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"Little girl, I say to you, arise"

Rev. Julie Bird, of the Presbyterian Church of USA gave a powerful sermon on the girl child, in the Immanuel Church in the city. MINU ITTIYIPE met the priestess who shares her views on various subjects

"Little girl, I say to you, arise."

WHEN THE Church of South India set aside a Sunday as the Girl Child Day it was most appropriate when Rev. Julie Bird, a woman priest, gave the message from the pulpit of the Immanuel Church at Broadway. She told the story of how Jesus Christ cured a sick girl two thousand years ago; Jesus had said "Talitha Cumi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."

Using this line as the leitmotif Reverend Julie Bird gave a powerful message urging women to arise. She said that rape of children, prostitution of children, malnutrition, killing of the girl child, gender inequity should not be treated as someone else's problem but every man and woman should regard it as their responsibility, their bounden duty to go out and do what they can." Little girl, I say to you, arise.

Rev. Julie Bird said later on that the girl child is only one of the issues in societies with gender inequity, "Women all over the world continue to struggle to find ways to express their voices and wisdom. In the U.S. there are laws in place that women should be given fair representation in society, but this is only a start. It is the mindset, the attitude that needs changing. Men have to realise that women are just as meaningful and resourceful as they are.

Women too must recognise their gifts and rights. I believe that men and women are created equally though we may be created differently. In societies where powerful leadership positions like the heads of media, religious heads, heads of government are dominantly male the women's voices are not heard. Everything depends on how we perceive each other in community." Little girl, I say to you, arise.

Circa 2003, what is sad is that within the Christian Church itself many of the denominations do not allow women into the sanctum sanctorum to assist in the worship let alone lead the worship. The Church of South India has begun to address the issue and at present there are one hundred and one women priests in this denomination. Rev. Julie Bird, who belongs to the Presbyterian Church of United States, and her husband Adrian Bird are here as guests of the Church of South India seeking to learn about the global church.

Speaking exclusively to The Hindu Metroplus she dwelt on the position of the church in these postmodern times.

When were you ordained and what made you take up priest hood?

I was ordained in the year 1999. I got the calling while I was working as an elementary school teacher in a public school in the state of North Carolina. I then did my Masters in Divinity in order to become a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

It's only been just over a decade that women were first ordained as priests. How did the laity accept you? In the Presbyterian Church women have been ordained for the past forty-seven years. It has been a very slow process and currently only around 26 per cent of the ordained pastors in the Presbyterian Church are women.

Many people have told me here in Kochi that they had never seen a woman priest before.

Do you see women becoming bishops in the near future?

I certainly hope so. In the Presbyterian Church we do not have Bishops, we have a democratic system where there is not one person but a group, who make the decisions. In the Anglican Church in the USA there are women bishops but in the CSI church there are no women Bishops as yet.

The form of worship is traditionally masculine. How have you fitted into this role? The worship is deeply rooted in tradition, and that tradition has certainly been very patriarchal. Sadly the female voice within the church has been overlooked. We pray the inclusion for women's voices within the worship will be a positive model for equity, growth and the movement of the church. At Immanuel Church I have been welcomed graciously into the leadership role. I am aware that it is difficult for some whom this is new and controversial, but I pray that my presence within the church will increase the dialogue over such issues. I am thankful to the CSI North Kerala diocese for the opportunity to be a part of this church family.

How do you see the church in a broader sense adapting to the changing times?

There has been an exodus of its folks to prayer groups for spiritual succour. The struggle between tradition and modernity has been present in the church since its earliest founding. The same struggle exists today. In the Presbyterian Church, Texas we found that worship membership was declining, so we introduced a new service that would involve the people. The communion table is placed in the middle and the members sit around and there is more music and singing. This worship still remained focused around the word and sacraments. It was meant to get the younger generation to attend the service but what I learnt was that it crossed all generations and the church filled beyond capacity. I personally enjoy both traditional and contemporary worship.

Has there been a religious revival in America after September 11?

The Sunday after September 11 the country found their way to the churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. They were searching for meaning through faith. It was a period of awakening for us in the United States, that we can no longer ignore the fact that we are part of a global world. There was some violence in neighbourhoods around the mosques and some Muslims were afraid to go to the mosques for education and for prayers. As a representative of the Presbyterian Church in Forth Worth, Texas, I along with the Rabbi of the local Synagogue went to the mosque and were present during their prayers. It was a powerful time because that started a process of communication between the various religions. We held world religious classes, where the Imam came to the church to teach us about Islam and likewise I went to the mosque. This communication made us work together and the Muslims, Jews and Christians in our community are now in service together building houses for the poor. There is always hope for community as we seek to understand and respect one another more deeply.

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