PENNSYLVANIA: Share your stories, build community, Williams tells women

October 11, 2009

Jane Williams, a widely regarded theologian and the spouse of the Archbishop of Canterbury, challenged women in the Diocese of Pennsylvania last weekend to "re-imagine" themselves within the body of the people of God.

In two addresses, she encouraged her listeners to create a new vision of themselves, gain confidence as a group and join with other women worldwide who are making a significant contribution to the life and witness of the church.

Williams, who said she makes few public appearances, was the keynote speaker at "Re-Imagining Ourselves," the first all-women's diocesan conference in many years, held at two Philadelphia churches on October 8-10.

It is women who are going to knit the Anglican Communion together, Williams stated in her first address, "A Theologian in Her Own Right," at the predominately African American parish of St. Luke's, Germantown. Reflecting on her own personal life and growth and the title of that speech she said, "It's the way I'm introduced when they don't want to say I'm the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury."

Born in India to missionary parents, Williams was one of five daughters. She was educated at a girls' school before turning to theological studies at Cambridge University and then to work in theological publishing and education.

She is currently a lecturer at St. Paul's Theological Centre, located at Holy Trinity, Brompton, in the South Kensington area of London, which offers both independent studies for young people and courses leading to ordination. Williams is also a visiting lecturer at King's College London.

"Once we start to tell our stories and see how God is working in our lives, then we can join God's plan for the world," she said

In her second address, at St. Thomas Church, Whitemarsh, a largely white, suburban parish, Williams stressed how important it is that women reflect upon their own life experiences, then share those experiences with God and with one another. "It's very important to tell the story of how we got to where we are now," she said.

Using the Genesis story of creation and Gospel stories of Jesus' teachings, Williams challenged her listeners to see the revolutionary images within these accounts. She explained how the Genesis story should not be seen as subjugating women, and she interpreted the stories of Jesus' teaching, especially his encounter with Mary and Martha, as revolutionary for society in that age. She encouraged her listeners to "re-image" the biblical texts and reinterpret the Bible's stories in light of their own experiences. Encouraging the women, Williams said they must keep reminding themselves that they are "beloved and chosen." "Not everything in the world around us, whether it might be in the family or in the church, helps us to feel that," she said. "We must keep doing it for each other."

Williams called for a new creation in which women are partners with God. She challenged her listeners to re-imagine their roles as disciples and to prepare themselves as a corporate body to go out and transform the world. "Together, we are more than the sum of our parts," she said. "How might we as women help the church re-imagine itself?"

On the conference's third day, a bishop, priest and laywoman participated in a panel at St. Thomas moderated by Phoebe Griswold, wife of the former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and a founder of Anglican Women's Empowerment. The panelists told stories of events in their lives that led to things they had never imagined they would accomplish.

Retired Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion, said she grew up a block away from an Episcopal Church at which she was not welcome -- she had to take a bus to a black church. Harris was a businesswoman when she first felt called to be a priest.

The Rev. Mary Laney, who formerly served in a working class congregation, described how her parents died when she was young, how she was raised in a traditional environment and how she never imaged she would become an advocate for social justice ministries and stand with demonstrators in the street trying to rid the city of its gun shops.

Cordelia Francis Biddle, an active laywoman in a downtown parish, described how her agent told her that she had to decide between a promising acting career and her family. She chose her family and now writes historical mysteries, all of which deal with spirituality and social justice issues of the time.

The Rev. Whitney Altopp, conference convener and vicar at St. Thomas, which sponsored the conference with the Leadership Institute of the diocese, said that when women share experiences with one another it gives them the opportunity to see themselves in a new way.

"Something happens when women come together," she said. "Encouraged by one another's stories, we gain strength for our own journey. In relationship with one another, we see a reflection of ourselves."