I was once friendly with an irreverent stained glass artist. He was a splendid fellow inspite of being, or perhaps because of being, an atheist.  He maintained that this gave him an objective hard edge that was all too obviously lacking in the sentimental gunk produced by most workers in stained glass today. 

Subversive Stained Glass

He once drew for me two windows on the subject of "The Lost Sheep".   A thin border of red glass represented Jesus the Good Shepherd.  In the first window the border was in its proper place encompassing a window full of little sheep all grazing in ordered, regimental lines.  In the second window the border of red glass was all but gone, only the arched top of it was visible at the bottom because the Good Shepherd was off looking for the lost sheep, and all the sheep in the window were higgledy-piggledy, here there and everywhere without him.  I pointed out that this, although interesting, could be seen as subversive because higgledy-piggledy sheep look far more natural and contented than regimented sheep.  Was the window saying then, that Jesus and faith impose a rigid and ugly moral order upon the flock of the faithful?  Well, yes, perhaps!  And yet I liked it very much, for there was truth in it.  The old ladies who were paying for the window would not accept it.  Not because they saw it as subversive, but because they wanted a conventional and sentimental window with a simpering shepherd and "twee" sheep.

Theresa's Mary and Martha

This experience taught my friend a lesson. I commissioned him to do a window on Martha and Mary and suggested he did it with Martha very obviously as prominent and honoured as Mary and underneath it the wonderfully common-sense words of St Theresa: "To give our Lord a perfect hospitality, Mary and Martha must combine".  This in honour of the wonderful Ladies Groups that have been so vital a part of my parochial ministry over the years.  He wouldn't do it, saying, perhaps rightly, that it would not be acceptable to the benefactor, and so, sadly, we got a more conventional window.

Terrifying Ladies

Church ladies groups can, of course, be terrifying things.  There have been parsons scared stiff of their Ladies' Guild and with some justification, for there are Guilds who have ruled both parson and parish with a rod of iron.  In the Africa of my youth the "Wadzimai", the Mothers' Union, in distinctive blue and white uniforms, were the backbone of the congregation, but also astonishingly and powerfully pharisaical, the first to stone the adulterer!  

However, one of the great blessings in my parish and church life has been the ladies' group, either the Mothers Union or Guild.  They have been not only the most active of all groups in the parish, they have also contained people of the deepest faith.

The Feminine Backbone

Women have always, I suspect, been the backbone of the Church.  Just as they have always been the backbone of the family. Women's groups and guilds have done more to keep parishes afloat, have raised more money, initiated more action than any other part or group or faction in parish life.

One of the saddest features of today's changing social patterns is that the perceived need for two incomes in every family has deprived both local community and church of so much voluntary activity, work, sacrifice and action.  Our communities have suffered.  Our families have suffered.  The Church family has suffered.  Yet such is the character of women that Ladies' Guilds and Mothers' Unions still exist, still remain a part of the Church's life,  are still, often, the most dynamic part of that life.

Between The Gospel's Lines

Reading between the lines of the Gospels you find much the same thing.  The women among Jesus' disciples, although not apostles, were, I suspect, the backbone of both disciples and apostles.  Besides supporting and feeding and clothing Jesus and the disciples, they were also, it seems, listeners, sayers of prayers and thinkers.  They made the tea, cooked the slices, washed up, like Martha, but also, like her sister Mary, they listened, had faith,  witnessed Jesus' love, stood by at the Crucifixion, and one of their number was the first to witness the Resurrection.

So this parson at least, and many of his colleagues too, feels a great debt of gratitude to the women’s groups in the parishes he has served.  Gratitude for money raised, for floods of tea and coffee and soup sufficient to float Noah's Ark once more, for sandwiches, cakes and slices and for activities of a thousand sorts.  For support that has kept materially alive, sometimes in very difficult times, the parish church. 

But there is room for even more gratitude.  To give our Lord a perfect hospitality, Mary and Martha must combine.  And many members of women's groups do just that.  They have been Mary and Martha. 

An Unobtrusive but Profound Piety

I have found in some members of my women's groups an unobtrusive but profound piety that shames my own.  It is most strengthening and heartening, for the clergy need support in prayer, devotion and public worship as well as with lashings of tea and funds.   We sometimes think that the most impressive and eye-catching and attractive quality in the Church is do-gooding.  That this is what will validate and authenticate us in the eyes of the world more than anything else.  But although puzzling, easily as attractive, intriguing and compelling, in a meaningless and often hopeless seeming world, is the crazy activity that is worship and prayer.  For such crazy activity can only be undertaken seriously by those who have found meaning and purpose.  So to attract and bring in the lost and to give to them and our Lord a perfect hospitality, Mary and Martha must combine.  In our ladies groups very, very often they do.

Andrew Neaum