The Role of Women in our Church by Gordon Sinclair

Reflections by Gordon Sinclair 

Just as Spirit Sisters play a critical role in the life of our church these days, and Catholic nuns continue to do their work, in some places in the world more than others, women have always added strength and vitality to the life of a congregation.

In the history of the United Church, two women’s organizations, the Women’s Missionary Society (WMS) and the Women’s Association (WA), predated the United Church Women (UCW), formed in 1962.

The WMS, as the name suggests, was a world mission-orientated organization, that, at one point in its history, supported as many as 100 missionaries all over the world.

“Women have not only provided the major support for mission in the modern era but also early recognized the need to found their own societies and send their own missionaries. In much of the world, because of local customs, women missionaries could perform services for other women and for children, especially in medicine and education, that men could not undertake. Their greatest impact was in the production of vast corps of able and educated women, especially in Asia, who played major roles in the professions and in church leadership”.  Encyclopedia Britannica

I have fond memories of my sister Shirley and me singing duets as early as ages 4 and 5 at WMS rallies at Trinity United Church in the east end of London, ON. Betty Jeanne Kippen remembers playing piano accompanying her sister Helen on violin for WMS events in Yarker.

The WA stressed the importance of fellowship, with a local church and community focus. Guilds and Ladies’ Aids were the WA’s forerunners; in the early years, these units were unrecorded, doing just what was needed to be done in their local churches, spiritually, financially and socially.

As the twentieth century, however, approached the twenty-first, the separation of church and state in many countries, the secularization of society generally, the increase in women working outside the home, and the association of missionaries with colonialism, all combined to see enthusiasm for missions seriously decline. More and more women became members of Council, Ministry & Personnel, and other roles formerly occupied solely by men. This involvement may have had an affect on women’s groups as well.

UCW at Edith Rankin sprang to life in 1962, shortly after the church itself came into being, and, at its peak in the 1980s had 8 separate UCW units, each with 20-25 members.

The UCW Mission Statement says it all: To love God, to foster Christian faithfulness, spirituality, commitment and devotion, and to promote love and respect by living generously and giving joyfully to all God’s people and to affirm all God’s people and to affirm and strengthen ourselves creatively.

Our UCW prepared and delivered an annual worship service, normally the Sunday after Easter.

  • Our UCW organized the annual Classics Birthday Party.
  • Our UCW has supported and managed the library at Edith Rankin.
  • Our UCW, most often in an unheralded, modest fashion, took care of many of the financial, social and spiritual needs of our community of faith.

Our UCW was very active over the years in Outreach with these agencies and projects, including:

  • Almost Home
  • Alzheimer’s Society
  • Amherstview Food drive
  • Dawn House
  • Better Beginnings
  • Food Bank
  • Food Sharing Project
  • HIV/AIDS
  • In From the Cold
  • Lily’s Place
  • Martha’s Table
  • Salvation Army Food Drive
  • Santa Sacs
  • Street Mission
  • Vincent de Paul
  • Youth Shelter

By any measure, an impressive record of service to our community.

Something striking about women’s groups here at Edith Rankin, and likely at most churches, is that they all share a quality of genuinely caring for one another and supporting one another. This is not to suggest that there was never any disagreement or unpleasantness. But over-all the care and connection are ever-present. In that sense, they are a model for the rest of us.

With the dissolution of our UCW in 2022, members were faced with a choice: were they to just fade away, disappear from view, or were they to continue their work in a re-invented framework. For many years they had been the backbone of church life supporting their church in uncounted ways.

Luckily for us, they chose the second option, leaving us with four groups who meet regularly: Still #l, U 2 Forever, Mary Marthas, and Crazy 8’s. Knowing the women in our church, they, as they always have, will continue to stir our hearts and minds, care for one another, and achieve great things.

Spirit Sisters came into being in 2006, and continues to the present day to meet the spiritual needs of the women of our church. In addition to their spiritual quest, they also model the qualities of caring connections, common to all women’s groups included in this reflection. Spirit Sisters also have prepared/led an annual church service for over a decade, usually offered in late May – the first service they led is how the church ended up with the gift of the artistic paintings in the Welcome Centre by Janice Swaren – women who followed Jesus. 

In that same spirit of caring and connection, other groups have formed in earlier years as circumstances presented themselves. Mourning Glories was a group of women, recently bereaved, who, with some guidance and support from each other and female ministry staff, found their way through their loss.

Similarly, a group calling themselves The Oasis Group supported working women in navigating through the challenges associated with working and family life.

It is likely that, moving into the future, women will join together as needs and circumstances change in order to support each other and to make a contribution to church life.

Women working together at Edith Rankin, with stunning consistency through the years since 1962, have been faithful to their mission of caring for and supporting one another. Building on this robust base of fellowship, the women of Edith Rankin have served and continue to serve both their congregation and their community with distinction. They are deeply loved and respected for their efforts and are deserving of a generous expression of gratitude from the congregation.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the following women for assistance in the writing of this brief account:

  • Margaret Merkley, for help with documenting recent happenings in our UCW.
  • Betty Jeanne Kippen, for notes on the history of UCW at Edith Rankin.
  • Jean Stairs, for her book, Soul sisters, Re-imagining Women’s Groups, a blessing for this writing project.

June, 2023