Guildford and Godalming Interfaith talk on female religious leadership

Four women, a Hindu, a Moslem, a Christian Scientist and a Unitarian spoke to the question, “Can female leadership be a force for change and renewal in religion?” Lizzie Witney, Committee on Publication for South East England, gave a 15-minute talk on Mary Baker Eddy. Here is the text:

Thank you for providing the opportunity for all of us to discuss this important question. I’d like to do so in relation to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of my own church, the Church of Christ Scientist.  In Mrs. Eddy’s case, her spiritual leadership and life’s work grew from a deep religious conviction that the healing work of Jesus wasn’t miraculous, but “a permanent dispensation” of God’s love, always available to humanity. Her spiritual leadership in the last half of her life had an outsized impact on Christian thought, bringing change and a renewed sense that Christian healing is still possible today.

Eddy lived from 1821-1910, when women had few personal or property rights and were certainly not seen in leadership roles in society, much less Christian religion. Despite the restrictive norms of her times in the law, society, and religion, her efforts as a Christian reformer set her at the head of a movement to reinstate in the Christian world the practice of Christian healing. In the course of her eventful life, she became one of the most famous women of her time. She founded and organised a church, preached sermons, wrote and published books. She also started a denominational weekly and monthly magazine. These are called the Christian Science Sentinel and the Christian Science Journal. As you can see these magazines are still published in the same format today. They are also available online on a comprehensive website, which I access from my phone. This is in particular very helpful to me because it allows me access when I’m on the move. She also started  a non-religious international daily newspaper, called the Christian Science Monitor. This newspaper is also still available today, this hard copy version comes out each week, and there is a digital week-day version and an online website.

To give you some background – Mary Baker was brought up in a farming family in New England, America. She went to a local school, but regular illness meant she was often unable to attend, and a college-educated older brother tutored her. Her family were deeply religious and faithfully attended the local Congregational church. Rooted in Puritan religion, her parents were dedicated to God, and long prayer and study of the Bible were an integral part of daily life. Like her parents, Mary was devoted to God and loved to study the Bible and discuss religion. She didn’t agree with some aspects of her father’s Calvinist faith such as the doctrine of predestination because she felt intuitively that the biblical God of Love was fair and just to all His children not just the chosen few.

Her early adulthood was full of tragedy. She married young, but within a year her husband died leaving her pregnant. Then her young child was taken away as she was too ill to properly care for him. Later she remarried, but her husband deserted her. Throughout this time she searched for any remedy that could help her, but ultimately her only relief was to turn to God and the Bible.

So when at the age of 45 she was severely injured in a fall and not expected to recover, it was natural for her to turn to her Bible. Reading an account of one of Jesus healings in the Gospels, she glimpsed something of the power and presence of God as Spirit. This brought a complete change in her physical condition. Later she said of the experience that, “Even to the homœopathic physician who attended me, and rejoiced in my recovery, I could not then explain the modus of my relief. I could only assure him that the divine Spirit had wrought the miracle — a miracle which later I found to be in perfect scientific accord with divine law.” (Ret. 24:12–21). This quote comes from her autobiography called Retrospection and Introspection.

She had encountered God in such a profoundly different way that for the next few years she explored the Bible to understand how this healing came about.  She continued to experience physical healing for herself, and also for others whom she prayed for. She was convinced that these were not random miracles so much as divinely natural and repeatable acts and as such expressed the ‘science’ of Christianity.

Eddy saw healing as the result of an increased understanding of God, which Jesus Christ’s mission of salvation had brought to humanity.  She felt that it was a renewal of practical Christianity and wrote what she was learning. Her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures was publishedin 1875. People who read the book found that they were also being healed by what it taught about God and the Bible. Many devout Christians became healers themselves, but found that the various churches to which they belonged weren’t yet ready to embrace Christian healing. Mrs Eddy and her students formed a church of their own so they could worship together. It’s mission statement was to, “commemorate the word and works of our Master [Christ Jesus], and to reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” The church and its branches grew rapidly in the USA and beyond. Christian Science reached the UK first in the late 1880s. Christian Scientists have had a church in Godalming since 1928. The history of Christian Science in England is of special interest to me.

My parents and grandparents were Christian Scientists and now nearly 150 years after Mrs Eddy was first healed I have also experienced a number of physical healings turning to God in prayer. One healing took place during a Christian Science church service. The night before I had been out in the woods and  was badly bitten by mosquitos. I had about 50 bites covering my body. Because of the discomfort from the bites I had barely been able sleep all night, and on the Sunday morning not much had changed and I still had a lot of pain and itchiness. Even though I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit comfortably during the service, I decided to go to church. At church  verses from the Bible were read out, and as I considered the words and meaning behind the passages I felt God’s presence. At the same time the bites completely stopped itching and I was able to enjoy the rest of the service comfortably. Within a few hours the bites were completely gone.

Though healings such as my own have long been widespread among Christian Scientists and have been a natural, if infrequent occurrence throughout Christian history since the time of Christ Jesus and his disciples, how they occur has often been misunderstood. Christian healing is based on communion with God through prayer, and requires humility and willingness to do His will, which Christian Scientists understand to be always good. It isn’t blind faith, or faith-healing, as that’s commonly understood, nor is it positive thinking, or the placebo effect, or human will; it rejects the prosperity gospel, too. Healing prayer, as we understand it, involves regeneration of thought and character through the power of God acting in a human life. We feel this redemption in Christ is available here and now, to save us from sickness as well as sin.   

Eddy never set out to be a “force for change,” but in responding to God and her experience of Him she was led to found a church based on a spiritual interpretation of Christianity, one in which adherents bring their understanding of the words and works of Jesus Christ into their daily lives and find healing and regeneration.  So, yes, I believe that female religious leaders can be a force for change and renewal in religion.

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