Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, deputy general secretary of the WCC. Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, deputy general secretary of the WCC. Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

A worship service at the Glasgow University Chapel on 25 November featured recorded contributions by World Council of Churches (WCC) deputy general secretary Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri as well as two other women who have dedicated their lives to promoting gender justice.

The worship service was recorded live by BBC Radio 4. The service was inspired by the Side by Side Scotland Faith in Gender Justice exhibition, coordinated by Christian Aid, which opened in the Scottish Parliament on 8 March in conjunction with International Women’s Day.

The 25 November service marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. This is a time when people around the world unite to challenge the institutions in which gender-based violence is perpetuated and push for systemic change and accountability.

Anne Muir, who led the service, reflected that the world needs to see a change in attitudes that see women as subordinate to men. “To our shame, the Bible has often been used to justify such inequality,” she said.

Phiri, who grew up in Malawi, recalled how she was nearly expelled from the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian for apparently inciting church women to seek gender justice in the church.

She also experienced violent attacks from male and female students at the University of Malawi after presenting research findings on sexual harassment and rape on campus.

“And fortunately the global church responded and sided with us, and things turned out well,” she said. “So I’m grateful that there was a spirit of solidarity among women globally to help solve a problem.”

Phiri believes change must happen both on a personal and a community level. “And that’s why I’m still there and that’s why I’m working for the World Council of Churches,” she said. “Because I want to see change in the churches, and as we change inside, then we can also do advocacy out there.”

She also reflected on positive and negative images of being a man or a woman. “How can we change those things which are life-denying, and promote the images that are life-affirming,” she said. “And so for me, the example of Jesus Christ is an example which is a life-affirming example of masculinity.”

Building globally

On a corresponding BBC Radio Scotland talk show, also on 25 November, Miriam Weibye, church relations officer at the Scottish Episcopal Church and a WCC Central Committee member from the Church of Scotland, described “Side by Side” as a faith movement for gender justice.

“We are building on that globally,” she said. While acknowledging that many churches don’t have a stellar record in promoting gender justice, Weibye said they have a strong role in countering injustice. “Jesus always treated women with respect,” she noted.

Global campaigns such as the Me Too movement and Thursdays in Black have coalesced to raise awareness, Weibye continued. “I think faith groups have a role to play because I don’t think any other organization has that kind of reach. We can provide good education through the faith groups.”

BBC Radio 4 Live from Glasgow University Chapel with WCC Deputy general secretary Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri

BBC Radio Scotland on 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, featuring Miriam Weibye, WCC Central Committee member from the Church of Scotland

16 days of activism against gender-based violence

Thursdays in Black

Just Community of Women and Men