Saturday, 12 September 2015

On the centenary of the WI, and the 95th anniversary of the SWFWIs

You are 95 years old. Congratulations. You are looking pretty good for it.

As I have read through the history of the WIs, it is quite a story. You have done and you are doing a great deal. You've made a difference. You've given dignity to people.

You've campaigned on an astonishing range of subjects including fairtrade, women's suffrage, equal pay (proposed by a delegate from the West Suffolk Federation), more women in the police force, the environment, make poverty history, health issues, and the SOS honey bees campaign. They are things that matter. And you were often there at the very beginning. You were considering the issue of female genital mutilation in the 1980's, long before many others saw it as an issue. There is, as Esther Addley wrote in the Guardian, 'a pleasing bolshiness to the WI that has never faded'.

You have not allowed yourself to be put into a box. You've allowed those letters, the WI to stand for something old and for something new. Inspiring Women. Yes you are, and yes you do. And you also offer the simplest and most important thing that this life can offer apart from God. You offer friendship. And countless women have nervously gone along to their local WI and they've walked away, as another person put it, with 10 friends.

I know that there was a time when you wished to completely get away from the 'Jam and Jerusalem' image. It was one of those boxes that you needed to get out of. But when I read that in 1942, the Suffolk West Federation of WI's alone produced a staggering 100 tons of jam, and when we understand what that actually meant to so many families throughout this land, it is not a joke. My father still speaks of how the family's additional jam ration was one of the most precious luxuries that they had during the war. You made a difference.

And as for Jerusalem?
Well, the answer to the first verse, 'And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's pastures green?', is very simple. No! The Jesus did not come, as the legend claimed, to England in bodily form after his resurrection.
But then we come to the second verse: 'I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land'. And to that, we answer 'yes'. We long for that biblical vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, of men and women as equals at harmony with one another, honouring one another, each person being able to live to their full potential, where the stranger and those who are different are welcome, where the young and the old live at peace with each other, where the wolf lies with the lamb, the sword has been beaten into a ploughshare, and there is no more sickness or dying or pain.

And while I, as a Christian, put my hope in the conviction that the vision of the new Jerusalem will be finally fulfilled on the day when, as the bible puts it, the trumpet sounds and the risen Jesus returns, the end of history as we know it, it does not stop me working today towards that vision. I set my face to the new Jerusalem; I allow that future city to shape my life direction, my values, my dreams.
And I pray that you - however you might express it - will continue to long for and to work towards that better, gentler, kinder, more sustainable, more thoughtful, gracious, just and peaceful society.

Last year we went to Ravenna in Italy. It is an amazing town, and it has some of the earliest known Christian images. One of those images shows a woman placing money in an offering box. It is the story of the widow's mite. The poor widow who put only a small coin in the box but who, Jesus said, gave everything she had to live on.

But the image surprised me. I have always thought of that woman as someone stooped and crushed. But the woman in this image is not. She stands tall, with a gracious dignity.

And I think the artist has seen something. When we give, especially when we give sacrificially, we live as we were made to live and we are at our most noble.

And when you give of yourselves, when you open your lives to new members, when you offer friendship and you dedicate yourself in campaigns, when you choose to make a difference - then like that woman in the image, you stand tall, noble and you are adorned with dignity.

Happy Birthday, and God bless you.

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