Raising Anglican voices, U.N. delegation shares women's stories

March 12, 2009

The voices of Anglican women and their stories echoed through the just-concluded 53rd annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

"Everybody knows that Anglican women are here," said Archdeacon Taimalelagi Fagamalama Tuatagaloa-Leota of Samoa during a March 12 gathering at the Episcopal Church Center in New York the day before the March 2-13 session ended. "Their voices have been heard."

Elizabeth Loweth of Canada said the Anglican women at the gathering "carry a message that is not just a Christian message but also a human rights message that the world needs to hear."

The U.N. commission advocates for gender equality and advancement of women. Its annual meetings evaluate progress towards those goals, indentifies challenges yet to be met, and formulates policies and standards for meeting those goals. The sessions are attended by representatives of the U.N.'s member states, various U.N. organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Several of the more than 100 Anglican and Episcopal women who attended the gathering were nominated by their primates based on their women's-issues work in their provinces. They officially represented the Anglican Consultative Council, the communion's main policy-making body which has been an U.N.-accredited NGO since 1985. Other women participated because of their interest in the UNCSW's work, their expertise and their involvement in past meetings.

The 2009 gathering's theme was "the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDS." The gathering is expected to release a final report, known as its "agreed conclusions."

The Anglican and Episcopal delegates said in a March 13 statement that they were especially concerned about "the slow implementation of the [Millennium Development Goals], their relation to gender equality and the resulting increased suffering of women and girls. This is further exacerbated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic." Their statement noted that women are overwhelmingly the caregivers of those with the infection, thus forcing them to choose between school or working to support their families and caregiving.

"It is evident that gender stereotyping is a major hindrance in moving ahead and now needs to be addressed by clear action throughout the world," the statement said. "Work must be done with men and boys as well as women and girls to address harmful societal norms and practices. We ask churches across the Anglican Communion to examine how they can champion the equality of men and boys, and women and girls particularly with regard to caregiving."

The full text of the statement is available here.

Martha Gardner, special assistant to Hellen Wangusa, the Anglican Communion Observer at the U.N., told ENS that she expects many of the women will urge their delegations to the Anglican Consultative Council, which meets in May, to consider resolutions that address the issues they have raised.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told the Anglican women on March 12 that she was "encouraged" about the women's conversation about care-giving roles.

"Gender role issues are of significance everywhere around the communion," she said. "What is considered a culturally appropriate role for women and for men is shifting in many places to what I believe is a more theologically appropriate view that we value the gifts of every creature of God."

Jefferts Schori used her own family as an example of how some women and men are "pushing the boundaries around gender roles" in order to be able to offer their gifts and "to share the burden and the grace that comes with care-giving." To applause, she told the group that her son-in-law, a former firefighter and U.S. Navy corpsman who is a paramedic, recently became a registered nurse. He wants to care for children in emergency rooms, Jefferts Schori said. The Presiding Bishop's daughter is a U.S. Air Force pilot.

After Jefferts Schori ended her remarks, Florence Akinoye of Lagos, Nigeria, stood up to say that "in my tradition when a very distinguished personality like you has finished talking, it's very uncommon for any other 'lesser mortal' to say anything, but I am going to say something."

The Presiding Bishop's response was to take a seat on the floor and invite Akinoye to proceed.

Saying that she sees Jefferts Schori "not just as a woman, but as the head of a nation's church," Akinoye noted that in Nigeria "women are yet to be given the grace to be ordained."

"I seek your prayers that some day we will have a Nigerian woman who will be like you," she told Jefferts Schori.

"I think the struggle everywhere is our assumptions and our internal images of what people of different sorts of conditions can do," the Presiding Bishop responded. "When we can see someone functioning in a role that we thought was off-limits, people's ideas often begin to change. So it is the examples around the world of strong women in leadership who are agents of transformation who will begin to make that shift."

Women at the March 12 gathering said that they had been both transformed by their time at the UNCSW meeting and saw the need for transformation in their provinces.

Christiana Russ, one of the Episcopal Church's delegates, told ENS on March 12 that the work the Anglican Communion does around the world "is absolutely related to what we're doing here" during the UNCSW. Russ, a pediatrician in Boston, has worked with the Diocese of Massachusetts' medical outreach efforts in Uganda and Kenya. With what she called the blessing of her experiences in the field and teaching in Anglican hospitals, Russ said she can bring "a little bit of realism" to the U.N. discussions.

She also suggested that people in the U.S. need to see the HIV/AIDS issue in their country for what it is. "Because the faces of dying people are not in our pews anymore" it is easy to forget or ignore the fact that infection rates in some parts of the U.S. are similar to those in parts of the developing world, Russ said. "Our problem looks different because we do have access to medicine," Russ said, adding that there are still the same issues involving stigma and the work of care-giving.

Canada's Loweth of the International Anglican Women's Network said that she will return home to Toronto from her eighth UNCSW gathering with "a sense of the international unity of women, especially Anglican women" that comes despite the tensions in the Anglican Communion.

Loweth called for more realism in how women approach the issues facing their countries. During the country-by-country presentations at the UNCSW sessions, Loweth said, "everybody was saying 'I'm the good guy' and we're not all good guys." She said people have to admit that one of the biggest challenges facing every government in the world is to improve their protection of women and children.

"If the MDGs were really followed, it would be a different world," she said.

Kamal Ernest, the wife of Province of the Indian Ocean primate Ian Ernest, said in her country of Mauritius, Anglican women "are being heard because of the quality of our presence." Her ecumenical work with women has shown her that Anglican women are respected for the way they are linked together all over the world.

Attending her first UNCSW meeting, Ernest said she learned a lot and would return home very motivated to encourage the women of her province to "stand up and speak out."

Akinoye of Nigeria said that Anglicans' message of social justice is one that must be heard outside of the church, adding that she would advocate for that work when she returned home.

"The church should make itself a catalyst for social change," she said. "It cannot stay isolated. It must come out and mingle with the world."