by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
In 2019, on a visit to the Holy Land I visited the church in Magdala and found myself faced with an enormous and extraordinary modern painting by Daniel Cariola depicting larger-than-life sandaled feet which are those of Jesus Christ and those around him. There is also the hand of a woman stretched out so that it is just touching the hem of Jesus’ robes, and at the point of connection there is a vibrant, almost electric, circle of light. As I recall that picture now, it is not only deeply poignant as we live a time when close proximity and touch are things many people long for, but it also seems pertinent this week as we mark International Women’s Day (IWD) with the theme ‘Choose to Challenge’.
We have had a bucketful of challenges over this past year and little of it has been of our choosing. Yet I am also aware that even when there is not a viral pandemic, for many people across our world there is continual and overwhelming challenge, not least for many girls and women. Not much of their challenge is chosen, good or life-giving – unlike the sort of challenge which is the focus of IWD.
The hand in the Cariola painting is that of the woman who had been suffering for 12 years from a continuous flow of blood. She knew much about isolation, trauma, and loss, not due to a viral pandemic but due to her gynaecological condition. I suspect her mental health was affected as well as her physical health.
As the woman touches Jesus, he feels power go out of him and he voices a challenge, ‘who touched me?’. The question would have sounded absurd to Christ’s disciples given they were being jostled by a crowd, but it could also be heard as critical and disapproving. Yet I wonder if it was more about ‘choosing to challenge’ in order to make this woman visible, such that the ‘who’ in his question was inviting the woman to be revealed as someone with a unique identity and story. Here is a woman who has been hidden, rendered irrelevant and even stigmatised, and now she is about to be deeply noticed as a significant and loved individual.
The gospel writers, as is so often the case where women are concerned, refer to her simply as a woman (unlike the men named by Mark and Luke in their chapters recounting this incident). We will never know if Jesus actually used her name in the moments of their encounter, but he does call her ‘daughter’, reflecting value and intimacy in relationship.
It is this challenge to notice and recognise that the Church is called to join in with wherever people are hidden, stigmatised, labelled, or condemned as ‘other’, not only as we live a viral pandemic but as we emerge from it and shape the future we want to see.
Yet there is another challenge in that circle of light, and it is that of the woman herself. Amid her desperation, isolation, and pain, she shows great courage in acknowledging her need and taking a decision to reach out.
In my recent book ‘Encounters’ (which has Cariola’s painting on the cover), I reflect on this gospel story in the context of women in prison. It is not easy for those women to reach out for help, yet rehabilitation and restoration are not possible until that moment comes. Indeed, it requires a woman’s story to be heard and her trauma to be recognised.
This week as the Domestic Abuse Bill reaches Report Stage in the House of Lords many of our proposed amendments and challenges to the government are endeavouring to recognise the people who are powerless to challenge and remain hidden, most of whom are women, but not exclusively so.
I am acutely aware that whenever one speaks out specifically for women and girls there is nearly always a backlash from people who want to critically point out that boys and men should not be left out. I agree. Yet, I also want to say that sometimes we need to shine a light more strongly in particular areas to change a pervasive culture which has been perpetuated down the centuries. And working for that kingdom-of-God-shaped shalom means sometimes unashamedly choosing to shine the spotlight on women in order to bring challenge so that their potential and equality can be recognised and fanned into flame.
It is all part of the bigger picture in which we need to choose to challenge injustice, inequality, and discrimination, not least when it comes to disability, sexuality, background and colour. At the same time, we must never forget of course that the category ‘women and girls’ is of a different shape – as all of those other listed categories of ‘difference’ include women, girls, men, and boys.
As we mark IWD this year I hope that we might all be challenged about how we challenge to make visible those who are hidden in the crowd of our communities and further afield, and how we do so in a way which enables those unique individuals to recognise their own worth and needs such that they can dare to challenge the narrative they have of themselves.
And today it is about women.