||The World God Loves
by Jennifer Bennett
Lois Wilson has little time for the 'comfortable pew.'
She is a tireless advocate of the rights of
oppressed and silenced people
LOIS WILSON's autobiography, which is more likely to be read by members of the United Church than anyone else, will not reassure those already convinced that Canada's largest Protestant denomination has taken a feminist, socialist path away from the gospel. The title of the book refers not only to the Biblical passage, "The people who have turned the world upside down have come here also," but to new world maps that place the southern hemisphere at the top, presenting world politics and priorities in fresh perspective. If Wilson manages to upset a few ideas about the proper place of women in society, the proper place of the arms race in world budgets, or the proper place of North America in the world, one suspects that she will consider her book worthwhile.
Wilson, who has occupied three of the top five positions the United Church of Canada has to offer, has little time for what Pierre Berton termed "the comfortable pew," but is a tireless advocate of the rights of all oppressed and silenced people, including women, homosexuals, immigrants, native Canadians, and members of "the Two-thirds World." She works with socialist reformers in Chile, liberal clergy in Brazil, the victims of apartheid in South Africa, and various groups bent on nudging the status quo at home. She was in her 50s when, in South Korea, she stuffed a list of political prisoners into her shoe to smuggle out of the country for Amnesty International. She demonstrated against a fund-raising visit of Imelda Marcos to Vancouver and asked, "Did I look as nervous as I felt"' Violence, she discovered, could be not only physical, but also political and economic.
Destined to become "a lantern in this world," according to June Callwood, Wilson was born in Winnipeg in 1925 to a Presbyterian minister father and a strong-willed, supportive mother. She was carried as a baby in "an Indian Tiginaugan complete with moss diapers" and later learned "how to handle a canoe, how to sail, how to distinguish between white, red and scrub pine, how to make thread from the roots of a spruce tree..." When out paddling, the family "sang in time to the oars." As a child, she was also impressed by a church that was her "second home," a house often crowded with visitors from around the world, and by a father who took up a pipe at 40 when a church committee told him it was a sin to smoke.
Throughout all of this, Wilson's own feminism bloomed slowly. She was a tomboy as a child because "life presented so many more opportunities for boys than girls," but credits her feminist awakening to reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in the mid-'60s when, a mother of four, she was nearing the end of a period of being "tired for ten years." Two decades earlier, she had enrolled in theology "partly to find out whether any of the professors [one of whom was her father] knew anything more of God than I did," and found herself the only woman among both students an,; faculty. Long after graduation, when she applied for ordination into the United Church ministry in 1965 -- the church had been ordaining women since 1936 -- she was, ironically, one of the first married women with children to be accepted; ironic because, as she points out, two and a half decades later it is single female applicants that are welcomed less warmly, because they may be lesbian. Inspired by Galatians 3:28, "In Christ there is neither male nor female," she turned her attention to the exclusiveness of language, to violence toward women (accepted even by Protestant leaders such as John Calvin), and the worldwide subservience of women.
Wilson's husband Roy had been ordained before her, and the Couple initially established a team ministry, although her own interests became increasingly far flung. She decided that bilingualism was essential for a Canadian in a prominent position, and packed herself off to the house of a Quebecois priest for immersion in French language and culture, much to the curiosity of local villagers. She talked with antinuclear activist Dr. Rosalie Bertell, visited Mother Theresa (whose lack of political awareness perplexed her), became a friend of Bishop Desmond Tutu, and met Pope John Paul 11, along with a roster of other political and religious leaders. Always, she brought her interfaith and cross-cultural news back to often recalcitrant congregations. Her sensitivity to the needs and beliefs of others enhanced an already outstanding reputation among clergy and lay people alike. She was elected an officer of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1973, President of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1976, the first woman moderator of the United Church in 1980 -- the church's
highest position -- and one of seven presidents of the World Council of Churches in 1983, a role she will hold until 1991. As a child of loving parents, as a mostly stay-at-home wife in traditional '50s fashion who considered the births of her four children among "the most intense experiences of love and intimacy that I have ever had, Wilson admirably takes what might be the difficult position of representing a church that champions the rights of outsiders and sanctions abortion when it is chosen by a woman and approved by her doctor. Fortunately, her awareness of sexual roles and limitations extends to her taking some pains to clarify the present church position concerning the ordination of homosexuals -- a position that has attracted an inordinate amount of interest in the news media, and may still lead to a schism within the church. At General Council in 1988, she points out, the controversial report, "Towards a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientation, Lifestyles and Ministry" was rejected. What did occur was a clarification of existing United Church policy -- that "all persons who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him" could become members of the church, that all such members would be "eligible to be considered for ordered ministry" and that "all Christian people are called to a lifestyle patterned on obedience to Jesus Christ." As always, each church would choose what sort of minister it wanted. Although Wilson is against unfaithfulness and promiscuity, she writes, "it takes a lot of practice to be in charge of yourself and your values -- yet to freely accept others whose values you may despise. But that is the mark of a loving person. Never put the 'principle' or the 'law' before the person." Wilson's teachings are as practical as the wilderness skills she learned as a child, her social work an ongoing attempt to "sing in time with the oars." Prostitution in Asia "isn't about morality, it's about economics," while Christian love is not about converting the reluctant, but about loving. "Why is it, then," she wonders, "that the person of mixed blood, the native person, the homosexual, the criminal, the sexual offender, the person with disabilities, the functionally illiterate and others assigned to the peripheries of our society continue to be excluded from much of Canadian life in a country that claims to have been founded on Christian faith?" Lois Wilson has contributed to society far beyond the bounds of the United Church. She writes: To be authentically human is to centre one's life on the world God loves. It has always meant that, but today it is critical to do so. The creation God loves is sick unto death, and needs caretakers, lovers, gardeners and partners who will work to preserve life rather than death, collective security rather than national security, rice in the mouth and a roof over the head rather than military and nuclear hardware. One of the people who most impressed Wilson during her travels in the "upside down world" was the auxiliary bishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Most Reverend Mauro Morelli, who was fighting illegal land developments in the city. I always teach my people," he said, "that anything that helps life, improves life, defends life, is evangelical. Anything that goes against life, oppresses life, crushes life, is against the gospel." It is Wilson's own message in a nutshell, and an inspiration to a church whose difficult times are not yet over.