Women Bishops, Equality and Relevance

So the Church of England have rejected women as bishops within their communion. Across the UK this has been met by derision and scorn from both within and also outside of the actual church itself. As a I reflect on it myself I think it is important to approach this from two totally different standpoints. One a theological point and secondly one about the role of women as leaders in society.

Theologically Speaking.
As a former theologian student it was always clear the bible is actually quite explicit about women’s leadership.  From the Fall in the Garden of Eden, to the Levitical priesthood to the Apostles it is male driven. Women are subordinate, not necessarily in a step over way but in a way that makes it clear that spiritual power and leadership is patriarchal. Yes there are exceptions which raise their head such as Debra, a judge in ancient Israel. Sarah, Miriam, Noahadia, Hannah, Esther and Anna as well as Philip’s daughters are mentioned as prophets. Even with these givens as members of the spiritual community these ladies were not granted with the same spiritual leadership attributes of the priesthood. Indeed my own upbringing was part of a community whose founder was considered a female prophet, but as we speak the notion of a woman being a a presbyter is still a point of contention. Here’s why.

The New Testament, the guidebook for modern church governance, clearly states that a bishop, a term interchangeably defined as elder, overseer and pastor by some, should be a man of one wife, sober, have believing children and not a drunkard. This is reiterated to the Pauline letters to Timothy and Titus and is ensconced with a guide that it’s a man’s role to rule not just the church but his house too. Rounded out with the missive that women should not gossip, talk maliciously and that they were not allowed to exercise authority over men. Other books reiterate the whole men rule thing from Genesis to Corinthians  It’s there in black and white and so the only counter argument for this is cultural relevance. Tough call but if you are a believer of the book, just like gay marriage and other contentious issues affecting modern Christianity it’s there. Take it or leave it.

For those who wish to quote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” that one was about salvation and nothing to do with leadership or being a bishop.

Cultural Relevance and Equality
It breaks my heart to see people who are so passionate about their faith have decisions like the Synod dash their hopes. When as a society we seem to be making so many leaps and bounds to recognizing that a woman can offer the same leadership as a man. From the female leaders in business, society, education and in politics it would seem that religion is the only institution left for such a change. The reality though is that the largest world religions are a law unto themselves.

The Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are in many ways are exempt from many laws pertaining to sexual equality. Whilst we talk about the whole issue as to why bishops are automatically allowed to go into the house of lords while preventing women to be bishops we also have to remember that laws are there which allow them to use the ecclesiastical card to support their position on inequality. But there is hope. If we are honest all three of those religions by measure of their holy books all condone slavery. As much as it grates people the moral code as set in the ten commandments even supports slavery. Sits uncomfortable but it’s there. I guess one realises that things like the abolition, gay marriages and priests have all been implemented because of a change in the cultural landscape.

So the argument is never going to really be a theological one. Whilst other Christians and non believers would like to think that the CofE is irrelevant, they need to remember at its head sits the monarch, they are influential in the house of Lords and that affects legislation. They have an investment portfolio of some 8bn and property, thats influence.

It probably will come to that day when the vote does swing in favour of women bishops and then I suppose the gaze will then turn to Jews and Muslims. Probably not as influential in legislature so as not quite the same.

Our hope is that we realise something a bit deeper. Patriarchy is evident in our society. It’s perpetuated through commerce, media and in culture as a whole. The Prime Minister goaded the C of E but has he really taken a look at this inner circle and the women in his Cabinet? Many of the daily tabloids lamented the vote yet continued to blast their sidebars of shame where they constantly dissect, analyse and humiliate women. So not that it’s an excuse, but the CofE if we are really honest are only a reflection of how institutions see women as a whole. Good to look at, nice to let a few in now and then but not fit to lead. And that my friends is the gospel truth. A truth as a society we need to change.

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2 thoughts on “Women Bishops, Equality and Relevance

  1. “For those who wish to quote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” that one was about salvation and nothing to do with leadership or being a bishop.”

    Thanks for that, many seem to either be ignorant or malicious in misusing that verse, as you rightly point out. The inherent equality of all human beings is upheld by that verse in that God in Christ is available as Lord and Saviour for all types of people, not just Jews, not just men and not just freedmen!

    “If we are honest all three of those religions by measure of their holy books all condone slavery. As much as it grates people the moral code as set in the ten commandments even supports slavery. Sits uncomfortable but it’s there. I guess one realises that things like the abolition, gay marriages and priests have all been implemented because of a change in the cultural landscape.”

    As I tweeted to you yesterday this is a like taking a sledgehammer to a nail. I can only speak in any credible sense (in this issue at least) for (Biblical) Christianity, in that the issue must be treated with proper nuance. I won’t try to dissect all of the implications here (that indeed would be a dissertation in itself!) but some points to consider:

    1.) The modern mind comes to this subject with a lot of cultural baggage. Our concept and reflections of slavery are heavily informed by the system of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of c. 1500 – 1850 and it’s subsequent happenings

    2.) Neither the Hebrew concept of slavery of the OT (especially) nor the Greco-Roman system of the NT are anything like the system in (1)

    3.) Slave-holding while not necessarily condemned is not always necessarily commanded (I am not saying it is not at all, ever – lest a comment come back to imply I am saying this) throughout the corpus of Scripture. Yet are intelligent readers of scripture, we see that the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles appeared in space time and were in a culture to which they were not always as their primary goal (esp. the Apostles in the context of Roman Empire) over-throwers of political systems.

    4.) 1 Timothy 1:10 expressly forbids the taking of someone captive for the purpose of selling them into slavery as antithetical to the gospel ‘of the blessed God’.

    5.) To assert that abolition was as a result of a ‘change in the cultural landscape’ is incredibly reductionistic. One of my historical heroes is William Wilberforce. While it is important to note that a.) We ought to have a more rounded picture and not portray him as one man against the world, and b.) Other factors such as the reduced economical value of the trade and practice of slave-holding are to be noted; this man was highly driven by Biblical & theological conviction, and that not on his own but influenced also by the Biblical & theological conviction of men such as John Wesley and (the repentant slave trader come pastor/hymn writer) John Newton.

    As I said these are merely some thoughts for us to think about and look at in helping us to come to a more nuanced perspective.

  2. Your theological reflection that women’s roles have always been quite explicit leave out much about women leaders in the early church, even the apostle Junia seems to have slipped your notice…… Amongst others such as.
    Mary of Bethany…….Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the first century that, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.”(JT Sotah 3:4, 19a) but Jesus unabashedly defies this tradition by teaching the Torah to women, perhaps most notably Mary of Bethany. The fact that Mary is described by Luke as “sitting at the feet of Jesus” clearly identifies her as a disciple.

    Mary Magdalene…According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary Magdalene of seven demons, after which she became a devoted disciple. She is mentioned by Luke in the same context as the Twelve as one who traveled with Jesus and helped finance his ministry. All four gospel accounts identify Mary Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb. She is the one to breathlessly describes what she has seen to the male disciples, who initially discount her declaration, “I have seen the Lord!”, as the babblings of a foolish woman. Mary’s announcement, “I have seen the Lord,” is the same credential used by Paul to insist on his own authority as an apostle:” ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). For her valour in twice sharing the good news to the skeptical male disciples, the early church honoured Mary Magdalene with the title of Apostle to the Apostles. That Christ ushered in this new era of life and liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered.

    Junia……..“Greet Andronicus and Junia,” Paul wrote in Romans 16:7, “my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia is the first and only woman in Scripture to be explicitly identified as an apostle. (Mary Magdalene’s status as apostle is debatable.) Apostles in the New Testament were disciples of Jesus devoted to spreading his teachings abroad. In addition to the original twelve apostles, the Bible speaks of apostles who served as traveling missionaries, teaching and leading the early church as it endured persecution and struggled through religious growing pains. Paul, Timothy, Barnabas Silas and Apollos were all apostles, as were Andronicus and Junia.

    Phoebe…..In Romans 16:1-2, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church in Cenchreae. I ask that you receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and give to her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe was one of many women in the early church to play an important role in directing the churches that met in their homes. Phoebe is not mentioned alongside a husband, so there’s a good chance she was single or a widow. She is identified as a deacon, which in the New Testament referred to a teacher and leader in the church, whether that person was a man or woman. (Yep, a “deaconess” is something we made up much later on.) In Paul’s letters, deacons are connected to ministry and service of the word (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Generally it is thought by theologians today that Phoebe was Paul courier for the letter to the Romans. Since couriers were charged with responsibility to explain their letters, Phoebe probably read the letter aloud and answered questions the Roman Christians may have had…Phoebe, to put this graphically, can be seen s the first ‘commentator’ on the letter to the Romans.” Ironic that some churches forbid women from reading Scripture aloud in church when a woman may very well have been the first person to read the book of Romans aloud!

    There are many more ….we are Ll aware that history (of whatever sort) is written by they who have the pen at the time!

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