I know that the news is nearly a week old but I want to say how pleasing it is that the Church of England has, at long last, opened the door to Women Bishops. Let’s hope this is the start of a complete change that will see the distribution of women leaders in the church head towards equality.
In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury commented that, for most of the world, the very fact that this was an issue for debate seems almost incomprehensible. And he is right. We have had our own women Prime Minister. Angela Merkel is arguably the most powerful and popular leader in
Countries across the world have been led by women.
In my own profession of the law, the best and most intelligent judge in the
UK is Lady Hale who
will certainly be Head of the Supreme Court one day. The Director of Public
Prosecutions is a women – Alison Saunders. Women are at the head of major
corporations. That is not to say that we have yet reached equality. But the
days have gone when there was any credible argument against women in leadership
just because they are women – apart from in the church.
The argument against women bishops is fairly straightforward. All logic, proportion, experience and common sense says that continuing objections fall somewhere between the ridiculous and the downright discriminatory. But the same four words are always repeated like a mantra – ‘the bible says so’.
Now I have to say that I don’t read the bible as a literal rule book in the way I did, say, 20 years ago. But even if I did I would have to say that the bible, in fact, says nothing of the sort. And certainly not with sufficient clarity to have justified centuries of exclusion.
So let’s just have a quick look.
1. Jesus, the central person of our faith had a very radical view of sexual equality. We have to remember that this was an age and culture in which women were horribly devalued. Look no further than Deuteronomy 25 v 11 – ‘If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.’ (Not sure how those of a literal persuasion explain that one but that’s another discussion!). Jesus did not make any distinction. The longest recorded one to one conversation in the gospels is with a woman in John 4 – much to the surprise of his male friends. Some of his closest associates were women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and Martha of Bethany etc. It was a group of women who were the first to encounter Jesus on Easter Sunday. Women had an equal status among the closest followers of Jesus.
St Paul is the person most often quoted by those who oppose
women in leadership. In fact, his attitude was in many ways as radical as that
of Jesus. He famously wrote to the Galatians – ‘There is neither Jew nor
Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all
one in Christ Jesus.’ They are not the words of someone who promoted any sexual
distinction. In Romans 16 we see a roll call of his closest co-workers. These
include – Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, the mother of Rufus, Julia, the
sister of Nereus. Priscilla seems to have of particular importance. She and
Aquila worked closely with Paul in Corinth and Ephesus.
They both instruct Apollos and are left in charge of the church in Ephesus when Paul moves on – both
of them! It is impossible to imagine any of these women sitting silently and
having no leadership role. So if we leave it here then there is no controversy.
That is, until we get to some later comments that seem to say the opposite. So
the writer of the letter to Timothy says that he will not permit a woman to
teach or have authority over a man. So there is a problem. We know that
Priscilla taught Apollos. Did Paul change his mind? Did he support the role of
women in his earlier ministry and then decide later that he didn’t. Most
scholars suggest that the later letters came years after Paul, at a time when
the church was beginning to revert to the cultural norms of the day. So the
reason for the change is that is was a different person. That would certainly
explain the very obvious contradiction. Whatever the reason one thing is clear
– there is no clear statement in the bible that women are to have no role as
leaders. In fact there is far more evidence that they played a significant
role. Either way, we are quite entitled to deal with the contradiction using
our own logic, observation and common sense and the answer is frankly,
We only have to look at the great work done by women vicars over the last 20 years to see that this is a natural progression. That men and women are equally gifted by God to lead the church.
I hope and pray this will lead to a huge increase in numbers of women leaders. I for one will be laughing in the purple rain!