This article is written by a young woman in her early twenties who is obviously highly educated and articulate. My first reaction on reading it last week was sadness. It also made me deeply uneasy. It has taken some time to work out why it has such an effect on me. Perhaps the sadness betrays that I have some sense of identification with myself forty years ago, experiencing cognitive dissonance between what I was taught by the entirely male leadership and clergy in my church and my developing sense of emancipation - along with the responsibility that liberation brought.
Part of me wants to shrug off what the young woman says as an internal church matter. No longer a churchgoer, should it matter to me at all? If I don’t belong to a club, why should I care about its rules? I have come to the conclusion that it does matter, for the church is not a club. It seeks to be a voice of moral authority and influence in public life. Unlike a club, it is not made up entirely of members who sign up to a particular code – it also contains children and young people who cannot make informed consent to live under its rules. Nor is it only concerned about its members – it seeks to reach out to others with a message it believes everyone needs to hear.
So, for me, as someone who was brought up in the church, still has many ties to it and close connections with believers, I feel I must challenge her. As she does not give her name, I hope she will forgive me calling her Eve:
Eve says denying women a leading role in the church is matter of matter of identity not equality.
I believe that is to misunderstand or wilfully misrepresent equality. Eve suggests those who wish to allow women to lead and to preach in the church want women to have ‘power over men’ and to abandon being women. Sexual equality is not about denying the differences between the sexes that are obvious and immutable. It is not about one sex having power over another. Sexual equality is freeing both sexes to exercise choice in the roles they seek, regardless of the constriction of socially constructed gender roles. This is as liberating for men as it is for women - allowing men to be fully themselves, for example by taking on a full role in caring for children and allowing them to express their caring, nurturing selves.
It’s not true equality if it picks and chooses where it operates
Eve appears to be comfortable with sexual equality in her everyday life and says she is grateful for the women in the past that fought to bring about equality. However, she actively resists sexual equality within her church. If sexual equality is worth fighting for, then it is surely worth fighting for in every aspect of our lives, at work, in public spheres, in our homes and in our families. Isn’t there something odd about having a sphere in our lives where we become for a while something less than ourselves? ‘The heart of equality is to be who we are,’ says Eve and I could not agree with her more. This does not mean that I think all women should want leading or preaching roles in the church, only that these should not be denied to them solely because they are women, any more than caring and nurturing roles should be denied to men solely because they are men.
Eve is selective in her use of the Bible as warrant for sexual inequality in the church.
I have no argument with Eve using the Bible as her guide on this matter. It is her particular interpretation and selective quotation that worries me. She criticises arguments for sexual equality as ‘culturally sensitive, historically contextualised’, yet she falls prey to missing the cultural sensitivity and historical context of the texts she quotes. Now, I know she will probably claim that the whole Bible is the revealed word of God, none of which she can ignore and I do respect that. However, there are many passages that I am sure she would not take as her literal guide, for example, I am pretty sure that she would not think it right to take the babies of her enemies and dash their brains against rocks, nor that she thinks that it would be correct for a man who had never committed adultery to stone a woman who had. Moreover, she does not appear to have balanced the quotations she uses against the many others that appear to contradict her conclusion.
I don’t wish to suggest that the Bible or Christianity are essentially sexist, patriarchal or misogynistic, merely to suggest that those formations find a useful hiding place within the church and that if the church is to be true to its calling it must be active in seeking them out, naming them for what they are and being…well, more Christlike.