Mary, Jesus and the miracle of Birth: Religion and the role of women in leadership

* Catherine Tuitt Change Agent, Charity, humanitarian and legal consultant

** Mary Hunter Researcher and writer

*** Olufemi Cole-Njie Supernumerary Methodist Minister

Tuesday 14th December 2021

Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother was a great woman who is revered by Christians and Muslims alike. Both the New Testament and the Quran describe Mary as a virgin. Marking Christmas means re-visiting her life and role in the rise of the Christian faith. She is one of the most honored figures in Islamic theology, with the majority of Muslims viewing her as one of the most righteous women to have lived. Religious women look upon her as an example. Emulating Mary as a role model is not easy, but the seminar will address the theme of women in leadership roles in modern times and how religion is a positive element in the process of making a successful leadership career.

*Catherine Tuitt: Firstly, I would like to explore if women had written the Christmas story and there were three wise females and perhaps it would not be such a silent night. If women had written the Christmas story and there were three magi which often refer to kings but there has been some debate about whether or not they could have also been women perhaps who came to give gifts to Jesus when he was born.

And if Mary had labour pains and if she had been in quite a lot of stress during the birth how was she helped? I think it is possible that there were women present and they assisted her and helped to relieve some of her difficulties during her labour with Jesus.

It is astonishing that when we pause annually to mark the birth of Jesus who is recognised as a Prophet by our friends in Islam we talk about reindeer and red-clad men and snowmen and pine trees. As we talk, we always talk about men, the shepherds, and the three wise men making a pilgrimage to a town in the Middle East to visit a manger but we do not talk about the actual act of birth and how miraculous it was.

The carols and hymns are also told through the creation of Jesus. How little we know about Mary. And while it is often presented as a fact that there were three wise men they could have easily been women.

Matthew’s gospel does not give a gender to the three wise men. In recent years scholars such as the Dominican priest Thomas Fernando have said that it is entirely possible that some of them could have been women. He also authored a commentary on Matthew in the new Jerome biblical commentary.

So, if we can imagine the telling of the Christmas story with three wise women on camels who came to see another woman who had just given birth. If they too were mothers, can you imagine the questions they would ask and the care they would give to Mary?

So let us just contemplate that it could be possible – indeed in languages like Greek the word mankind includes women and the main reason to think of the presence of one or more women among the magi is the Queen of Sheba. In Kings verse, one chapter ten the Queen of Sheba talks about spices like myrrh and frankincense.

But in more modern times in 2002, the General Synod of the UK Church of England decided to reject a suggestion that the word mag should be retained with three wise men because they could not rule out the possibility that they were women. So perhaps it is possible that Mary was comforted and helped in her childbirth by other women and that is an area we can always think about in addition to the mystery of Jesus’ birth.

In the modern-day women are at the forefront of religious movements in trying to ensure that they have leadership roles. Historically in the Catholic church women were not deacons and we have seen in Islam a movement by women who are setting up mosques and looking to lead their mosques. In London, in the Church of England, we now have a female bishop of London.

There are changes for women and many theologians in Judaism, Christianity and Islam are looking at how they interpret the sacred scriptures. They have originally been interpreted to exclude women. Women are at the forefront of setting up movements to include other women in the church.

We have seen something called the Church Too Movement which women are the leaders of and that movement is looking to protect women. It came out of the Me To Movement and it is the Church movement that is looking to set up faith spaces for women who have said that they have been harassed in religious spaces.

So, things are obviously moving forward for women, but we need to see more changes as we move forward into the next few decades for there to be inclusivity and for women to be put forward for ministries and to be accepted. The changes and the contributions that women make particularly to welfare and caring, providing food banks, and caring ministries which they have led the church and throughout the other religions. We need to see more of that.

Many of the leaders in the church acknowledge the role of women and particularly Pope Francis has been quite vocal in encouraging women to take up ministries and leadership roles in the church and throughout society.

Mary Hunter: Mary the mother of Jesus in Christianity is also known as Mariam in Islam. We are reminded by the religious texts that women represent significant leaders. This topic suggests tensions which can in part be ameliorated in the context of female leadership.

The first tension is animosity. This can be eased by discussions which highlight the similarities between religions. Despite the feeling that the world and its people are increasingly culturally sensitive and tolerant many communities are separated by religious divisions.

This can be addressed by highlighting our similarities as opposed to our differences which are embodied in the example of religious women. Secondly, religions have more recently been characterised as being contradictory to reality. Many do not consider religious figures as sources for leadership. However, the depiction of religious women captures not only their diversity but their sensibilities.

While I consider the acceptance of women within the various professions this had led to an unnecessary criticism of women who want to be leaders through motherhood. Religious texts remind us that motherhood is not only a role deserving of most respect but a form of leadership from which we can all learn.

The similarities between the presentations of Mary and Mariam are many and embody leadership qualities. Firstly, both Mary and Mariam are singled out in their own right not in relation to men as is generally the custom.

The genealogy of Jesus described Mary in a different way to other women. All other women are mentioned in the context of being a man’s wife however this is reversed in the case of Mary. In the description the father of Jesus the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born who is called the Messiah.

Similarly, Mary is the only woman to be mentioned directly in the Quran. This signifies that she in her own right has to be recognised. Both the bible and the Quran describe her virtue and her piety but also her faithfulness towards God. Both texts announce her surprise at the announcement of the conception of her son.

This is further emphasised in the Quran by the angel Gibriel. She is described as the sister of Aron. This suggests that she is viewed as a moral woman by her connection with the house of Aron.

Moreover, when she has been assured by both religious texts that this immaculate conception is God’s word for whom nothing is impossible she has faith and does not question it. In the bible on Gabriel’s annunciation she says here I am the servant of the Lord, let it be done to me according to thy word.

Both the bible and Quran also emphasise her personal religiosity. After Christ’s resurrection, she is described as one of the women who is constantly devoting herself to prayer. This is echoed in the honorific titles given to Mary. She is mentioned as an example to all for her chastity.

Finally, as a result of these qualities, she was selected out of all women by God. In the bible, Mary is referred to as the faithful one by the angel Gabriel. Similarly, the angel Gibriel in the Quran says God has made you pure and exalted you over all mankind.

Therefore, while the story of the birth of Jesus or Isa is different in the bible and Quran the qualities of Mary and Mariam are very similar. Some may argue that these qualities are irrelevant to leadership. I would argue that they are not.

The three major areas that I touched on standing out amongst others are virtue and faithfulness and being chosen. To be a leader one has to stand out among the crowd. While this can be achieved by being boisterous and arrogant as exemplified by some of our political leaders who I will mention the case of Mary shows that this can be achieved through virtue.

The celebration of this figure in Christianity and Islam means she embodies moral qualities like honesty and kindness. A leader also leads morally as well as practical because a society without morals is hardly a society at all.

The similarities between Mary and Mariam are therefore essential to foster inter-faith dialogue as they highlight those personal qualities which people need to lead. While many may not see religious texts as a reliable source of information for leadership today the women of these texts have experiences which women also have now.

Religious texts and scholarly thought provide an insight into the human mind from which we can learn. Though the exact circumstances may change the human situation has not so we can learn from their lessons.

It cannot be doubted that the female voice is represented less in these religious texts which are male-dominated. According to a study, there are 93 women mentioned in the bible. Mariam is the only woman to be mentioned directly in the Quran.

Mary in the bible and Mariam in the Quran stand out in the male-dominated world because of their remarkable qualities. While the position of women in society has improved significantly since the time in which these texts were set women still often find themselves unrepresented.

For example, the church of England has allowed female bishops since 2015. While the number of female bishops has increased, they are still outnumbered by men. Female leaders today whether religious or not can learn from these women who operate in a male-dominated environment.

Trailblazers can identify with Mary or Mariam because they are leaders. They defied the norms of their society but in a positive way. Mary or Mariam was singled out because of their good character which most people did not have. The identification of them means that they ought to be emulated as role models and leaders.

Other women who want to lead can refer to the religious texts to see an example of women defying the norms through sheer virtue and faithfulness to pursue a different course and all of this in the face of persecution.

Last but not least while Mary or Mariam in the religious texts have qualities which can be emulated by female leaders generally it cannot be overlooked that her most significant role was that of the mother.

In the modern-day, it is a wonderful thing that women are able to follow their professional choice and aspirations, but we must also note the unfortunate and judgemental bi-product of this in which women particularly in the West who favour a career over motherhood are considered as limiting themselves.

However true freedom for a woman is that she can decide without judgment whether to be a mother, a working professional, or both. Significant women of every religion who are celebrated for their motherhood are important role models for different kinds of leadership.

In Christianity, a woman is blamed for disobeying God but there is no such concept in Islam as original sin. In Islam, Adam and Eve (Eve is known as Hawa) are presented as equally responsible for transgressing Allah’s commands. The mother’s pain in labour is not seen as a punishment as described in Genesis 3. The pain of labour is not a punishment but a reflection of the great sacrifices of a nurturing spirit inherent in humanity. Taking the journey while pregnant signifies the great length to which mothers go for their families.

I am sure we would all agree that the leader who goes the extra mile for the benefit of their people is one of the greatest leaders. Both Mary and Mariam are important reminders that women can be great leaders in different capacities whether through their character or through their role as mothers.

Neither female leadership aspirations nor motherhood should be criticised. While there are differences interfaith comparisons can ameliorate animosity and religion can act as a useful reference for issues facing us today.

Olufemi Cole-Njie: I greet you all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as we travel through the season of Advent the Christian calendar. This is a season of expectation and hope. It is a time of preparation for Christmas time and looking forward to Christ’s coming again.

The topic for discussion is an important one, controversial, and worthy of constant reflection. It is a huge topic and given the time that I have it will not be possible to do justice to the topic but with God’s help I would like us to consider the topic under three headings: one major and three minor.

Mary the mother of Jesus, Jesus the first women’s protagonist, patriarchy and achievements of women’s leadership spaces and women’s role in spiritual leadership.

There could not have been a better woman to serve as a focus for our discussions than Mary the mother of Jesus at this time in anticipation of Christmas. Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of women – who is she? When we first encounter her, we are struck by her obedience to God’s instructions that she would bear Jesus in a miraculous manner. Being a virgin, she could not understand how this could happen but she was reminded that with God nothing is impossible.

Mary’s response was I am the Lord’s servant. May your work be fulfilled. Mary without realising it was fulfilling a prophecy uttered at the beginning of time that the seed of the offspring of a woman would crush satan’s head. It was God’s desire that the salvation of the world should come through motherhood.

Mary however was not simply a mother. She was also a leader. Her role as a leader was not confined to her home in the upbringing of Jesus and as a mother but also in the faith community of her day Mary’s leadership was demonstrated at the wedding at Cana in Galilee where the wine ran out. As a teetotaler, I want to believe that the wine was not alcoholic because fermentation was not possible.

Returning to Mary she said to the servants do whatever Jesus asks you to do. She also encouraged Jesus to perform his first miracle which was a sign that the kingdom of God has arrived. Mary was also concerned about Jesus’ welfare and at one point went out to meet him. He was all over the place and she felt that he might have a mental breakdown.

Mary was also a leader in the early church as is mentioned in the book of acts. Mary’s song of praise was sung. Our souls praise God. God our saviour has done great things. No longer are women instruments of production. You have made them vessels of honour. You did great things for humanity. You have stirred up a moral revolution. You have dealt a deadly blow to the proud and pompous. You have raised the humble to a higher place. You have made history by meeting the needs of the poor. This is a modern version of the magnificent.

We see Mary as one of God’s chosen. We feel the important connection between spirituality and leadership. She was a leader free to say yes to the calls of the spirit, compassionate towards the needs of others, and courageous.

Apart from a spiritual connection with God, we have a role model for leadership as a model. Jesus has been described as the first protagonist of women. The Greek and Roman regimes were patricidal and regarded women as second-class citizens. Jesus’ regard for women was quite different from that of his contemporaries. For Christ women have an intrinsic value equal to that of men.

Jesus said, in the beginning, the creator made them male and female. Women were created in the image of God just the same as men. Women’s rights were advocated by Jesus who has been described as the first protagonist of the women’s revolution. Jesus gave the message to the woman he met at the well and she was the first evangelist. Jesus gave Mary Magdalene the message of resurrection. She was the first apostle.

Women played a leadership role in matrilineal communities, particularly in Africa. They were leaders in economics, politics, and religious spheres. Women were at the helm of economic activity in West Africa. Much of this changed during the colonial period from which Africa has not recovered completely.

I must applaud men who believe that women are equally called to leadership in the church. In 1979 I responded to God’s call to enter the ministry. It was not until 1999 that I finally responded to God’s call. It would be amiss of me to fail to mention the support given to me by my husband. When I told him I decided to respond to God’s call for ordination he came back after much prayer and said who am I to stand in the way when God has called.

One must not shy away from the fact that there are women who believe that women cannot be spiritual leaders because this is the preserve of men. I know of a woman who left the church she was attending for another church because there were discussions about ordaining women bishops. If women want to become priests and bishops they should have been born as men.

Women’s leadership is accepted in every secular field: law, education, science, etc but women still find it difficult to gain acceptance as imams and bishops. But we see a different approach to spiritual leadership with Mary the mother of Jesus. Obedience to God, humility, and caring. The mothering aspect of spiritual leadership serves as a contrast to thirst for power which characterises patriarchal leadership.

I would like to suggest that spiritual leadership is not what it ought to be in God’s eyes because of the absence of women in some of the sacred places. Creation became complete with the creation of woman.

I want to acknowledge that some change has happened and we have a lot more women in leadership roles but there is still a lot more to be done. When Mary was called by God to carry the word of God how can women be denied the opportunity of responding to the call of God to serve as representatives and spiritual leaders who also carry the word of God?

*Catherine Tuitt, MBE is Change Agent, Charity, humanitarian and legal consultant in London. She grew up by a migrant widow single mother on a London social housing estate. She attended a London church primary, secondary state school. After college, she earned a law degree at university. She served as a Labour Councilor and worked at the Home Office in Westminster. She is a law advisor for barristers and the NHS. Cate is a passionate creative person who loves painting, Artwork, and books. She is part of London artists and is an anti-knife crime advocate. In addition to English, she speaks Spanish and French.

**Mary Hunter completed her degree in theology from the University of St Andrews in 2020, having completed her dissertation on “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Jihad, But Not in the Name of God.” Since then, she has been published regularly in The News International and Geo News, and also several times by think tanks like RUSI and CSCR. As well as being a research fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and the London Institute of South Asia, Mary is currently undertaking her PhD on Islam under General Zia in Pakistan at the University of St Andrews.

***Olufemi Cole-Njie is a supernumerary Methodist Minister with roots in the Republic of the Gambia. Prior to retirement in 2019, ‘Femi served the Forest Methodist Circuit in East London for 16 years first as a Circuit Minister and then as Superintendent with pastoral responsibility for the Leytonstone Methodist Church. Femi also served as the Free Church Representative on the Waltham Forest Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) for ten years. She is a Home Economist turned Theologian and holds a Masters’ Degree in Theology, Development, and Culture from the University of Edinburgh. in addition to sharing the Gospel, Femi is passionate about Racial, Gender, and Climate Justice. She is a wife to Kenneth, mother, and grandmother.

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