Who is my neighbour? Bodies, politics and the rowan tree

Look, how the rowan filters the wind

how her blood-red berries

celebrate themselves as the Sun

is swallowed in the deep Western Atlantic

& tomorrow’s history sails closer

on the ship of the night. [i]

[Presentation to the 2015 Anglican Schools Australia National Conference by the Revered  Gillian Moses, Chaplain, St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School, Brisbane]

Who is my neighbour? Usually, the person I least expect.

In March this year I attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women as a representative of the Anglican Church of Australia.  I was part of a delegation of Anglican women from around the Communion, and we in turn were part of civil society which negotiates, advises on, and enacts the work of that Commission in a remarkable way. We were, as the poet puts it, watching tomorrow’s history sail closer on the ship of the night.

Anglican women from Australia have been attending CSW for a number of years, and one of our other speakers, Dr Sarah Bachelard, was in fact last year’s representative. The work of the Commission this year was to review the world’s progress in 12 benchmark areas of gender equality since the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995. What changes had 20 years of activism wrought? How might this review process shape the next 15-20 years, especially as UN Women challenges the global community to step up to full gender equality or Planet 50-50 by 2030? And my own question:  what does a chaplain to an Anglican Girls’ School in Australia bring to and carry away from such a process?

In reflecting on this question I have taken the liberty of expanding the image of the body to include the image of the tree, specifically the rowan tree, as I frame my thoughts through the words of one of my favourite poets, Scotsman George Gunn, and his poem The Rowan of Life. There is something wonderfully interconnected about his rowan tree and he says what is to be said much more beautifully than I could. Gunn writes:

the rowan tree is nature’s truth

turning the peat sanded soil to sugar

it is the life-ash and the world-tree

a connecting conversation of wood and myth

where snake & squirrel & eagle

serve up the creation of the North

to the spinning story-wheel

of human imagination

I think that the nature of chaplaincy is, among other things, to sweeten the peaty soil of our students’ intellect and spirit. We have something vital to add – and in this context sweetening the soil doesn’t mean we tell our students (and staff) that everything is sweetness and light. Sweetening the soil in gardening terms means reducing the acidity and making it more hospitable for plants, or in our case, ideas and visions.  I see my task as encouraging our students to engage critically with the world around them, and to give them the tools to reflect theologically on what they encounter. Or in the poet’s words, we are beginning that “connecting conversation of wood and myth”. That can be a ‘difficult’ conversation!

Our myth, or our foundational story, is the story of Jesus. The Jesus story challenges us to be socially active – we know he did not focus on a great afterlife, a future existence, where all wrongs would be righted. Jesus’ energy was directed to the here and now, and the question of how we deal with injustice, deformity (and here I mean social deformity), illness, when we encounter it before us? How do we do relationship? How do we exercise our healing ministry in society and how do we teach our students that this is their calling and their capacity also?

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’  But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’  When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)

For Jesus, the body is political, and healing the body is an inherently political action. It is a Christological action of course, as Jesus claims the unique authority of God to heal on the Sabbath, but it is also a call to reprioritise our actions, to favour healing above obedience, inclusiveness above order, connectedness over power. The story awakens us to the gospel imperative to see the injustices around us and to act to right them, however we can.

The ever-asking Sea asks

who will open the door of possibility

who will release these caged birds

these aspirations locked in dismissal

this Sea this Moon this Sun

is for all & all must taste

the sweet tang of the rowan berry

hear the music which lies beyond history

The Commission on the Status of Women challenges us to act specifically on the injustices that arise because of gender. How do gender issues and the struggle for gender equality form part of our education of students?  As a girls’ school we are very conscious of how we need to educate our students on gender politics and gender issues as these are critical issues that already shape their lives and that will continue to form, and sometimes deform, them into the future. I also hope we are engaging our boys in the same conversation.  But it is also true that many of our students come from relatively privileged backgrounds, and simply by virtue of growing up in Australia, they are protected from some of the harsher realities that face their peers in other parts of the world. Part of ‘sweetening the soil’ is to open the conversation about some of these harsh realities.

In the lead up to CSW I encouraged our Year 10-12 students to participate in the Girls Grade Beijing survey which was designed by an international NGO The Working Group on Girls to gather the impressions of girls and young women from all around the world about progress that has been made towards gender equality.

The survey asked about educational matters such as girls’ access to STEM subjects, and how common it is for girls to go on to secondary and tertiary education in their school. But it also asked about who does the chores at home and if girls and their brothers are expected to do the same amount of unpaid work at home. It asked how safe they feel at home or while travelling, and what sort of gender-based discrimination they face, from catcalling on the street to forced early marriage and female genital mutilation. Now while our girls hopefully responded NEVER to those last two questions, the survey reminds them that girls in other parts of the world will be answering ‘yes’ to one or both. Who is my neighbour?

So let’s talk about bodies.  Women’s bodies, in particular. Globally speaking, women work 66% of the world’s total working hours including paid and unpaid work, but are consistently the poorest sector when it comes to income.[ii] Women’s unpaid work, if assigned monetary value, would account for anywhere between 10-50% of GDP globally. In Australia, the average fulltime weekly wage for a woman is still only 82% of that of a man. For the same work. Women occupy less than 19% of positions on boards of ASX200 companies, with only 12% holding positions as chairs, and 17 % as CEOs. This is despite women making up almost 49% of the workforce. One third of companies have no women at all in key management positions.

Educationally speaking 2/3 of the world’s illiterate adults are women. More women in Australia are entering higher education than men, although this is not reflected in their respective economic outcomes. Yet when women anywhere have access to higher education, infant mortality and fertility rates decline, and the children of mothers who can read have much better outcomes in life. When women do better, everyone does better.

When it comes to healthcare we in Australia are doing pretty well, as long as you are not an indigenous woman of course, or a refugee or asylum seeker. These women often lack access to medical care because of cultural taboos and political decisions. Globally, women’s reproductive health is such a fraught topic that, when the Anglican delegation was crafting a statement back to the Communion we couldn’t even talk about reproductive health as that is thought to be code for abortion and therefore not even on the table for discussion. But women’s control of their own fertility is essential to their psychological and physical health.

Big rowan tree and ripe berries at golden sunset light

Then there is the question of women in the media. In television and movies, 70% of characters who speak are male, only 30% are female[iii]. When it comes to characters who are shown working, 80% are male, only 20% are female. Even among extras, in any given crowd scene more than 80% will be men, and only 17% will be women. Why is media portrayal of women relevant? Because whether we like it or not, the media tells us how society ‘should’ look. These days it’s where we get many of our ideas about what is normal.

Then there is the issue of gender-based violence. Global statistics from 2013 reported that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.  In some countries this figure is closer to 70% of women. In some countries, it is closer to 100%. Often, social, economic and physical oppression go hand in hand.  It is estimated that of all women killed in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members. Most cases of violence against women go unreported. A study of 42,000 women across the 28 Member States of the European Union revealed that only 14 per cent of women reported their most serious incident of intimate partner violence to the police, and 13 per cent reported their most serious incident of non-partner violence to the police. What a way to normalise violence against women!

Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children (below 18 years of age). Some 250 million were married before 15. Child brides are especially vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and early pregnancy. More than 10% of girls (not girls and women) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. Child marriage also affects boys, in much smaller numbers, although there are 8 countries in the world where more than 10% of men are married before the age of 18.[iv]

What about human trafficking?[v]  Trafficking ensnares an estimated 20.9 million victims of forced labour worldwide, and an estimated 4.5 million in sexual exploitation. The human trafficking industry is now more profitable than the global oil industry. Interestingly, the passage of forced migrants such as refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons often disguises the movement of trafficked people. Trafficking is the ultimate expression of the commodification of humans, and a total rejection of any sense of interconnectedness, or neighbourhood.

Of course here at home the political conversation still resolves around refugees and asylum seekers, and who is which. Political parties try to gauge, then shape, public tolerance for doing as little as possible. We have also seen the apparent political distaste for change in the definition of marriage, as the sea of human rights and acceptance of diversity founder on the rocks of religious conviction and tradition.  Even in the area of intimate partner violence we are just beginning to be able to talk about it without squirming, but are not really anywhere near the sort of cultural change required to effect a real diminishing of the statistics. So while it’s true that we in Australia are far better off than many countries, we are also global citizens and we don’t get to say “I’m alright Jill. Your injustice is your problem. You are not my neighbour. You don’t belong in this neighbourhood.”

This is the half-land where “what” turns into “when”

where impossibilities dissolve into process

the pure open space of the imagination

so as the red deer look out past death

wo must also gaze into the actual marvel

Of each human life fully lived

“The actual marvel of each human life fully lived” – that’s a vision to aspire to.

So I come back to my original question of what all of this has to do with schools. At St Aidan’s I am fortunate to have the full support and encouragement of the leadership in treating these political landscapes as core business for our school. Our Religious and Values Education curriculum includes lessons directed at raising students’ political consciousness through the lens of the gospel. We talk about gender, sex, poverty, the control of information, and who cares for the vulnerable. I believe these are among the most important lessons we teach. We use the gospel and theological reflection to encourage critical thinking. We are in the business of helping students to develop their own world view, to recognise injustice and to know how to respond, to challenge dominant narratives, to educate themselves including about spirituality and religion and not to accept ‘on faith’ what someone tells them.

I happen to believe that the gospel offers us a pretty good starting point for a life-giving world view. Take the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example. (Matt 25.31-46)  When Jesus tells his audience that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”, he is making it clear that whatever you think is appropriate treatment for the most vulnerable people in our society, will inevitably become the standard by which we are all treated. When it is okay to violate girls, to disenfranchise women, to sell the poor like cheap goods, and to kill the unimportant, then it is only a matter of time before we are all on the receiving end – even you, even the king, even God. When the safety, health, education and empowerment of the least of these is prioritised, the safety, health, education and empowerment of all people is protected. Either we are all merely goods, or we are all fully human. It is all of us, or none.

As Anglicans we have recognised that these values lie at the heart of our identity, which is how they come to be enshrined in the Marks of Mission. And at St Aidan’s these values are also captured in the ethos of our founding religious order, the Society of the Sacred Advent, and this has already instilled in our community a genetic disposition to service in the name of the gospel. A quick look at our alumni roll illustrates how many of our past students have embraced gospel values as they live lives of service, and challenge injustice.

though the rowan tree becomes bare & barren

she will grow green again

as will the conscience of those who look

be reborn when they see the need

to toughen the sinews of the heart

& stand up against destruction

yet we must exist survive, rejoice

& swim in the fire of the red rowan sea

Perhaps the greatest encouragement from my experience at the UN came from seeing faith communities in action, hearing their stories, and noticing how faith is seen as an essential component in the journey towards equality. It is inevitable, I suspect, that attending something like the CSW becomes a politicising experience  whether I intended it to or not. I cannot see how anyone could listen to the stories and statistics we heard and think that the status quo is ok. But I have to interpret all of that through the lenses of religion and spirituality, and this is where I found the role of faith communities in transforming society, as seen by the UN, to be a real eye-opener.

What I saw was religious communities willing to open themselves to transformation as they reconsider traditions that do not lead to the flourishing of all humans. They recognise, in the case of Christian communities, that the Spirit is still at work in us and with us and that we are exposed to fresh revelation about how we live with each other and what it means to be human.

But I also saw the secular movements of the United Nations, UN Women, economists and politicians recognise that faith communities have an essential role to play in shaping the future. While some advocates argued for the exclusion of faith communities from having a voice in the work going forward, more people fought to insist we be included. A majority of people recognised that churches and religious groups, including the Anglican Communion, need to be at the table when we speak about the kind of society we want to live in. They want us as neighbours! Given that we so often hear that religion is irrelevant if not downright dangerous, I think that is a pretty good encouragement for us.

I take hope, therefore, that what we do still matters. The political message of the gospel, in the sense of what it tells us about how to live together, is vital and sweetens the soil. I have returned from the UN with a clear understanding of the value of the work we all do as Anglican schools shaping the minds, bodies and spirits of our students, our staff and ourselves, as we answer the question again and again, who is my neighbour?

Here is where we bear witness to the creative power

that hastens the blossoming of the dust in the Eastern dawn

so that silence can give birth to song

& the darkness pass on to light its liberty

all this must rise & fall & sing the dust into life

Presentation to the 2015 Anglican Schools Australia National Conference by the Revered  Gillian Moses, Chaplain, St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School, Brisbane.


[i] All poetry is from George Gunn, “The Rowan of Life” in A Northerly Land, Dunvegan: Braella Press, 2013.

[ii] Most statistics come from UNWomen website www.unwomen.org

[iii] Media related statistics from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media website www.seejane.org

[iv] Child marriage statistics from UNICEF (http://data.unicef.org/child-protection/child-marriage

[v] Global Freedom Network www.globalfreedomnetwork.org

Editorial Team Written by:

One Comment

  1. October 9, 2015

    I am so glad you posted this here. Gillian’s address was one of the highlights of the Anglican Schools Conference last Term. Keith (Ballarat)

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