Tuesday, 31 March 2009

What they are saying about the Church of England

'Read our shocking report.'

That's how the editor of Stella, the Sunday Telegraph's magazine for women introduces her main feature article, 'The Stained-Glass Ceiling'.

The contents listing adds: 'Stephanie Rafanelli finds that sexism is still rife in the Church of England, with one female priest telling her, "My only choice is to leave my parish or have a nervous breakdown."'

As part of my role, I do get to hear some horror stories, but I was still surprised by this. So what's it all about?

The trigger for the article is the recent decision by General Synod to take another step forward towards women bishops. 'So does equality reign among the clergy? Far from it.' The article starts by focusing on Rosie Woodall, an ordinand at Cuddesdon. She is aware that she is part of a new generation of women who will be ordained into a church where women bishops is a real possibility. Yet 'being a woman priest is still going to be a challenge'.

The article cites the fact that more than 1.000 parishes have passed resolutions which allow them to 'opt out' of having a woman priest, and quotes Christina Rees: 'The Church is institutionally sexist.... if you substituted the word "black" for the word "woman" you simply wouldn't be allowed to say these things.'

Also interviewed are Nerissa Jones, Lucy Winkett, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Viv Faull, and a woman whose name has been changed, Rebecca, who has experienced bullying and 'constant low-grade sexual harassment'.

All depressing stuff. The piece ends with some words from Lucy Winkett about the potential of Christianity to be a force for women's liberation around the world (as it has been in many places), and expressing hope that this can be - but that the Church needs to put its own house in order first.

A pretty one-sided view in my opinion, despite the truth behind some of what is said. OK, we can use the word discrimination, but there was no acknowedgement of theology.

But as the view of someone outside the Church, it is salutory. Do we expect people to understand our nuanced theology? Or do they legitimately write us off as sexist and discriminatory?

If this is what people think of us, no wonder evangelism is an uphill struggle. Fifteen years ago I wrote a booklet about the challenges feminism was posing to the church - and how we might respond. Now what was 'feminism' is a mainstream view.

I don't like the tone of this article, but much of what lies behind it is sadly true. How do we put our house in order and proclaim a gospel not of discrimination but of equality?

Just when I think we are making progress, I realise how far there is to go before I will see my dream fulfilled. How long, O Lord?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

A hymn from the early Church

I recently read a fabulous hymn written by Ephrem the Syrian, quoted in an email from CBE.

Of all the literature produced by the early Syrian church, the most prized was composed by Ephrem the Syrian, often called “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.” One of his hymns memorializes the faith of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well and sent forth as a missionary (see John 4).

O, to you woman in whom I see
a wonder as great as in Mary!
For she from within her womb
in Bethlehem brought forth His body as a child,
but you by your mouth made him manifest
as an adult in Shechem, the town of His father’s household.
Blessed are you, woman, who brought forth by your mouth
light for those in darkness.
Mary, the thirsty land in Nazareth conceived our Lord by her ear.
You, too, O woman thirsting for water,
conceived the Son by your hearing.
Blessed are your ears that drank the source
that gave drink to the world.
Mary planted Him in a manger,
but you planted Him in the ears of His hearers.
Your word, O woman, became a mirror
in which He might see your hidden heart.
“The Messiah”, you had said, “will come,
and when He comes He will give us everything.”
Behold the Messiah for whom you waited, modest woman!
With your voice your prophecy was fulfilled.
Your voice, O woman, first brought forth fruit,
before even the apostles, with the kerygma.
The apostles were forbidden to announce him
among pagans and Samaritans.
Blessed is your mouth that He opened and confirmed.

Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns tr. Kathleen E McVey. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: 1989. Hymn # 23

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

How do we change the Church?

I had a great conversation about this a few days ago!

And it set me thinking. If we want to see a Church which takes women as leaders seriously, which is really supportive and affirming of women as leaders, how do we change the Church?

Do we keep working away, involved in the structures and trying to influence them? Do we respond to the bad practice, and try to encourage people to change and do things better?

Or would a better solution be to set up a new organisation which aimed to be a model of good practice, a model of men and women working together, with a strong female presence on its leadership team?

It would be great to have such a model to point to, and say 'This is how to do it.' But I'm not so sure it's achievable. And to my mind there are too many splits and groups in the Church already.

I wonder if the best way to change things may be the apparently harder way? Getting stuck into the structures, whether at deanery, diocese or General Synod level, and aiming to influence others, person by person. Joining groups which stand for biblical equality, and working to inform and educate. Some of us may quietly beaver away, graciously pointing out the changes that are needed and suggesting how things could be done better. Others may end up in places of responsibility, and able to be those who help to shape church culture, rather than being squeezed by it.

In the Anglican Church, we've come a long way since 1994. But the challenges are still there - they are different ones from those which women priests faced back then. How do we continue to move forward, and make the Church a place where men and women who are equally gifted are equally treated at every level of church life?

What do you think?

Friday, 6 March 2009

Are women more gullible?

I had a feeling of deja vu yesterday.

I was giving a lecture at St John's College Nottingham yesterday, on women in leadership, and meeting the women ordinands. A great day, and getting together as a group of women felt really important - lots of important issues raised.

I had some free time in the afternoon, so took a stroll through the grounds. Wandering through the car park, a car sticker caught my eye. It had a fish on it, and yes, the name was that of a small car firm which used to service my car, many years ago. The owner was a Christian, but when I told him I was going to be ordained, he challenged me. 'My church doesn't believe women should be leaders,' he told me. 'Women are too gullible - think about Eve!'

Yesterday, I was wondering if he still holds those views. And what church life is like for women in that church if they have no women role models as leaders.

Today I was reading my CBE email, on that very subject! So here's an excerpt from Mimi Haddad's message of the week.

'How many times have we heard that women are more easily deceived than men? In overt and also subtle ways, some Christians seem to believe that women are more gullible, more easily deceived, less rational, and more emotional than men (and have been since creation). Much of the prejudice against women comes from a poor reading of Genesis, and of Paul’s reference to Eve in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and 2 Corinthians 11:3...

In 1 Tim. 2:11-14, Paul writes:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
Some people today believe that women are more susceptible to deception than men, and for this reason they should be excluded from holding positions of authority over men in all circumstances. However, limiting the authority of all women is not a valid conclusion unless Eve is used consistently by Paul to refer specifically to women’s deception, rather than deception in general.

While Eve’s deception may be used to expose the deception of women in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:11-14), the deception of the entire church at Corinth is also likened to Eve in that they too had been deceived by the cunning of the serpent and were led “astray from their sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Clearly Paul’s use of Eve as a representative of deception is not limited to women, but applies to both men and women. Deception is just as dangerous for men as it is for women. And both men and women are vulnerable to cunning deceivers.
Dr. John J. Davis, professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, will explore this topic more extensively in a forth coming issue of Priscilla Papers—CBE’s award-winning, academic journal.

To assert that women are more emotional, more gullible, and less rational is a destructive teaching based on a misunderstanding of the biblical texts. Let’s stop eroding the self-esteem of godly women, who are called by God to serve, teach, or hold positions of leadership and authority. Such women are not deceived, and their call should be tested and confirmed by the church rather than dismissed out of hand because of their gender. The church should be grateful that women come ready to serve. Let us not turn away the precious gifts God is giving us in women’s service, whatever it may be. '

Great stuff!