Walking on Water – Seventh Sunday after Trinity 2011

Matthew 14:28, 29 “Peter answered him, Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water. He said, Come. So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus”.

Among the famous names in the Church Calendar this week are two Victorian women, both members of the Church of England, one famous chiefly in church circles, the other more widely known. One is Mary Sumner, the founder of the Mothers’ Union; the other is Florence Nightingale, “The Lady with the Lamp”, the famous reformer of the nursing profession. Both came from privileged backgrounds and were able to move in influential circles: but they shared the disabilities that went with being a respectable lady in 19th century Britain. In different ways, they made a contribution to improving the place and value of women in their society.

It is often remarked that the work of  a woman in the home, being unpaid, is never given its true valuation. Mary Sumner,  a vicar’s wife, saw quite clearly that it is truly vital; that it is from the mother, and in the home, that the child learns to be a good Christian and a good citizen. And yet this vital work, foundation of Church and State, was expected to happen without much assistance or support. So she founded the Mothers’ Union, as an organisation where churchwomen of every class could work together to create the best of homes for their children. She emphasised the role of the home in forming the child’s character; and so underlined the responsibilities of parents to set a pure and wholesome tone for the whole family. The devotional life of the Mothers’ Union has always gone hand-in-hand with its social and charitable side. Generations of women have been strengthened for their tasks through its fellowship. In many countries around the world Mothers’ Union is  a real force for  the empowering of women in societies where they might traditionally be undervalued. It looks like a very tame thing, an association of church women, but in fact it has always had a radical side, and the wise vicar respects the enrolling member…

 

Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, was very impatient with the social conventions that restricted the role of women to the home. She wanted women to find a wider sphere of action, particularly in the Church. She wrote:

The Church of England has for men bishoprics, archbishoprics, and a little work… For women she has – what? I would have given her my head, my hand, my heart. she would not have them. She did not know what to do with them. She told me to go back and do crochet in my mother’s drawing room; or, if I were tired of that, to marry and look well at the head of my husband’s table. You may go to the Sunday School if you like it, she said. But she gave me no training even for that. She gave me neither work to do for her, nor education for it.

Florence defied her family to train for nursing. Nursing again was “women’s work” – but not ladies’ work -, taken for granted, and in truth the character of the women often employed as nurses left a lot to be desired – indulgence in drink being an occupational hazard. Florence brought a new set of high standards to the work, which both improved the outcome for patients, and also developed nursing as a serious profession for talented and educated women. If the Church of England now has work for its women and training to give them, it is in part because of the pioneering efforts of the likes of Florence Nightingale who helped change the public perception of the female sex. Whether it will ever manage to find them bishoprics and archbishoprics remains to be seen.

Two women who in different ways stepped out of the boat in which society had placed them and walked on water, overcoming supposed limitations. How often do the things that limit our vision, our charity, our sense of the possible, exist solely in our own minds and imaginations. Jesus in the Gospel invites us to lives of adventure and daring; he calls us to have faith and courage and seek him across the unknown. The Baptist missionary William Carey, pioneer of mission in India, had a famous phrase: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God”.

 

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