Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Women and Religion

I watched this TVO - The Agenda video today on Women in Religion - represented was a Sikh, a Christian, a Muslim and another woman whose religion I could not identify. The interviewer was Steve Paikin's new back up interviewer. She did fairly well though she stuck to her script mostly.

The discussion was good and covered the main points and in a fair and even handed fashion, which was a relief as so often gender studies are just man-bashing.

This got me to thinking. While I was doing my PhD research, I came across some interesting tidbits of information that I had hoped one day to expand into something more. I noticed how in the late 19th century, women had begun to speak and vote in Anglican congregational meetings in Hamilton, Ontario (called Vestry meetings by Anglicans) and I have wondered ever since, if this was happening in other Christian denominations at the same time, and have wondered further if the practice of women voting in what was then the single most important social meeting place in society, had some kind of impact on women being granted the vote federally at the end of the First World War.

The second tidbit was more narrowly focussed, but also suggestive of social change more broadly speaking. In one particular Anglican parish, the men who handled the finances had pretty much bungled this chore - for example Anglican parishes could not be fully consecrated until free of debt. This particular church could not shake its mortgage, until the men got the bright idea of mortgaging the church hall and using that cash to pay off the church - robbing Peter to pay Paul is the old expression. Next, this parish, because of its financial problems brought on by foolish spending, could not afford to buy a house for their minister and family, and rented instead. The women decided this was not good, and set about to raise funds to buy a house. They used the usual techniques employed both then and now by Christian women, bazaars and bake sales. Of course they could not raise the entire cost of a house, but did raise the down payment. They then went to a widow who used money from her late husband's estate to give mortgage loans. Middle class women did not work outside the home then - to do so would have been humiliating personally, so lending money at interest was a way to keep eating regularly and a roof over your own head. So, here we had a group of church women borrowing money from a woman to buy a  house for their minister and family.

They took out the mortgage loan, then continued their fund raising. I don't recall how long it took but if memory serves, three years later they had paid back the loan and the house deed was in their possession.  Now this little tale is interesting enough on its own merits, but what happened next is where the story made me sit up and take notice and think ... one day... an article....

Once the house was paid for entirely, the men of the parish - the official leadership, assumed the women would then turn over the deed to the parish, which is to say, to the men.

A little word of explanation is needed here for those unfamiliar with the structure of the institutional body of Anglicanism. Each parish is headed by the minister/priest who is called the Rector. The Rector is assisted by two lay officials called Wardens. One is the People's Warden who is elected by the 'Vestry' (the members of the church) and the other is the Rector's Warden, who is chosen by the Rector. Legally they form the officials of the parish and are legally accountable for taxes, services, repairs, and ownership of the buildings (church, hall, rector's house). To complicate matters further, final ownership belongs to this church's territorial division called a diocese, headed by a bishop.

Well, to return to the story, the women who had worked so hard and prudently to buy the house, refused point blank to turn the deed over the the male leadership. I discerned from other evidence that they (quite rightly) did not trust the men to keep the house debt free, but feared the male leadership would mortgage the house to raise money for other things in the parish.

The fight went on and on and finally the bishop had to step in to act as a mediator. In the archives of the diocese, I found the written out agreement. Apparently the bishop called the women involved, the rector and the two wardens to a meeting at the diocesan headquarters to find a solution. The agreement was written out on a piece of paper - typed, but with parts crossed out in pen ink, and changes written in, between the typed lines. At the bottom were the signatures of all those present, including the bishop.

The essence of the agreement was that the deed and therefore ownership of the house would be given to the diocese and the bishop, to be used exclusively as a residence for the Rector of this particular parish.

And a final note:  I wish I could have been the proverbial fly on the wall - not at the meeting, but - the woman who lead this protest and the fund raising was the Rector's Warden's wife - I have wondered just how frosty the interior of that home was during this incident......

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