Yesterday I went to an unusual Shabbat Kallah. The bride had organized a women's tefillah group in her home, and her friends conducted the entire Shabbat service. Although there are Orthodox women's tefillah groups elsewhere in London, and there is a monthly tefillah group on Friday nights in my neighborhood, this is the first time (to my knowledge) that one has taken place on a Shabbat morning in this area.
Yet again, it struck home that women coming together to pray is a special spiritual experience. It also makes a difference to be in a small group, to be participating in the proceedings as well as observing, and to be close to the 'action' rather than stuck on a balcony or behind any form of mechitza. The entire service feels altogether different -- more intimate, more immediate, and again more spiritual. In addition, I must note that the women were extremely supportive of each other as they leined for the first time, led davening for the first time, etc., often overcoming quite a lot of nerves.
One nice surprise was that I was given Hagba. As always, it occured to me how sad that after being a regular shul-goer for 28 years, holding or touching a Sefer Torah still feels strange and unfamiliar and that despite watching Hagba thousands of times, I still had to be told what to do because I'd only ever seen it from a distance and never with an eye to doing it myself.
Unfortunately in London, unlike some shuls in the US and Israel, women are not allowed to conduct any of these activities (including Fri. night tefillah groups, and Megillah readings) in Orthodox shuls. On the negative side, this means they get no casual visitors and even Megillah readings, which have increasingly wide acceptance in Orthodox communities in other countries, are still regarded as suspect here. On the plus side, this leaves the women more free to conduct and develop the services as they see fit.
What is clear is that at least locally, more groups are popping up / expanding the range of events they conduct, and that the ones I have been to, at least, have included an interesting mix of ages and levels of religiosity within Orthodoxy. The rabbis can try and ignore and delegitimize these events as much as they like, but the will is still there from the women.