Monday, 25 May 2020

Equality is Biblical

I wanted to write this book because I saw a gap in the way the church approaches the issue of male-female equality in leadership and service.

Everyone agrees that women may be equally as capable as men of leadership, but not everyone agrees that women can be permitted to lead.

The church mainly divides into two strands on this issue — theologically liberal groups/individuals, who believe men and women may equally lead and equally serve; and theologically conservative groups/individuals, who believe in male headship (that men should lead and women should serve men). 

This extends into the domestic sphere with the (conservative theological) assumption that women should take responsibility for cooking, cleaning and childcare (the work of a domestic servant) and obey her husband, and that men occupy the position of master/head of the household and their work is in the public sphere (as a businessman, artisan, farmer, factory hand, or whatever). I have even known a theologically conservative Christian man, with a wife and children of his own, offer to extend the protecting shelter of his spiritual authority over another household — a mother with two boys. Being also theologically conservative, she was pleased to accept.

It also ramifies into the question of being heard, as women's voices are silenced by a subservient role; they are not part of making the decisions, and therefore do not shape the faith community (in a theologically conservative setting).

The two strands of attitudes to this issue proceed from two different understandings of biblical authority. The more liberal groups sit looser to biblical authority and are more inclined to move with the times, and may not even consider the Bible to be divinely inspired (there is variety of opinion on this). The more conservative groups look to biblical authority to govern all aspects of their lives, and believe the Bible to be the "Word of God".

There is between these two approaches an apparently uncrossable chasm.

But I have for some while thought there is a third way, which this book proposes, that I hadn't heard anyone teaching so I wanted to share it.

It is common, in those who revere the Bible as divinely authoritative, to look to proof texts for direction in establishing how to proceed. But I think, even for those who reverence the Bible as God's holy Word, that this is an incorrect handling of holy Writ. 

Through the pages of the Bible we see the development of the people of God — changing attitudes. For instance, in the Old Testament we see the Law of Moses establishing purity codes of separation for holiness of Jews from Gentiles, and dietary rules for kosher food. But in the New Testament (in the book of Acts) we see God communing directly with Peter, and God's Spirit at work in Paul, moving them to leave behind these former restrictions and embrace a church where Jew and Gentile can mingle together, eat together, live together and inter-marry. There are other examples, but that is a very clear one.

So, in seeking biblical wisdom we can see it is important to trace the journey — the direction — in which the Spirit is leading us, not merely take a snapshot moment and apply it as set in stone for ever.

In the example of Paul and in some things Jesus said and did, we see a very clear difference in attitude to women from the Old Testament view of them as chattels given as multiple wives to men.  

It is therefore important that those who are serious about reverencing the Bible as divinely inspired should take account of the the journey or direction in which the Scriptures are leading us, in order to follow in the way, not get stuck in the mud. Proof texts do not give us all the information we need. We also have to trace the direction.

I would say, then, that we do better to consider the Bible as a map than as a manual, showing us where we are now, where we have come from, but also — crucially — where we should be headed.

With that in mind, in Equality is Biblical I trace the role of women in the church from its origin through to where we are now, and where the direction that becomes thereby apparent will take us next. 

As well as taking note of the direction of biblical teaching on any given issue, it is important to consider that issue in the context of biblical teaching as a whole. For those who are strictly conservative and reluctant to accept the illumination of textual criticism of the Bible, let me add the reassurance that I mean considering an issue within the context of the whole Bible, not considering the Bible within the context of what scholars say about it (though I personally evaluate scholarship as helpful). Even the most theologically conservative Christian on the planet should surely welcome a holistic reading of the Bible, holding in mind and taking account of all its texts in reading any one.

My book also looks at examples showing how the role of women has changed at different times in church history.

So, in considering the role of women in society and in the church, and how we might shape this by biblical principles as applied by those who hold the Bible to be the divinely inspired Word of God, I have looked at the matter within the context of salvation history as the Bible describes it. I have written with the assumption that cursing and blessing are real, not quaint archaisms, that there is a divine order, and that biblical teaching is a trustworthy foundation for us to build our lives on. I have only gone outside the text where some of the philosophical and contemporary sociological resonances usefully illuminate the biblical material.

In tracing the direction of development within the Bible itself (not the development of attitudes to the Bible) and in taking into consideration what the Bible has to say about leadership, service, and salvation, I have come to the conclusion that equality is biblical.

I also spend a little time thinking about how increasing feminine energy in the way we worship might moderate the masculine energy currently dominating our models of worship, to build safer and more spiritually robust faith communities.

If all that sounds interesting to you, Equality is Biblical is now available in the UK (publishing later in the year in the US), from a variety of bookstores, such as Eden, Waterstones and Amazon UK,  or directly from the publisher SPCK


greta said...

first, congratulations on the publication of your latest book! i have it pre-ordered on amazon and am eager to read it when it becomes available. your comment about 'feminine energy' was especially intriguing to me. i've long thought that women come to spirituality in some fundamentally different ways than men. for far too long, we've tried to twist ourselves into using male imagery and practices in both our public worship as well as our private devotions. it frequently leaves me feeling quite unsatisfied. a dear friend, a mercy nun, spent her entire vocational life feeling that she had a call to the priesthood. it was a great grief to her that she was never able to fulfil that. this small example is just one of the reasons that i chose to leave the catholic church as an institution. on the other hand, two of my best friends (women) are ordained pastors in the united church of christ (my husband's denomination.) the services that i have attended with women in charge have definitely had a different energy and feel to them, less formal, more inclusive, gentler and warmer. which isn't to say that one way of doing things is better, just different. we need both but because women have been kept out of leadership for centuries, there is good reason to tip the balance a bit in the feminine direction to even things out. what do you think?

Pen Wilcock said...

On the matter of women in the priesthood and women in leadership, my own personal position is that I would prefer to abolish the priesthood and the leadership structures, and come to a common mind on issues of importance through conversation. And this is an instance of the feminine energy I describe the the book — it is cauldron energy rather than sword energy.

Sword energy is top down and authoritarian; the respected and accredited leader who stands up at the front and directs, while the people stay quiet and listen and are taught.
Cauldron energy operates through circles — everyone equidistant around a central space, finding a way forward together; abiding by agreements reached through concensus, respecting all people equally, responding to need not status.
In the circle, all are visible to all; in the sword model, all are visible to the leader but only the leader (in presentation mode) is visible to the group. Thus sword energy facilitates the opportunism that characterises abuse.

I am tired of accreditation and status of every kind. I wish your mercy nun could have lived in peace without the ache of being shut out from the élite. And if I could, I would abolish at a stroke the élite that shut her out. As individuals they are each unique and valuable, we are impoverished without the perspective of every one of them. But why should they need the mitre, the podium, the chasuble, the pulpit, the sanctuary chair, the special collar? Why not just be a person, and live in simplicity?

greta said...

oh, absolutely, dear friend of the heart. i'm in complete agreement about abolishing the hierachy altogether. my preference would be for a simple 'house church' where friends gather to pray, sing and study without any need for someone to be In Charge. there was a recent documentary that was shown here on public television about the vatican. several new cardinals were to be outfitted with all manner of hand sewn robes and all the other paraphernalia that is apparently required. quite a few of the baby cardinals were from very poor countries and all i could think was why was that money being spent on scarlet robes and lace and gold crosses instead of on the poor? it feels scandalous to me. pope francis has said that he wants a church that is poor. he is in a position to do just what you describe and yet he has chosen not to change the status quo. very disappointing.

Pen Wilcock said...

You think? I've got the impression Pope Francis has made some profound changes. The Catholic Church is a big ship to turn, and includes entrenched and antagonistic positions. His own perspective is clear, but if he were to impose change rapidly and forcefully I think he would lose the grace of gentleness that makes humility what it is. Respecting the viewpoint of others is essential in leadership, because they have made themselves vulnerable to him, put their trust in him. He cannot force them.
I think the vestments question is tricky, too, because the poor also love beauty, and for the cardinal from a poor country to be clothed in dignity honours the people he represents, too. And then there's the woman who poured her perfume on the feet of Jesus . . . it's complex, isn't it? But I do know that every time I see Francis, I think how much I love him, and how blessed we are to have him.
I love your description of a simple house church; more and more, I think that's the way to go, with occasional bigger gatherings in a centre hired for the event.

greta said...

i suspect that when francis was elected, i was hoping for john XXIII. oh, well. you are correct in saying that the church is a big ship to turn as well as being entrenched. balanced against that is papal authority, something john used boldly to make sweeping changes. was that popular with everyone? not at all. the traditionalists in the church are still trying to go back on many of the reforms he instituted. it's a balancing act for sure. how much to push, how much to give . . .

as for beauty, of course. we all need beauty in our lives and liturgy. but does it need to be ornate or can it be breathtakingly simple? does it need to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds or euros? candlelight, incense and flowers create a space of peace and loveliness. songs sung and played by those gathered brings hearts closer. surely we can make more with less?

The Rev. Susan Creighton said...

Congratulations, Pen. I look forward to delving in with relish! And, I've already begun, as--drum roll--your book is already ready in the Kindle version on Amazon, USA....for $8.49 US.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Greta — I guess my perspective has developed from straddling two worlds. My own instinct is for just what you describe. I once went to a theatrical performance set in a school gym. To create atmosphere, the drama teacher had put a sheet down on the floor and for seating had set down a ring of straw bales to sit on. The illumination as night fell came from many candles in glass jars, standing on the floor. When I came into the room, I thought, "This! This is what a church should be like!" I have always carried it with me as a vision of how I would like church to be.
*But* — two members of my household, very wise and spiritual women, work with gold and stained glass. They cut lettering and ornate designs in stone for a living, and paint church statuary. The rich and rare rejoice their hearts. They live very simply and frugally, sleeping on the floor and owning very little, their possessions in small chests in rooms almost bare; and they make a small income (about half the UK wages that sends most citizens to food banks) go an astonishingly long way. But when they spend their money, to make artefacts and clothes and jewellery, it is on pearls from Japan and the softest qiviut and musk ox yarn from Alaska, and the best crystals and diamonds and gold, and linen and silk. Just now, one of them is embroidering in silk on linen an intricate wreath of roses; it's exquisite, and it's for a door stop for her bedroom! It's a similar design to the roses in leaf gold they applied to their sister's harp. They will patiently save over years to buy musical instruments too, and any night of the year our house fills with the sound of them singing, playing guitar, flute, bodhran,piano, rav drum, French horn, flute, violin . . . They are a constant reminder in my life that the quiet and simple and home-made can co-exist with, and is enriched by, the very best materials and the very best skills. Because they actually *are* the poor, in UK terms at any rate; and they live on vegetables and run no car and never take holidays and walk everywhere — but they do love some sparkle and some gold!
My own feeling is that perhaps we can do both? The handmade vestments — there's a nun somewhere with embroidery skills to rejoice in; but there's another nun picking up the diseased and the destitute from the gutter, and another one nursing the disabled, and another one making the most beautiful icons, and another one feeding the poor. And all of them are the church. x

Hi Susan — ah, thank you so much for reading my book! I will be so grateful to hear from you what you think of it. x

Nearly Martha said...

Hurrah. This sounds really interesting. Gutted I haven't seen it before. Must slow down a bit. Anyway, have ordered now and congratulations :-)

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, thanks, chum! And yes — life has all got a bit blurred lately, innit!

AbiSomeone said...

I was so thrilled to hear that it is available in the US on the Kindle...and I just got I'll be digging into it fervently. This has been a huge topic for me for over 30 years. I, too, look to set aside the whole clergy/laity divide and come together for simple church. I'll be sure to let you know how I'm going through the book. :)

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, friend! I value your opinion. x