Christians Aware Annual Conference - 'Wings of a Bird'

  • Ellen Teague

'Wings of a Bird - Just Empowerment for Women and Men' was the theme of the Christians Aware Annual Ecumenical Conference, held in Swanwick, Derbyshire, last weekend. Around 60 participants were introduced to the theme with: "In our world men and women are like two wings of a bird; if one is unable to function properly the bird is unable to fly and may even perish.' They left at the end committed to promoting gender awareness and participating in such initiatives as 'Women's World Day of Prayer' in March. Also, with greater awareness of the high regard in which Jesus held women. In his Bible study session, David Rhodes, who writes on spirituality and social justice, contrasted this with "the crushing negativity" towards women in many Bible stories.

I must say I left more fully equipped to participate in music with a gender slant and a general justice and peace theme. Geoff Weaver led a lovely Saturday evening session on worship music and poetry on the conference theme. Leading from the piano, Geoff led us in singing hymns produced by the Iona Wild Goose Resource Group such as 'There is a line of women' and 'Enemy of Apathy' and two Bernadette Farrell hymns, 'Christ be our light' and 'Alleluia, Raise the Gospel'. There was also a session with musician Garth Hewitt, a founder of the Amos Trust. You could close your eyes and recall Bob Dylan as Garth played his guitar and mouth organ and sang songs around themes of a vocation for justice and migrants. I found his songs, 'Against the Grain' and 'Ellis Island' particularly poignant. His song 'You are loved' is a favourite of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen who was murdered in a racist attack in London 25 years ago. Garth is currently on an 'Against the Grain' tour around England, Wales and Scotland this year. Details on his website

I ran a seminar on 'Women and Water Justice', where we looked how women's daily trek for water undermines their access to educational and work opportunities, as well as local leadership. We looked at the issues of virtual water, and corporations such as Nestlé and Coca Cola taking control over local water supplies for their products. Our little group challenged the assertion by Nestlé Chairman Emeritus Peter Brabek that access to water is not a human right and Pope Francis was quoted as tackling this perspective. Preparing for the UN's World Water Day on 22 March was highlighted and the next Season of Creation which runs from 1 September to 4 October. We were fortunate to have in the group a couple who have many years of experience living in Bangladesh. He is a water engineer and we heard first hand how climate change is causing severe weather, flooding of wells with salt water, and positive news such as the tackling of arsenic in Bangladeshi wells.

In fact, many Conference participants had worked for many years with Christian groups of various denominations in Zambia, South Africa, Vietnam and other countries in the global south, and the conversations were full of interesting stories about mission outreach. Terrie Robinson of the 'Side by Side' movement and Director of Women and Church in Society at the Anglican Communion Office spoke of a worship service she experienced in the Nairobi shanty town of Kibera, which was led by an inspirational 11-year-old Lucy, "but Lucy will be marginalised throughout life by her gender". She felt strongly that gender discrimination of not only a women's issue. Jenny Brown of Christian Aid showed a fascinating video of the Padare project in Zimbabwe, which specialises in engaging men on this issue.

Perhaps the most moving presentation was from Ugandan Sarah Kitakule who until recently worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat in Britain. Under the heading of 'Gender issue and human rights in Africa', she highlighted child marriage, forced marriage and female genital mutilation as key issues. Then there was a new one to me - breast ironing - which is practised largely in Christian communities to hide the early development of girls' breasts. We learnt that there is no legal protection against domestic violence in Burkina Faso, Egypt, Lesotho, Mali and Niger. Also, that women and girls account for 71% of human trafficking victims. Sarah called for more women in leadership positions to ensure that existing bench marks for human rights are enforced. She herself is a great example of the difference this can make.

In a resources area, stalls included Olive Oil and other products from the Zaytoun company, which markets Palestinian products, and products from the Philippines and Nepal. Columban JPIC and the National Justice and Peace Network - Anne Peacey and Ann Kelly - ran stalls and there was considerable interest in J&P education from one of the staff of the chaplaincy at Lincoln University. Christians Aware members are exceptionally loyal and generous. One woman had knitted beautiful baby clothes - clearly many hours of work - which were available for a donation to Christians Aware. And it's incredible that this small organisation has organised at least six overseas trips this year, including Bahrain and Zambia, with fliers available on all of them. This is also at least partly due to the dedication of members.

So, what a lovely way to spend a cold and dark weekend in January. Most of us ventured out only once, to do a bracing walk around the Swanwick Lake. In my case, I always like to visit the National Justice and Peace Network tree planted 15 years ago on its 25th anniversary and now 20 feet tall! I enjoyed the chairing of Anglican Bishop John Flack - from his care to include children present, to his little anecdotes about hymnwriters. Nearly every hymn we sang he provided a story about the writer. Poor old Vicar JSB Monsell, writer of over 300 hymns, died after falling off the roof of his Guildford parish, while inspecting its roof in 1875. I particularly enjoyed hearing of Bishop Flack's conversation in Rome with American Jesuit Dan Schutte about the hymn 'Here I am Lord', which my own folk group sang in my parish on Sunday and we sang at the conference. Schutte told him he sat in a church over a two-week period in 1981 and studied Sunday's gospel about the call of Samuel. When he felt most struck by the words "Here I am" and the Lord calling Samuel in the night, he wrote his popular hymn.

Christians Aware is an educational and religious charity - under the leadership of Executive Secretary Barbara Butler - which outreaches beyond Christian networks. It works with other faiths and the secular world specifically on the promotion of Justice and Peace.

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