Thursday, 30 July 2009

More on Festivals and Deacons

I've noticed lots of commemorations of women in the Church calendar at this time of year!

25th July was the festival in the Greek Orthdox Church of Olympias. She lived from c 360-408, and was both a patron (of St John of Chrysostom) and was also ordained deacon, after being widowed. Why have I not heard of her before? After her death she was venerated as a saint, and she is commemorated in both the Greek and Roman church - on different days! Yet another woman who exercised a ministry similar to that of male deacons in the third century - before the office was phased out.

Then a couple of days ago (28th) it was the festival of Irene Chrysobalantou (pictured left), another deacon and abbess, who lived in the late 9th to early 10th century. She was born in Cappadocia to an aristocratic family, and having turned down some marriage proposals, she gave her inherited wealth to the monastery of Chrysovaluantou and entered the community. After some years of study, service and leading many others to Christ, she became abbess, having previously been ordained deacon by Patriarch Methodius.

And yesterday was the Church of England lesser festival of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, 'companions of our Lord'. Two significant women in the New Testament: one who sat at Jesus' feet, the place of a trainee rabbi - and how frustrating that we have no idea of the end of her story - and Martha, whose affirmation that Jesus is 'the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world' is one of the high points of John's Gospel.

Watch out for festivals of more recent women in August: Mary Sumner (9th), Florence Nightingale and Octavia Hill (13th), Catherine and William Booth (20th), and Phoebe, deacon of Cenchreae and patron of Paul (Romans 16:1) on 3rd September.

Let's make the most of celebrating those women who have gone before us!

Friday, 17 July 2009

A pioneering deaconess

Tomorrow (18th July) the Church of England commemorates a pioneering deaconess, Elizabeth Ferard.

I've just been reading Derek Tidball's comprehensive study of New Testament ministry, Ministry by the Book, and among other things he notes that the reference to 'women' in 1 Timothy 3:11 is probably to women who are deacons and not to deacons' wives (as the TNIV also notes - what does your Bible say?).

But it took until 1862 for a woman, Elizabeth Ferard, to be admitted to the office of deaconess. She was one of the first woman to train at Kaiserworth in Germany, and after a spell with the Anglican nuns at Ditchingham she went on to found and lead the North London Deaconess Institution, the first and only establishment of its kind. Deaconesses were appointed in Liverpool and Bedford in 1869 - and the rest, as they say, is history.

But apparently that history could have been very different. Reading a review of a book on female clergy in the Medieval West (were there any, you may ask?), I find that in the early Middle Ages ordination was for someone who would be head of a community. But in the late 12th and 13th centuries ordination became centred on the eucharist, and women who were formerly ordained, including queens, abbesses and deaconesses, were no longer ranked as ordained, although abbots and deacons were considered to be so.

While I'm aware of controversy around women's ministry in the early years of the Church, I had no idea that ordination for some women was also current around 1000 years ago. But there were various changes in thinking in the 12th century. And according to the author of this study, published by OUP in 2008, Gary Macy: 'Within a fifty-year period, the centuries-old tradition of the ordination of women had been reversed and denied.'

Another well-hidden secret. How recent it is (I remember it happening in 1987) that women who had been deaconesses could be ordained and be 'deacons'! But there were women deacons in the early church! And women deacons 1000 years ago!

Such are the vagaries of history - or should I say the persistence of patriarchy?

Friday, 10 July 2009

Do Christians believe in equality?

This is one of the questions asked at a consultation I attended recently.

At the Sophia Network's consultation, Thriving in Ministry, there were a number of provocative questions asked. Do men and women thrive in ministry? Do Christians believe in equality? What barriers are faced by women in youth work, or in other kinds of ministry in the Church?

Unfortunately I missed 2 of the presentations, but in the morning I enjoyed the opportunity to take a wider view. In 2009 we are still celebrating a number of 'firsts' for women, and the number of women for example featuring in the sports pages of newspapers or as FTSE 100 Directors or even MPs is lamentably small.

Within the areas I'm most interested in, I was reminded that there seems an increasing emphasis in some churches on segregated ministries (good for women to develop as leaders - as in the days of women's mission societies? Bad in terms of integration, real leadership, and fully accepting women as leaders).

One of my own beefs is Bible translation, and that came up too (click here for a link to a downloadable article on why Bible translation matters - scroll down to 'Inclusive Language Bibles').

And for me, one issue which struck me was self-imposed constraints. I am passionate about helping women take their place alongside men as leaders in the Church - but I'm subject to the same pressures as other women. How much more could I have done so far if I was not sometimes thinking, 'but I don't think I can do that'?

For many women that's where role models, mentoring and networking comes in. Congratulations to the Sophia Netywork on passing the 300 member mark, and for their creative programme of events. As we all work together, one day maybe we will help the world to see that Christians do believe in equality - in the sense that we believe women and men are equally called, equally gifted, and can be leaders in God's church.