The Church of England – doing it wrong

This is a long post. Don’t read if you are not interested in seeing scripture quoted and discussed at length. Onwards.

I will preface this post by saying I am not a theologian. Nor have I ever (probably like most Christians) read the entirety of the Bible. I have read lots of it, and will read any sections that I see as central to a debate in which I wish to take part; as such I write this post from the position of someone who is reasonably well-informed, but perhaps not as ‘qualified’ as others to comment upon the Church of England’s decision today to exclude women from leadership in their Church. I will also state from the outset that I am a Christian. I was brought up understanding that I had been Christened in, and was therefore part of the Church of England, and that those were the values by which my mother (by and large) understood Christianity.

To add in a little more background – I didn’t regularly attend Church as a child, largely due to the Church’s phenomenal ability to frighten and exclude people. My mother had joined a baptist church, attended their classes and Sunday schools and become part of the church there. What had begun as religion began to take on the persona of indoctrination at the point that she was told that her parents were going to hell unless she managed to convince them to join and attend the church. Even if you sincerely believe that this attitude is rescuing lost souls from damnation (a type of discourse which I desperately hope is gradually leaving modern teaching), this is not the way to do it. My mum quite sensibly decided that if hell was where her family was going, that was where she also wanted to be, and there ended the period of her life where she was a regular church attender. I  began attending a non-denominational (for non-denominational you can probably quite safely read happy-clappy) church as a teenager. On arriving at university, I attended a Church of England church, having found it to be lively, innovative and welcoming without the usual feeling of being identified as ‘fresh meat’ and dragged into every church activity in the calendar in order to ensure my salvation. Or something like that.

So I stopped going to church for a number of reasons. I find going out and meeting new people stressful, and the increasing number of ‘suggestions’ that I come along to home groups, prayer groups and other such events started to get to me. I don’t volunteer for these things because I struggle to deal with people and no means no. I questioned ideas of leadership both in non-denominational church and in CofE church. I don’t understand why you need to be qualified to break bread when Jesus says we should just do it together, and the new testament is full of people meeting in Jesus’ name and breaking bread. End of. I didn’t understand why church leadership is often tailored towards excluding rather than including people – who is and isn’t allowed to take part.

Mostly – I felt that Church of any kind didn’t represent me while I was still treated as a second class citizen. In every other aspect of day to day life, I demand respect and credit equal to that of my male peers, but in church…no. Having got married, ‘officially’ (in scare quotes because I WHOLEHEARTEDLY disagree) I should be submitting to my husband. And in church leadership, women are also second best. Outside of the CofE, husband and wife partnerships running churches often put women in the cuddly pastoral role while the husband will take charge of the running of the church. I find this attitude not only insulting in the extreme, but also a dreadful assumption to make about our leaders. We should not be pigeonholing them based on gender assumptions. I need not even get my feminist hat on to say that this is not an effective way to get the most out of our leaders. The CofE came off even worse than non-denominational church in as far as I never saw a woman teach. When I realised that, I left. I have issues with people who believe in God being made to feel like Church isn’t the place for them. This latest travesty from the Church of England gives me rage, because it just perpetuates the idea that church isn’t for everyone.

It is my strong belief that women bishops can be supported by scripture.  The following are some of the most common objections, and my responses.

1 Patriarchy is established well before the fall, and is intrinsic to how we were created (Genesis 2). Woman is described as a ‘helper’ to man, and Adam is even invited to name her – itself an act of authority. God designed us from the outset to be led by men.

So this is actually the most convincing argument in the anti-women bishops armoury so we’ll knock this one on the head first. Let’s take Genesis 2 at the point man and woman are created:

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

I see nothing here which ultimately suggests man is ‘more in charge’. If anything, God actually appears a little sheepish. Replace ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and you still have a lonely individual needful of a companion. As regards making a helper ‘suitable for him’ – I see suitable as an indication of compatibility. These people are meant to be lifelong partners and God is keen on neat solutions – there is no way he would go off and make a woman that couldn’t get on with Adam. This as far as I can see has very little to do with hierarchy, and everything to do with the fact that up until they start creating little people themselves – Adam and Eve have only each other.

Onwards!

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam[f] no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs[g] and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib[h] he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

 So Genesis 2 has none of this ‘man made in God’s image business’ so we’ll skip over that for the minute and talk about the meat of this passage since it’s in the much simpler Genesis 1. Hang in there, I’m getting on to it. So first off – God’s bringing of things for Adam to name is quite different to Adam naming Eve. It sounds like Adam is looking for a friend amongst the animals and doesn’t find one rather than God is suggesting that’s where Adam should be looking. Once the grand naming exercise is over, God whips out the celestial chloroform and begins work on Eve. Exhibiting learning from experience, Adam names Eve woman – but crucially what he is doing is not laying possession to her, but recognising her as someone like himself. More importantly still (especially to all those women submit to their husbands arguments) the concession made in marriage according to Genesis 2:24 is all made by the man. He leaves his father and mother to be united with his wife. In spite of everything God says later in Genesis 3 (hang in there, it’s in point 2) Genesis 2 clearly states that man submits to his wife as a current state of affairs – not just something that happens pre-fall. I don’t take this as evidence for female supremacy – I take it as evidence for mutual submission and equal agreement.

Eve is named after the fall – called ‘living’ because Adam recognises that she is the future of mankind. So yes, Adam names her, and all of us were taught in feminist lit classes that naming is owning. Interestingly, Adam never lays claim to Eve – from the outset they co-exist and questions of superiority or hierarchy never enter the equation. They are made equal. Surely if God thought it important to make distinctions about who was in charge he would have mentioned it at the outset rather than leaving it open to interpretation many thousands of years later. This is not the important lesson to be learned from Genesis. The important lesson is that Adam and Eve GET THE FUCK ON WITH IT WITHOUT QUIBBLING OVER WHO GOD THINKS IS MORE IMPORTANT OR WHO MADE WHO FIRST.

Before we get onto Genesis 3 and the fall, as promised, we’ll head back over to God’s creation of people in Genesis 1.

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Man and woman, both created in God’s image, created at once. This is God’s first word on the matter in the book we use as our handbook to life as a Christian. ‘Nuff said.

2 Woman is responsible for the fall, after which God says ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’

This is the next biggest one because that looks reasonably conclusive, but I don’t think that means it isn’t up for grabs for a bit more discussion. I’m a literature student so of course I would say that. Let’s get all literary analysis on Genesis 3.

The Fall

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

[…punishes serpent…]

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

So yes, God does say that Adam is going to rule over Eve – but not that this is now the benchmark for successful human relationships from now on. There’s lots of times when God appears to be ‘cursing’ people when actually I think he’s making an observation on the effects their actions are about to produce. Eve is going to be ruled over by her husband – but let’s talk a little bit about what God says to Adam before we decide what that means.

Adam is now going to be responsible for Eve’s welfare, and the welfare of any children they have. He is going to have to use his strength to toil the land for food. All the animals that he just named and laid claim to? Some of those are predators now and he has to protect Eve against unforeseen dangers. Eve is going to have to rely on Adam in a world which has suddenly become dangerous and frightening. It is a natural consequence that Adam is going to take a leadership role in this relationship based on his and Eve’s new circumstances. Does God ever suggest in this passage that this is a model on which the rest of us should define our relationships? Not that I can see.

In fact, look at Adam and Eve’s ‘confessions’. Eve at least explains she has been hoodwinked – Adam blames both God and Eve. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  He claims no accountability whatsoever. Hardly a model of good leadership. Hardly a recommendation for how to live our lives. And more to the point – Adam and Eve are punished together, and equally.

I do not accept Genesis as a logic for male supremacy. If anything, Genesis 1’s egalitarian message is re-iterated in Genesis  5; ‘When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind”[a] when they were created.’

3. Jesus worked within the social restraints of his time, but was willing to challenge customs that he actively disliked, such as talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4 even though other Jews disapproved. Still, Jesus did not appoint women apostles.

This is one of those ones I consider something of a free-for-all. You can argue cultural differences until the cows come home and I am not a scholar of Roman culture. What I do know: teachers were always men. Jesus has a message to teach to as wide an audience as possible. Jesus knows he is leaving soon and will need people to continue to teach his message after he is gone. So he appoints teachers, and they are men. They will have freedom to travel, they will not have children to deal with, and they will have the most credibility in a world which is frankly, as yet rather dismissive of this new cult. Remember what I said about God and neat solutions? This is one.

Nonetheless, God’s neat solutions aren’t intended to unjustly leave people out. So Jesus has a large collection of followers. Many of them, and many of those he loves and respects most, are women. The hospitality which made it possible for Jesus to travel and teach? Largely provided by women.

Finally – who was it who found Jesus resurrected, the cornerstone of our faith? A woman. And as the letter the clergy wrote to the independent before the vote stated, a woman’s opinion was as yet inadmissible in a court of law, but it was a good enough witness to our Lord’s resurrection. One of the aspects of Christianity which allowed it to flourish was best expressed in Galatians 3:28:

‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

Just because Jesus didn’t appoint women apostles doesn’t mean we can’t have them as bishops. Jesus never states that it would be wrong to, but there are a lot of reasons why in a culture where women can expect equality, they should be able to expect equality with their male peers.

4. Paul’s teaching was not a temporary cultural restraint we can now disregard – it was an important theological decision. Although in Jesus there is no ‘male nor female’, God calls men to lead. Cultural differences to Rome are overplayed and the scripture remains fundamental to how we operate as a church today.

Ok so here’s the bit that everyone cites. It’s from 1 Timothy, 11-15.

11 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

So after a quick phone call to my friend who studies theology, the authorship of 1 Timothy is not clear cut. It is at odds with a lot of what Paul teaches, so to cite this as Paul’s refusal of women’s authority is a problematic footing on which to base an argument.

Bear in mind that woman also translates as ‘wife’ and remember that this is a domestic situation and a letter to a specific time, and a specific place. I fully believe in all the scripture wherever it comes from but this does not mean we should swallow it whole at face value. The letters of the new Testament in particular are very ground in the time they were written and who they were written for. Crucially – they are letters, excerpts of a larger conversation and we only get the rest of the conversation by inference. These letters are selected because they contain some nugget of advice which the early church thought was worth keeping.

In this case bear in mind men were educated, women weren’t. The questions they had to ask would be at a very different level to their more educated male peers, and effective teaching cannot be a free-for-all of questions all the time. Structure is necessary so the more educated men are the teachers in this church. Just as Adam leads Eve when their situation demands someone qualified to take charge. As regards 13-14, the suggestion here is that Eve is newer, younger, more easily deceived. She receives her information second hand and she makes mistakes. I think this is asking us to compare a situation where things go wrong because of inexperience – not so much using Genesis as a good justification for the subjugation of women. The next point will also clarify this somewhat.

4 Although there are some female teachers in the early church, they were not accepted by the mainstream church.

This one is true. Women took an active part in early church, but probably were never granted quite the same acceptance as their male peers. This statement DOES NOT justify exclusion of women in leadership though. Look at how Paul describes his female colleagues:

Romans 16:7 ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among[a] the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.’

 – Junia is a woman. Outstanding among the apostles, and Christians even before Paul got there. A man and a woman, acknowledged equally as Christians, both imprisoned for their faith.

Romans 16:1-4 ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon[a][b] of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla[c] and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.

 – Two people of note here – a deacon, Phoebe, who is leading her church and merits all the assistance she asks for because of her intrinsic abilities as a leader.

– Also Priscilla, or Prisca. A woman, named before her husband – not traditional, see Andronicus and Junia above. This suggests (as backed up by my theology student pal) she may have actually been the one running the show. They are both Paul’s co-workers in Christ Jesus, and they deserve everyone’s gratitude for their faith and bravery.

Acts 16:14-15 ‘14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.’

 – When they return to Lydia’s house later, it appears she is running a church there. ‘Nuff said.

True enough, these women in their patriarchal society probably lacked the authority that their male peers enjoyed, but they are recognised in their own right as leaders and equals in Christ. I do not accept that women were excluded from leadership in the early church because Acts is full of ’em.

These are my scriptural arguments, such as they are. Beyond this, I think the way that the CofE is running the show now is inevitably unsustainable. They have alienated 50% of their people by saying, ‘you are not good enough.’ The gross mismanagement of the legislation has led to a set of terms deemed unacceptable both by the conscientious objectors and by the pro-female bishops camps, leading to votes against the proposition from those who are actually in favour of the idea. This synod was out of touch with itself, let alone anyone else. It is simply not possible to sustain a leadership strategy which allows women access to some levels of leadership but not others – the ultimate glass ceiling. Similarly, the vote was only narrowly lost. The overwhelming feeling seems to be that this is scripturally a good thing to do, with few actual objections – a church cannot then go ahead with a ‘no’ vote for something it believes to be scripturally true. It fundamentally doesn’t work.

The Bible is full of ambitious, greedy and selfish men. It’s full of selfish, ambitious and greedy women. It also contains a number of great men who did great things for God, and funnily enough, plenty of great women who go as far as to defy convention by making it into the history books by doing great things for God. Are we excluding men from leadership? Are we questioning their judgement based on Adam’s blame-dodging and poor decision making? No, we are not.

So why in this time, in this place, are we still questioning women’s right to take part in church leadership based on flimsy theoretical theology?

A better question: why, when this theological argument has apparently been long-established by the church (i.e. in the 70s) are they still pandering to a minority? If the Church actually believes its decisions on ethical and theological issues to be worth standing by, then why is it dithering nigh-on 40 years to implement the change based on the misogynist beliefs of the few? Moreover, for those dissenting laity who feel as though their needs should be pandered to – where’s their fucking ‘submission to authority’ that they so readily demand of their inferiors?

 

Count me out.

A quick shout-out to my invaluable theology friend Dan Skuce. He has a blog. It’s very good. Go read it: http://therewasabox.wordpress.com/

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4 thoughts on “The Church of England – doing it wrong

  1. Hi, I really liked your post. As a Theology graduate, this is actually a good summary of a lot of the arguments and counter-arguments on this topic. I couldn’t disagree with any of your points, but I’m saddened by your conclusion. If the decision has meant the church has lost a member like you (and I’m sure many others like you), then it’s an even more disappointing outcome. I hope you can find a church community where you feel truly welcomed and can worship with integrity.

    • It’s probably worth clarifying that there were a large number of factors that put me off church attendance – not all of them worth discussing in as public a forum as a blog. Beyond questions of leadership, I think church often engenders the idea that it is acceptable to pry into the lives of others and criticise in the name of making them a better Christian. For one thing, I didn’t enjoy the scrutiny. It didn’t encourage, it made me feel like a ‘failed’ Christian.

      Alongside this I felt like I was beginning to have real questions about leadership. I didn’t feel represented and I didn’t feel like I could expect equality. On getting married, I also experienced the other end of this argument – more towards women submitting to husbands than authority of the church, and I found it repulsive.

      The final clincher is that I get quite stressed out about dealing with people and being asked all the time to join whatever home group or prayer group or whatever is actually quite unwelcome for me, even if it is part of your ‘church values’ (etc.etc.) Since my self-imposed exile from church, I stopped worrying if other people thought I was a good Christian, and started worrying if God thought I was. I felt able to question and challenge ideas like this that I had always been told were true, and found other people like me. I have a network of other people like me that find formal church stressful, and we now support each other as and when we require it – which is the fundamental thing church should do by anyone’s definition. There are places I could go – but I’m not sure I’m ready to.

      This decision felt like a blow because an institution that I had always considered was where I aligned my values most has just officially decided that I am second class to my male peers. It’s an insult. And what is worse is how misguided the CofE comes off out of this, since pretty much everyone voting there agreed with this post – but yet they still couldn’t get their act together enough to make a consistent decision. Since when did a few hard liners decide on policy?

      So for now I’m actually more satisfied morally and spiritually by not attending a regular church. Nonetheless, not having seen a scriptural analysis of this I decided if I wanted to have a strong opinion on this it might as well be well-researched. I’m glad it passes muster!

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