Changing planes in Qatar was my first piece of ‘Immersion Learning’ through my trip to India in November. The migrant workers of Kerala, the State which lies down the south west coast of India, are often to be found in the Gulf States. So we began meeting Indian nationals early on the journey towards our destination of Cochin.
Immersion Learning was our purpose. Ten of us travelled together. Seven were ordained Anglican women, a mixture of parish priests, archdeacons and deans and there were three Christian Aid staff. Our interest was to experience the reality of women in a wholly different world, that of Indian rural poverty, which might help us learn about our own role as women leaders in the Church of England by seeing what we do through an entirely different lens. Christian Aid sponsored the trip but they didn’t invent the method of training. Institutions like the World Bank routinely ask of their staff that they immerse themselves for a short period in a context which disturbs their comfort and inspires them to greater resolve and commitment.
Cochin was merely the gateway as we travelled immediately inland to Palakkad district in the care of Praxis and Maithri, two organisations which enable work with local communities through sustainable development. The projects we visited illustrated their work: a women’s co-operative which brought mechanisation to some of the rice growing of the region; women who had organised to bring water closer to their homes including training as plumbers, and a publicly funded women’s project which distributed nutritious infant formula to nurseries and early years’ schools.
They were inspiring stories partly because they illustrated transformation of lives and communities but just as much because of the leadership of local women who mobilised the projects. We noticed that when we asked what had been the best outcome for the women involved, all gave the same reply, “to get us out of our homes”.
Liberty is a theme much on my mind just now with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta picking up momentum and interest. These women certainly spoke of liberty, liberty to escape the limitations of their domestic life and to find solidarity beyond their marriages. They were given liberty from social norms which restrict their experience of a wider world and liberty to stretch their own potential as a result. I was amazed to discover that my hosts had never previously met a white person and the mother of my household, a woman of my age, had not travelled more than 6 km from where we were having our conversation. Similarly I saw her own astonishment that we middle aged women were able, of our own volition, to travel across the world to visit her community.
The greatest impact on us was that the simple fact of living with our families and sharing their homes for a few extraordinary days. Sleeping on the floor, rising (or often in our case not!) at 2am to milk the cows before the milk lorry called, biryani for breakfast, meagre washing facilities and through it all such enormous generosity and hospitality. We had the help of interpreters, young social science students who themselves gave us a revealing insight into modern India. And we also met with some women who operate within the equivalent of the Mothers Union in the Church of South India.
The trip has not yet finished in the sense that we are still to do more reflection together and we are all individually evaluating its impact. The point was not to discover facts about a region of the world’s largest multi faith democracy, as fascinating though that was. The purpose was to enable the Church of England, through its strategic partnership with Christian Aid, to understand better the role gender plays in the eradication of poverty within our world.
We came back in time for a number of our party to play their part in the final synodical act of making women bishops legal. Who can doubt that this is a moment of opportunity for the Church of England? The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of it being a ‘completely new phase of our existence as the Church’. If women are to fulfil their potential in episcopal leadership they will not simply enter into the space occupied for so long by men but they will re-negotiate that space. In its first clause Magna Carta spoke of the Church being free and in Kerala I saw how important courage is in that journey to greater freedom, and how gender justice is now at the heart of liberating all communities.