlement according to gender, or remaining silent in the face of gender-based violence, or devaluing a girl-child, or being complicit in the stigma that still surrounds the survivors of abuse and violence.”
Canon Robinson said that her work was based on a simple gospel truth: “Whenever the image of God is disfigured by violence or abuse, or the misuse of power in any way, then it is a sin against the Holy Spirit.”
She concluded: “Whenever we say anything about God, whenever we preach anything about Jesus Christ, whenever we do anything as Christian disciples in any aspect of mission and ministry, we should remember to ask ourselves: how is this going to affect relationships? What is this saying about power, and how power is used?
“Certainly, we should be saying or doing what we could say or do in front of Christ crucified — and in front of a young woman, made in the image of God, but gagged and bound, eyes squeezed shut, and rendered powerless against the men who are going to destroy her.”
Training for bishops’ wives. The previous day, the ACC had heard about the new weapon for peace being developed by Lambeth: the wives of bishops.
Caroline Welby (wife of an archbishop) briefed ACC members on the first 18 months of the programme Women in the Front Line, which seeks to equip women to have more of a say in peace-making in their regions.
“Women are naturally disposed to be reconcilers,” Mrs Welby said; they are often the first to be aware of tensions, whether in the home or wider society. It was an established fact, she said, that women had to be involved in a peace process if it was to last.
But, in many societies, women were still reticent, held back by cultural influences, lack of training, and often a lack of basic education, she said. The new programme, therefore, was designed to help them to develop a voice.*
The focus on bishops’ wives, Mrs Welby said, was because, in many cultures, the consecration of their husband catapulted them into a clearly defined position. In many regions, they were expected to take responsibility for the diocese’s women — usually with no preparation, besides providing hospitality and looking after their own households.
The aim was to train bishops’ wives, who would then pass the training on to clergy wives, who would, in turn, cascade the knowledge to others.
The strategy document for the initiative is keen to emphasise that this is just one of the ways in which the Communion supports men and women in peacekeeping. None the less, it states of the wives of bishops and clergy: “In situations of conflict, many are exhausted and traumatised, isolated from other women with similar experiences.”
The small team, which includes Mrs Welby, has so far made four visits: two to South Sudan, one to Burundi, and one to Melanesia. In each place, the structure is the same, though the programme is informed by the Province which is being visited. The wives are taken on retreat — “most women never stop” otherwise, Mrs Welby said; they were trained and equipped; and finally they were encouraged to share what they had learned with others.
The strategy document states: “The purpose is to strengthen the women’s skills and their confidence in using them in their communities; and to enable the women to discern where and how they can make a bigger impact, identifying the key challenges and possibilities of women in their communities.
“Where possible, the training is extended to a larger group than those receiving the retreat, possibly including ecumenical partners and Mothers’ Union coordinators.”
Mrs Welby spoke about the awkwardness she felt when greeted as “Mama Archbishop”. She said: “I try to come simply as me.”
The team has plans to conduct another three visits in the next year.
“What can we learn?” The Roman Catholic representative at ACC-17, Fr Tony Currer from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, spoke of the lessons that his Church needed to learn from Anglicans about the status and treatment of women.
In his Church, he explained, lay people could be participants only in consultative bodies, and since Roman Catholic women could not be ordained, “that means that women’s voices are only part of bodies that are consultative in nature.
“So we ask ourselves, what can the Catholic Church learn from our Anglican brothers and sisters? . . . What do we need to learn in terms of giving the voices of people who are not properly attended to, perhaps, in the Catholic Church in our discipline at the moment, a more important platform, more important ways of speaking into the way we live our ecclesial life?”
The Roman Catholic Church was an active partner in the work of justice for women that had been described at the ACC, he said.
Hear more about ACC-17 on the Church Times Podcast