Tag Archives: Stories

A story 125 years in the making

Today is a significant anniversary here in South Australia: it is 125 years since the passing of the Adult Suffrage Bill, which gave women both the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament. SA became the second place in the world to give women the first right (after New Zealand the previous year) and the first place in the world to give women the second right.

The first was the result of hard work, petitions, campaigning, fundraisers, advocacy and support. The second was an accident.

Member of the Legislative Council, Ebenezer Ward, was a fierce opponent of women’s suffrage. When he realised that majority support had swung the other way, he came up with what he thought was a brilliant plan (now sometimes called ‘The Great Miscalculation‘). He moved an amendment to the bill that would allow women to not only vote but to stand for election as well. He thought surely such a radical proposal, one not even the suffragettes had been asking for, would lead to the entire bill being defeated. He was wrong, and he gave himself the unwanted distinction of being responsible for giving South Australian women at the time the widest enfranchisement in the world.*

As a Christian, I’m intrigued and encouraged by the involvement of many church leaders in the movement towards women’s suffrage, and the theological convictions that underpinned their advocacy. (Despite people like Ward quoting the Bible against them). Leading advocates included Mary Colton, a mother of nine and a Methodist Sunday School teacher who also founded the Adelaide Children’s Hospital; Elizabeth Nicholls, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and another Methodist Sunday School teacher; Rosetta Birks, a devoted Baptist who married her sister’s widower and became stepmother to their six children; and Serena Lake, who initially came to Adelaide as a preacher with the Bible Christian movement, filling the town hall for her first meeting. They were well supported by men like Joseph Coles Kirby, a Congregationalist minister; Sylvanus Magarey, a medical doctor and influential member of the Churches of Christ; and Robert Caldwell, a Methodist Member of Parliament. (When the Centre for Democracy made the 1894 Suffrage Petition searchable online earlier this year, I was pleased to see leading Baptist pastor and planter of my church, Silas Mead, had signed it … not just once but three times!)

The most well known and leading advocate for women’s suffrage was Mary Lee, a non-conformist Irish widow who came to SA as a fifty-eight year old to nurse her sick son and stayed after he died. She founded the Women’s Suffrage League, writing letters and making speeches that inspired many. When questioned about “women’s place” in society under God, she wrote, ‘…however and wherever woman can be of best and widest usefulness to her fellow men and women, there, by God’s providence, is her allotted sphere.’

These are the kinds of stories we need to tell; stories of people of faith and conviction working for the good of others and for the good of society as a whole.

Too many people dismiss history as ‘boring’, perhaps because we have failed to engage them with the stories of ordinary people upon whose shoulders we stand and by whose example we can be inspired. That’s certainly how I’m feeling today, and I’m thankful for these women and men. To read more of their story, see “Votes for Women”, by Dr Helen Jones on the Women & Politics website.

But I’m also reminded that history includes stories like that of Ebenezer Ward, who made one foolish move and probably spent the rest of his life regretting it. The Adelaide newspaper of the day described him as “gifted with histrionic power … and curiously deficient in humour,” so it’s unlikely he saw the funny side of it. I think his story is worth telling too … there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, even if not the one he planned.


*It is important to note that the rights granted extended to Aboriginal women. These were taken away from them by the Commonwealth in 1902 and not reinstated until 1962, another shameful chapter in the history of this nation’s treatment of its indigenous peoples.




Living out of the stories on my calendar

This past week has been a significant one in our Australian national calendar: Reconciliation Week. This year there have been a number of important anniversaries as part of this, including 20 years since the “Bringing Them Home Report” on the Stolen Generation was tabled in federal parliament, 25 years since the High Court’s “Mabo” decision on native title, and 50 years since the referendum which gave indigenous Australians basic citizenship rights.

I’ve found it helpful to take various opportunities this week to listen to and learn from my Aboriginal brothers and sisters. And in particular, to listen to their voices on what Reconciliation Week means going forward. We don’t mark these dates simply to remember the past; we mark them to acknowledge that this is our story and to ask what it looks like to live out of that story on into the future. How does it shape us and how will it change us?

These cannot just remain dates on the calendar. They need to lead to action.

I think the church calendar works in a similar way. For two thousand years, Christians around the world have marked various dates throughout the year to remember and re-tell key events from the life of Jesus, not just to celebrate or remember what happened on those dates, but to say that this is the story out of which we live and to ask how these particular events shape and transform us. As a Baptist, I have usually only celebrated the main ones of these such as December 25, the Friday before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (otherwise known as Good Friday) and Easter. But there are other parts of the story that continue to shape how I live.

This year I have had the privilege of preaching on both Ascension (last week) and Pentecost (this Sunday). I have been challenged by the life-altering, world-changing consequences of what happened on these days. I have proclaimed the truths I believe that the man Jesus Christ has been crowned as the reigning King over all creation and that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on women and men, Gentiles and Jews, young and old, in order to invite us into the very life of God and to empower us to live out His character and commands here and now.

These truths cannot just remain dates on my calendar. They are the radical reframing of reality in which I choose to live. They change my perspective on who God is, on who I am, and on how the world works. The story they tell must shape the way I live and engage with others.

After Pentecost, the church calendar now enters a new season, its longest season, often called Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time is a reminder that the big moments and occasions we celebrate are lived out in the reality of our day to day lives. Whether it is our national story or our faith story, the challenge is to step into our everyday moments and encounters with transformed purpose and renewed commitment that comes from the fact that we live out of these stories, not just with gratefulness for the events they remember but with hope and anticipation for the renewed future they envisage.

Beauty and sadness … or today would be an interesting day to be in Amsterdam

I’m not sure if I will ever go back to Amsterdam. On the one hand, I only spent one evening there so I know I missed out on seeing so much, and there was some incredible beauty in what I did see. On the other hand, parts of what I saw and experienced there didn’t really inspire me to return, and the abiding memory I have, the most powerful emotion I experienced that night … was sadness.

Amsterdam Bridge

What did I love about Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is a beautiful city with its canals and bicycles and all round friendliness to those who just want to ‘wander.’

Amsterdam Canal

At night the charming historic buildings were beautifully lit, including the royal palace …

Amsterdam Royal Palace

… the train station …

Amsterdam Central Station

… any number of churches …

Amsterdam Westerbrook Church

.. restaurants …

Amsterdam Grasshopper

… and all kinds of other buildings.

Amsterdam buildings

It was winter so there was a public ice rink in the middle of the main square, yet the flower markets were still full.

Amsterdam Flower Market

What did I learn from Amsterdam?

The historian in me was interested in Anne Frank’s story, and one of my biggest travel disappointments of all time was arriving at the museum 45 minutes before closing only to be refused entry, despite my begging and pleading that this was my one and only chance to visit and that I was happy to pay full price to do a very quick tour!

Amsterdam Anne Franks church

I did enjoy some time wandering the streets of Amsterdam soaking up the atmosphere, although I have to admit there were a few places where that “atmosphere” left me a little light headed. But my strongest memory of that night is the sadness I felt; sadness both at what I saw, but even more at how those I was with initially responded to what we saw. I was with two fellow Aussies I had met travelling, two ordinary young guys, who knew I was a Christian and a pastor but couldn’t really get their heads around what that meant. But when we found ourselves wandering through the red light district, their first response was to apologise to me, because they assumed I was offended by it.

Amsterdam red light district

But I’m not sure that I was the right person for them to be apologising to for what they were feeling, and “offended” was not actually the right description for how I felt walking down those streets, seeing the women inside and the men drooling outside. I just felt overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t know the stories of the women we saw (or the men passing by), but I couldn’t help wondering who they were, how they got there, and how they were feeling. And what I realised as I talked to my two new friends was that they had simply not thought about those things. It had not crossed their minds to think about the women in the windows as people with stories, people with families and hopes and dreams and fears. And I was glad I was able to challenge them to think that way, even if just for a few moments. I haven’t seen those guys since we left Europe, but I’d like to hope that when they remember their night in Amsterdam, they remember being challenged to look beyond what they first saw in those red lit windows, and thinking about those women as real people with real stories.

Earlier this year, this powerful ad for Stop the Traffik was made in Amsterdam’s red light district, and it makes that same point.

And yes, I realise that some of the women in Amsterdam might say that they freely choose to do what they do. It’s not my place to argue with them, but I hope I am allowed the freedom to wish that we lived in a world where different choices were more attractive to them. And I certainly have the freedom to speak up for the millions of young women and girls who are forced into sexual slavery all around the world every year.

We left Amsterdam the next morning as the sun rose, and it gave me a glimpse of hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe, by being there and challenging someone to think about the deeper story of what they saw, there is the possibility of change in the future.

Netherlands sunrise