When the glass ceiling is made of reinforced concrete
Today, 21st July, is my mother’s 100th birthday! At least it would have been had she not died in good heart and in Christ just five years ago. Like her mother before her, a strong and principled woman. It is to me a source of huge pride that in the 1950’s she was thrown out of the Mothers' Union of St Nicholas’ Blundellsands by the vicar himself no less. She refused to have me christened! Nevertheless the people of St John’s Waterloo made her very welcome and offered wonderful support in her closing years. She even hosted one of their weekly house groups. Her own mother – my grandmother, Edith Vaughan – was an active Methodist. I would have loved to have known her but sadly she died of hyperthyroidism ten years before I was born, just 41. Edith was born in Bootle in 1897. In those days there was no glass ceiling keeping women in place. No, the ceiling then was made of reinforced concrete, blocking any progress for this gifted and confident woman. It was the Methodist Church which alone gave her the space to flourish. For she was an active member of Marsh Lane Methodist Church where my parents were married and then three years later bombed out of existence in the May blitz. However being born in 1897 was to mean a terrible burden, the First World War. For the girls of my grandmother’s generation were to suffer the trauma of seeing the boys of their age group being steadily wiped out on the fields of Flanders. They became, some two million of them, the spinsters of the Great War. So my mother’s birth certificate tells a sad story but only indirectly. Her place of birth is shown as 42 High Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock. What it does not say is that this is the Manchester and Salford Mission Mothers' and Babies' Home, a Methodist institution. My grandmother’s occupation is shown as a munitions’ worker. After all, this is wartime. The father’s name and occupation, however, is left blank. There lies a story but one I was able to discuss this freely with my own mother only in recent years. She herself has no idea who her father was. It seems he turned up at her grandparents’ house offering financial support only to be thrown out by my great-grandfather. And that’s all we know of him. But wonderfully, Marsh Lane Methodist offered huge support to my grandmother and her family so that my mother was not offered for adoption as was normally the case for that era. As it happens Edith was to marry and have two further children. But I myself have a huge debt to the Methodist movement who operated as a church should, even going against the flow of its culture and refusing to take a judgemental stance. Jesus himself would have known some of social stigma of being born out of wedlock. This is something we focus on at Christmas when Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that “the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). Nazareth was a small place where everyone would have known everybody else. People would have known that Jesus would have been born before Mary and Joseph were married. A social disgrace, as Matthew in his gospel informs us, normally ending in divorce (1:19). And that’s about all we know. Except John - who often uses allusion – in his account of Pharisees challenging Jesus. They are proud to have Abraham as their father – this gives them status before God. “If you were Abraham’s children,” counters Jesus, “ then you would do what Abraham did.” (John 8:39). At this point they reach, so they think, for their trump card. ‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested. ‘The only Father we have is God himself.’ The glory of the Gospel is that God in his extraordinary love comes to us as one of us, as Jesus of Nazareth. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. (John 1:46). He comes to a poor family - Mary and Joseph could only afford a pair of two young pigeons for Jesus’ presentation at the Temple, the option provided for poor people. (Luke 2:24). Just a carpenter, no more. His authority to teach and minister is repeatedly challenged by the chief priests and the elders of the people. (Matthew 21:23). And of questionable heritage. “Yet,” as John tells us, “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:13). Such is God’s love for all of us.