Written by Rev. Heather Mc Cance,
Ministry developer for the Anglican Church in Canada.
November 3, 2018, on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada, hosted by Women’s Inter-Church Council of Winnipeg.
When I was a child, I was a member of the Junior Auxiliary of the Anglican Church of Canada at Grace Church in Markham, Ontario. Junior Auxiliary was for girls ages 8 through 12, Girls’ Auxiliary was for teenagers, and then there was the Anglican Church Women for adults. But once a year, all three groups got together, and invited women and girls from other churches to join us, on the evening of the first Friday of March for World Day of Prayer (WDP). I was fascinated, year after year, with learning about the different parts of the world that each year’s service was from. I was so proud to put my quarter in the collection plate when I read in the order of service about the grants to work around the world to make lives better. And the year I was asked to read? Well… if pride is a sin, I hope you will all forgive me, but that year I was 11 and got a part to read. Oh, my.
As a young adult, I was part of the Student Christian Movement at the University of Waterloo, and each year we came together with other student Christian groups on campus to organise a WDP service for all to attend. It was the first time I ever preached, the year we hosted.
When I was in seminary at the Toronto School of Theology (TST), the Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada (WICC) moved their office into the TST building, and I had a class in there that year, and just seeing the boxes of orders of service for WDP made me happy. The Toronto School of Theology held WDP as well, all the ecumenical colleges and chaplains coming together for worship for the occasion.
And then, over more than 20 years as a parish priest, I was part of many World Days of Prayer, hosting in our churches or travelling with groups to another church, to come together for prayer. And still to this day, I look forward to learning new things about a different part of the world and how Christians there live, and I continue to be so impressed with the amazing work done through the years by WICC in advocacy for those in need and through grants made for work for justice in Canada and around the world. So while I’m not formally involved in the works and structures of WICC, I hope that my words, as someone who has been impacted by your work for decades, can help in this amazing celebration of 100 years of WICC.
The Joy of Justice?
I’ve been asked to speak today on the theme of, “The Joy of Justice.” The Joy of Justice.
Joy is not something we see a lot of in our world today. We hear of caravans of desperate people, women and men and children, travelling on foot for hundreds and thousands of miles to escape violence and poverty in their homelands to face military might keeping them from the hope of a better life. We hear about horrific mass murders of our sisters and brothers simply because of the colour of their skin or the way they believe in God. We hear of the devastation of God’s creation, the threat that we have perhaps a dozen years to act before major catastrophe overtakes us. We hear of the plight of those living and dying on our streets, so many of them now captive to their addictions, with no place to call home. And on and on and on it goes. So much suffering. So much injustice. So little joy.
But here’s the wonderful thing about Christian women. We soldier on. If you’ll excuse the militaristic language, we fight the good fight. We do not give up, ever, no matter the odds stacked against us. As St. Paul wrote, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Christian women in leadership
And Christian women? We do it together. As [WICC President] Diane [Dwarka] noted in her gracious introduction, I’ve recently done some work studying leadership development. One of the pieces I spent some time with was studying what leadership means to different people. Not surprisingly, people from different cultures look for different things in a leader. But another general trend seems to be that women do leadership differently than men do. Women tend not to do the lone ranger thing; very few women will put themselves forward, will stand up on their soapbox on their own. Most women in leadership positions seek to gather people together, to bring people with different gifts and perspectives and insights together so that together we know more and together we can do more.
On October 19, 1918, in the waning days of what they then called The Great War, Miss Bessie McMurchy called together representatives of the Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian women’s missionary societies. These societies had formed in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, part of what is today called the first wave of Canadian feminism. Women in those years had organized not for their own rights or benefit, but because they saw ways that together they could make society better. They worked for temperance, seeing the evils that addiction to alcohol had created in Canadian society. They raised money to build and run hospitals and schools and orphanages. Believing that the good news of Jesus Christ was for all peoples, they supported missionary work in Canada and around the globe. They raised money to build churches in parts of the country that didn’t yet have churches. In all their charitable work, they often focused on the most vulnerable people, women and children. They opened homes for unwed mothers, worked to help women caught up in human trafficking, sewed and knit clothing for those in need. Eventually these woman fought for the right of women to vote, because they saw that that all of these efforts on their own weren’t going to make the kinds of societal changes that were needed to make Canada a fairer place for all people, and here in Manitoba women voted for the first time in 1916.
Rooted in faith, called to action
So one hundred years ago this fall, Miss McMurchy issued her invitation so that Christian women might come together “to promote the spread [of] Christ’s kingdom by united prayer, united action, and a stronger voice in national questions.” What an impressive, even daunting, mission statement: promote the spread of Christ’s kingdom by united prayer, united action, and a stronger voice in national questions.
But that’s what they did. Their first national inter-church day of prayer for missions was held just over a year later, a similar American group held a similar event a month later, and by 1922, the first international united day of prayer for churchwomen had spread across the continent. More and more denominational groups joined in and within five years the movement spread around the globe.
As all gathered here will know, what was at first “Women’s World Day of Prayer” soon became the focal point of the work. In an era when a Presbyterian marrying an Anglican was considered an interfaith marriage, causing heads to shake and tongues to wag in certain corners of Canadian society, the idea of Christians of different denominations gathering to pray together was pretty radical. In the 1960s, WICC expanded its membership to include representatives from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Greek Orthodox Church in Canada and the Roman Catholic Church. That Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants have felt welcome to join together through the years, that Christians of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds have been part of WICC, has proven my earlier point: women tend to lead movements by coming together, by building one another up, and by putting the goal ahead of personal gain. Frankly, and with all due apologies to my brothers in the room, if men had done this it would have been proclaimed from the headlines as revolutionary, radical, a breakthrough! Women did it, quietly and faithfully, simply because it was what God was calling them to do.
As WICC was in some ways a child of the first wave of feminism in Canada, it was also a part of and influenced by the second wave of feminism in the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The United Nations brought together women from around the world for consultation and work on Human Rights and the Changing Status of Women, and WICC was involved there. Connections made at these meetings in New York led to greater international partnerships, and through these years WICC was represented at conferences and meetings in Kenya, Thailand, Mexico, and Germany. Always reaching beyond themselves, always making connections with others, always embracing diversity and striving to reduce inequality and seek justice for all.
The 1980s and 90s brought a resurgence of work focused on the situations of women and children here in Canada, with WICC producing resources for churches to use to discuss and take action on Violence Against Women, the situation of older farm women in rural areas of the country, and the feminine face of poverty in this country. National WICC gatherings were held leading up to the World Council of Church’s Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. Or, as a friend of mine called it, Decade of Women in Solidarity with Churches, for it often seemed that it was the women in the churches who were carrying the work of the Decade forward. But no matter. We Christian women take situations as we find them and make the very best of them whenever and however we can. The Decade closed out in 1998 with a national ecumenical gathering called, “Daring Hope;” I was there as an Anglican rep, perhaps some of you were there representing WICC?
And now, since the turn of the millennium, Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada has continued its work on violence against women, with a special focus on violence against Indigenous women in Canada. WICC has spoken out against poverty and racism in this country, worked with partners on Sex Trafficking, and hosted women doing theology conferences in various parts of the country. There’s also been great strides made to make the most of new communications technology, from a social media presence to making resources available online.
And here we are, one hundred years later. And still, the Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada continues to work on many of the same issues Bessie McMurchy first called that first small group to work on: poverty, the position of vulnerable women and children, human trafficking, bringing women from the different churches in Canada together to pray together, to take action together, and to have a stronger voice in national questions.
And through all of those years, all of those projects, all of those meetings and conferences, all of the planning and praying and researching, through it all, they found joy. I wish I’d had some time to poke around WICC’s archives to prepare for today so that I could read you excerpts from letters and minutes of meetings to prove my statement, but I’ve done enough work looking at the history of women in the churches to tell you that yes, it was hard work at times. There were disagreements and there were tears and there was frustration at the pace of change. But there was definitely joy in the work for justice.
Joy, of course, isn’t the same thing as happiness. Happiness so often depends on what’s going on around us, on our mood of the moment. Joy is deeper. Joy goes down into our souls. When my daughter was talking back to me and refusing to clean up her bedroom and slamming the door of her room and telling me she hates me, when I was anything but happy, I still had deep within the joy of being a mother. Even when I was at my grandfather’s funeral, and in tears because he will be so sorely missed, I had deep joy in the love we continue to share, and in being with family to celebrate his life.
So even when, through the years, there may have been struggles in the work of the Women’s Inter-Church Council, there was, and is, still joy.
Joy in coming together to plan worship services across the country, worship services that would speak of our calling to be co-creators of Christ’s kingdom of love, and peace, and justice. Joy in giving voice to our yearnings for the coming of that kingdom, for the establishment of justice on earth for all of God’s people and all of God’s creation. Such joy on countless World Days of Prayer, as women and in time men, too, have come together year after year after year to praise our God, to live out Jesus’s vision for the church, “that all may be one.” And the joy, after each World Day of Prayer, of taking the offerings of God’s people and finding the places where justice might be made, here in Canada and around the globe, continuing in the legacy of our founders who sought to serve the most vulnerable people, especially women and children, the least of Jesus’s sisters and brothers.
The mission statement of the Women’s Interchurch Council has changed through the years, as the organization’s focus broadened beyond national questions to take in a more global perspective. Today it reads, Empowering Christians to pursue justice, peace and reconciliation by standing together in prayer and action.
And there’s that word: together.
When God created the first human being, God looked and saw that it was not good for the human being to be alone. When Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the good news of the kingdom of God, he didn’t send them alone, but two by two. When Paul wrote of the church he told us that we are all parts of the body, and only together can we be the body of Christ in the world.
Together, says today’s mission statement. United, said Bessie McMurchy’s invitation a hundred years ago. With all the work there is to do to bring justice to birth in our world, we can only do it united, together. With all the wisdom we need to grow justice wherever we can, we need everyone’s insights and contributions, united, together. To find that deep joy in the work for the justice of the kingdom of God, we work united, together.