Thursday, 17 April 2008

Made for the Job? Women in leadership in the church and the world

In a recent article on the Fulcrum website, Elisabeth Goddard, Chair of Awesome (‘Anglican Women Evangelicals: Supporting Our Ordained Ministry’) and a member of the leadership team of Fulcrum, expresses her anxieties about encouraging women’s ministry in evangelical churches. She observes their apparent difficulty in obtaining posts after a curacy, which may itself have taken place in a non-evangelical context:

They become reticent to apply for, or unable to get, an evangelical incumbency and are consistently viewed with doubt by their natural constituency.

Equally significant, in her view, is their absence from ‘senior’ evangelical positions:

There seems to be an unspoken assumption, even amongst those churches which would say that they were pro-women’s ordination, that somehow you need an Alpha male to lead a large Evangelical church [...].

In fact, Peter Brierley, of the Christian Research Association, observes that none of the large Anglican churches, of any theological tradition, has a woman incumbent, and it may also be added that despite their acceptance in the USA, New Zealand and now Australia, there are a tiny number of women bishops.

But the question must be asked, does the church really have a problem? If it does, it is a problem it shares with human society as a whole. In a recent article in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee comments on the continuing absence of women from leadership roles:

Only 24% of parliamentary seats [in the EU] are occupied by women, 20% in the UK (but celebrate Spain’s new 50% female cabinet); 90% of top EU company boards are men. Women dominate primary school teaching, men run universities.

This is undoubtedly disheartening given, as Toynbee observes, the enormous pressure to change which has existed since the late 1960s. Yet is it not obvious that the two issues are related? That is to say, underlying the position of women in Western society and in the Anglican church are the same fundamental social dynamics. Goddard writes,

In many ways [the agenda of] Awesome is not so much about women as about evangelicalism ... But maybe in our current climate we can’t separate the two?

This might suggest the issue is theological (and indeed most of the discussion on the Fulcrum forum has, predictably, been about the evils of Conservative evangelicalism in this regard). But as Toynbee points out, the same difficulties are evidently faced by women in the avowedly non-theological worlds of European politics, business and education. Indeed, Toynbee puts her finger on one obvious, non-theological, culprit at the beginning of her article:

... women in their 40s [in the UK] earn 20% less per hour than their male counterparts. This is the motherhood penalty — and the more children a woman has, the wider the gap. Young women start out earning almost the same, deluded by beating boys at exams. Motherhood knocks most out of the running.

Clearly motherhood is not something Toynbee regards as an unalloyed blessing. But, she says, the problem starts earlier than that:

... it begins in infancy, when little girls learn where they belong as soon as they draw their first breath. The pink disease is far worse than it was 20 years ago. ... It’s almost impossible to buy toys now that are not putridly pink branded or aggressively superhero male. Bikes, sleeping bags, lunch boxes, nothing is neutral now, everything Barbie and Bratz. Princess tiaras, fairy and ballerina dressing up, pink, pink everywhere — and it damages girls’ brains.

And here, Polly Toynbee and I are in rare agreement on one thing: boys and girls are different. Where we disagree is over what might be done about this. Toynbee she seems to think that different early ‘conditioning’ might produce the desired ‘end product’, namely adults who are interchangeable in the structures of society. Personally, I doubt this is either possible or desirable.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the challenge facing Elisabeth Goddard and others is the same as that which confronts human society as a whole. And it should be noted that this wider society, despite a systematic attempt to restructure itself, supported by much of the apparatus of the government, education and the media over the last forty years, is still defeated by social pressures generated from within.

The real challenge facing Awesome and similar organizations is to understand why this is so. What is it about human society, and human nature, that is so resistant to change? And is the change being attempted actually worth the effort? What would make the world (or the church) a better place in this regard, and by what measure would it be judged better?

Revd John P Richardson
17 April 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. It's interesting that Fulcrum can still find Conservative Evangelicals to blame here. Surely if the problem is not being able to get jobs 'in their tradition' the problem lies with Open Evangelicals. CE's have been up front as to why they have a problem, whilst others are saying there isn't a problem when clearly there is.

    Conservative Evangelicals often take jobs outside of their tradition, either less conservative churches or totally non-Evangelical and view it (partly as a neccisity to get a job) as an opotunity. I thought Open Evangelicals were by definition 'open' to these traditions, so why do they care?

    Darren Moore (Tranmere)

  2. Interested in your comments John. Where I differ from both you and folk like those at WATCH is the idea that *number* of women in leadership is connected to the *permission* for women to lead. At the conservative end, folk seem to say 'woman don't lead as much as men, so women can't lead.' At the liberal end, people say 'women can lead, so they must lead in equal numbers.' My interpretation of Scripture (supported by your observations of society) is that women can lead, though more often it is men.

  3. mmm interesting questions John. Much of it seems to be about the passage of time. It may be that society says one thing but lives out another (and wasn't it always so). Slavery still happens, but much less than it did, racism still happens, but much less than it did. Gender imbalance still hapeens, but with it is lessening as time goes on. I imagine there may be a time when Women are accepted in leadership accross all aspects of life, but change is painfully slow, and in the CofE even more so.

    Isn't Elisabeth Goddard of AWESOME and Fulcrum the same Elisabeth Goddard who is, according to the AM website, on the Anglican Mainstream UK Steering Committee?

  4. Dear John

    As a fellow evangelical I am disappointed with your response to Elizabeth Goddard's article. You head off into the generality of wider society's apparent difficulties with women becoming leaders and avoid the particular and basic issue of whether evangelicals are justified in making 1 Timothy 2:12 a universal law for all contexts of the life of the church. It is this text, in my experience, more than any other which drives evangelicals opposed to women becoming leaders in the church, and leads evangelicals into curious casuistical pathways (women may be deacons but not priests; women may bring a greeting to a service but not a sermon; women may be entrusted with teaching women and children but not men).

    The hard questions we should be asking are not whether Polly Toynbee is right but whether 1 Timothy 2:12 can carry the incredible weight being placed upon it when made into a universal law for the church in all contexts. A weight incidentally which is carried by a foundation in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 which implies that all women in all contexts, including all women who are mature in Christ are nevertheless inherently gullible and deceiving.

    When we make 1 Timothy 2:12 into a universal law for all contexts are we in keeping with the spirit of freedom in the writings of Paul and in the mode in which he flexibly engaged in his apostolic mission? Are we in keeping with other NT material concerning Phoebe, Priscilla, and (particularly striking in my view) Euodia and Syntyche - Paul's co-labourers? Are we in tune with God, the giver of gifts of ministry who gives gifts of leadership to women.

    Its about time evangelicals sorted out whether our women-lite version of Christianity is faithful to the gospel or not! We could help ourselves by agreeing that whatever 1 Timothy 2:12 (and 13-15) means (with all its difficulties re the meaning of the hapax legomenon of authentein, and 'salvation by/through/from childbirth), it has a limited application (e.g. to a context where women are manipulatively dominating men).

    I currently serve in one of the few evangelical dioceses in the western Anglican church (Nelson, NZ). We have fine evangelical women vicars/priests-in-charge with fruitful ministries who represent godly evidence that 1 Timothy 2:12 has limited rather than universal application!

    Peter Carrell
    Nelson, New Zealand

  5. Dear Peter, the reason I said nothing about 1 Timothy 2, etc (apart from the fact that it's all been said before) is that the issue Polly Toynbee's observations raise do indeed short-circuit that discussion.

    In the 'secular' Western world, where there have been half a century of feminism, positive action, equal rights legislation, maternity rights, etc, the situation is still such as to give Toynbee serious concern. (You must read her article, not just mine.)

    My point is to call the church's attention to this, because it seems to suggest that, even if we all agree that women could be ordained, it still might not produce the outcomes Elisabeth Goddard is aiming at.

    The question I am raising is whether there is something much more fundamental than a few Bible texts which creates this 'imbalance'. The secular experience seems to suggest there is, and that it is not 'fading away'.

    In short, I suggest it might be endemic to human nature and society, not something maintained by a few theological propositions.

  6. Dear John,

    Thank you for your response. I agree with you that there is something in the make up of society, even with full equality of rights and opportunities which makes for gender imbalance in leadership which in turn is likely to be reflected in the church. In my personal experience the kinds of leadership gifts which parishes look for in prospective vicars seem to be found in a smaller percentage of women than in men.

    Nevertheless I think that within the evangelical Anglican church there is a special factor of our interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 which needs to be reckoned with. I venture to suggest, contrary to your observation, that not all has been said about 1 Timothy 2:12. My point being that when 1 Timothy 2:12 is not only a matter of differing interpretations in the abstract world of (say) commentaries, but decisive in the imposition of an utterly rigid and inflexible position re women in leadership, I think evangelicals concerned for unity and, of course, for the recognition of God's gifts and calling in women, are entitled to ask, 'can 1 Tim 2:12 bear the weight placed upon it by those applying it as a universal rule?'

    Its this kind of question that I am not so sure is being asked in consideration of 1 Tim 2:12. We seemed to have settled, paradoxically, for a kind of liberal approach to diversity here: 'hey, you believe this about 1 Tim 2:12; I believe something different; but that's cool, let's all try and get along.'

    Except that's a bit easier for evangelical men than women!

    Incidentally I have no idea what your own approach to 1 Tim 2:12 is and I make no presumptions about that.

    Peter Carrell

  7. I would imagine that the majority of Boards of Directors in the UK are overwhelmingly composed of white folk as are the CEOs they appoint in spite of nearly half a century of equalities legislation. Do you think this 'imbalance' is something 'endemic to human nature and society'?

  8. Hi Fern. The short answer to your question, as regards Western society, is "Yes, I do believe that the predominance of white people in leadership roles in business is endemic."

    However, I suspect you mean, "Do I believe that because the majority of Western leadership is white that this is how it 'ought' to be?" My answer to that would be "No", but I am sure that in the emerging economies of China and India, most CEOs are non-white and I doubt that has anything to do with racism.

    In other words, the emergence and acceptance of social leadership depends on a wide variety of factors, of which prejudice against such leadership may be one, but not necessarily a determining factor.

    I am sure, though, that in China and India, most social leadership is male, which brings us back to Polly Toynbee's questions.

  9. Dear Peter, there may occasionally be something to be said for a bit of 'liberal diversity', if the matter is one of polity, not salvation. My Anglo-Catholic friends and I have quite different views of 'priesthood', and whilst I don't agree with theirs, I accept that this is the way they see things. So on 1 Tim, I accept others take a different view and wish to act accordingly.

    My point, as you understand, is that Polly Toynbee's observations raise the possibility that the hoped-for emergence of more female leaders in the church may be frustrated by factors that have little or nothing to do with conscious theological positioning. Secular society lacks such inhibitions and, in the West, has indeed seen an enormous and deliberate effort at social re-engineering. Yet, as Toynbee observes, scan through any Argos catalogue (in this country) and you can spot the 'girlie' pages by the blast of pink that hits you between the eyes.

    Theologically, incidentally, I believe that Ephesians 5 is more fundamental than 1 Timothy 2, and that Ephesians provides the interpretive framework for Timothy. I am supposed to be writing an article on this (like, today!) so keep an eye on the "New Directions" Forward in Faith website.

    In my view, it is the theology of relational 'headship' within marriage which most closely correlates with the phenomena we observe in society. This is why I am surprised to see an evangelical bishop like Pete Broadbent saying on the Fulcrum site that they don't have any parishes teaching headship in his episcopal area. Does this mean, I ask myself, that they never teach from Ephesians 5?

  10. Since when was not having led a large church any barrier to becoming a Bishop? Pastoral experience of any sort is usually seriously wanting when it comes to wearing purple; academia is usually preferred. This suggests a quick route to the top for women priests - 'stick close to your desks, and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navy', as observed by Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, in a different context, and in the words of WS Gilbert.

    In that context Polly Toynbee, usually no theologian, is exactly right - a lack of women progressing up the greasy pole is as much a problem in commerce as it is in the Church. And neither is this problem restricted to Evangelicals - alternative pastoral oversight on this issue has largely been taken up by Anglo-Catholics.

    Incidentally, has Elisabeth Goddard got her acronyms right? I read her organisation as AWESOOM, which sounds really scary.

  11. Richard Brown, I need a location (please see the policy on posting comments) otherwise I'll remove the comment!

  12. John, not being used to the subtleties of blogging I didn't include a location, nor can I see anywhere to put it.
    I am a Reader in Westcliff on Sea, at the opposite end of your own diocese, unless you are over the border in St Albans.
    Also I am a contributor to the Reader's Forum, which appears to work in an entirely different way to this, hence my confusion.

  13. Hi Richard. That's the way to do it (you just put it in your post: J Smith, Bristol, or whatever).

    Some people don't like this policy - that is their choice. Personally I think internet anonymity is one reason why the tone of debate is so bad - so thanks for compliance and best wishes in your work.

  14. From Timothy - South London

    Further to your conversation with Peter Carrell, advocates of a more "egalitarian" stance on Women's Ministry find a reliance on Ephesians 5 to reject women preaching in church as unsafe as Peter seems to find 1 Tim 2. The reasons are not hard to seek. Ephesians 5 does not attempt to deal with the issue of women preaching in church but relations within the family. The extent to which those relations are all covered by the opening imperative to submit to one another is debated but the claim that it only applies to those below one in the hierarchy (as per PT O'Brien) is very unsafe. The extent to which the code of Eph 5 depends upon cultural factors is also debatable. But it must not be assumed by Conservative Evangelicals that they are the only ones to have defensible views. Why not see Ephesians 5 and 1 Tim 2 in the light of Acts where men and women are seen as teaching and prophesying. This was the approach taken by David Peterson, erstwhile Principal of Oakhill College. It led him to argue for much a wider role for women than Conservative Evangelicals normally espouse. It is a long time since Jim Packer claimed that “while it would be inept euphoria to claim that all the exegetical questions tackled have now been finally resolved, I think the New Testament papers [on 1 Cor, Gal 3 and 1 Tim 2 - he was speaking at a symposium on women’s ministry] in particular make it evident that the burden of proof regarding the exclusion of women from the office of teaching and ruling within the congregation now lies on those who maintain the exclusion rather than on those who challenge it.” As Packer's remarks indicate, the debate rightly continues but the idea that there is only one side who are seeking faithfully to reflect scripture needs to be rejected.
    One passage that I feel needs to be brought into the debate (if it is not already) is 1 Cor 11. This passage seems to address the issue of how women should behave in public worship, how they should speak. Thus it is more explicitly relevant than Ephesians 5. The issue seems to be women speaking in church, either on behalf of the congregation to God (prayer) or on behalf of God to the congregation (prophecy or what we now see as preaching). The assumption is that they will do these two things. The debate Paul has is about how. What he demands of the women is that they pray or prophesy with head covered as a sign of their authority. Thus it seems that Paul accords women the authority to speak the Word of God to the church.
    Whether many women will or should take on such a role, whether half the preachers should be women or it should be the exception is not resolved by this. But I do think that this represents a challenge to the view that women should never preach to the church.

  15. Timothy, your comments are helpful, but they will be deleted if you don't post a full name in compliance with the posting policy on this blog. Just send in another comment with your full name.

  16. Timothy of South London

    Full name
    Timothy Keene