Saturday, 7 May 2011

Women in ministry — a story of personal frustration

But perhaps not quite the story you might be expecting. Early last week I was contacted by Justin Brierley at Premier Christian Radio, who runs a great little programme called ‘Unbelievable’, asking whether I would come on and debate ‘women in ministry’ with Christina Rees of WATCH.
As it happened, I was about to embark on what I knew would be an incredibly stressful trip abroad, so I suggested a couple of other names, but they couldn’t do it, so in the end it came back to me.
Plan B actually looked good on paper — do the New Directions board-meeting in London on Thursday, stay overnight with friends and then go on to Premier on Friday. Unfortunately, things began to go wrong as soon as I got to Homerton station.
First one train was cancelled, then a second, then the third was ten minutes late. By the time I got to Highbury I ought to have been at Pimlico, but at least I was moving and had reached the London Underground.
Then, one stop along the Victoria line, everything literally came to a halt. The only realistic option by this stage was to get a taxi, which I did, but had to get the cash to pay for it first. And of course thanks to the underground being out (including, by now, the Piccadilly line) the traffic, even in the London Congestion Zone, was horrendous.
By this time I’d given up trying to tell Justin when I might arrive, but I finally turned up at 2.30, several pounds lighter in both respects.
And so to the interview. Unfortunately, this rather turned out like my perambulations around London — never quite getting to the point but expending a lot of energy in the process. I’ll put up a link when the broadcast goes out (a week today) and people can judge for themselves, but I came away more frustrated by this than by the breakdowns on the trains.
But it is not just the radio debate which frustrates me. In preparation, I had taken away with me Discovering Biblical Equality : Complementarity Without Hierarchy, which has contributions from, amongst others, Gordon Fee, and I Howard Marshall — both people whose scholarship I respect. However, I really felt that the arguments it presented were just not terribly good. Marshall’s conclusion was, I thought, typical. Basically, in Ephesians 5 Paul does really advocate submission from wife to husband, but,
Paul wrote as he did about marriage because in his world he did not know any other form than the patriarchal. (204)
So dear old Paul could, under the revelation of the gospel and the inspiration of the Spirit, get his head around laying off with circumcision and food laws, sacrifices and holy days, indeed the whole Law of Moses, but he hit the buffers when it came to families and households.
This is not to say there is no debate to be had. On the contrary, there is much to debate, not least because (as I said in a previous post about other matters) on principle if “two men say they’re Jesus, one [or both] of them must be wrong”. And certainly both sides can’t be right about women’s ordination.
But there is another elephant in the room when it comes to ordination itself — certainly within Anglican circles. For as I said in the interview, the deacons of the Church of England are nowhere to be found in the New Testament, nor are the bishops the same, and even the priests are clearly somewhat different from New Testament presbyters. If you are a devotee of later tradition, you will perhaps see this as a proper development, but if you are a thoroughgoing evangelical you will surely be wanting to ask serious questions in this area too.
Part of our problem, therefore, is that at the same time as we are rewriting the book on male-female relationships we are unwilling to confront our institutional structures. Indeed, one of the striking things about Discovering Biblical Equality was its repeated antipathy to any sort of metaphorical hierarchy between men and women, whilst having little or nothing to say (at least in the bits I read) about the literal hierarchy to be found in denominations like the Church of England.
If you are to allow some element of the latter, however, then you cannot surely exclude the former simply on the grounds that hierarchy in personal relationships is fundamentally antithetical to the gospel! Yet in the index of DBE, the entry for ‘hierarchy’ simply says ‘See male leadership position’ — something of a blind spot, I would suggest (though not quite on a par with the entry in our old Yellow Pages which read ‘Boring see Civil Engineers’).
Meanwhile, I was intrigued to discover on the AWESOME website some statistics about women in church leadership. According to one survey published in Quadrant for Christian Research, female ministers generally were most likely to: come from the Salvation Army, or Methodist or URC Churches and be theologically Liberal, Low Church or Broad.
Within the Church of England itself, on the Register of the Evangelical Patrons’ Consultative Council (which brings together bodies who have ‘patronage’ rights regarding parish appointments and which therefore seeks names of potential candidates), in 2004 there were twelve women’s names (13%), and in 2010 just seven (9%).
Some may say this is not surprising, given the views of Conservative Evangelicals like myself. But the fact is that we are a small minority compared with those who identify themselves as evangelicals in favour of women’s ordination, and now consecration (including many in New Wine or associated with the Alpha movement).
The problem, which I have highlighted before, is that this endorsement doesn’t actually seem to be feeding through on the ground. There are not large numbers of evangelical women clergy — certainly not when compared with men — and one is therefore left wondering whether either the arguments of egalitarians are not actually persuading people to step forward for ordination or (and here is the real worry for me) that the arguments are, in fact, essentially liberal in their formulation, and that therefore those whom they persuade do not, ultimately, self-identify as evangelical.
John Richardson
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  1. I am an evangelical Anglican, and for me the issue has always been the nature of ordination, not the role of women.

    Once we get that sorted, only then will our understanding of headship/leadership/the role of women make any sense.

    You cannot apply biblical principle to one and not the other ...

  2. There are also women who start off as evangelical (or in evangelical-charismatic culture) and "travel", not least when it becomes clear that large evangelical churches don't reallty want women curates, much less women vicars, when there is a good supply of men available. If an evangelical church takes a woman curate or vicar, it may be because there has been some episcopal leaning on it.
    Further, it appears that a large number or even majority of the women in training in the C of E are in liberal colleges or on part-time courses, where most of the students seem to be over 40, and unlikely to become vicars of sizable churches. Few women also stand out as preachers of note. The decline of diaconesses is one consequence of this. It would be interesting to see how womne deacons are faring in Sydney diocese.

    Mark B., W. Kent

  3. It would also be interesting to know whether that "evangelical feminist", Elaine Storkey, ever contemplated ordination - and how she would have been regarded by those responsible for her ordination had she ever submitted an application.

    To my mind, Elaine's ministry as a teacher and preacher is the equal of any ordained ministry, irrespective of gender, denomination or status.

    Beryl Polden,

  4. I heard Christina Rees on 'The Big Questionds' on Sunday past: she is an ardent supporter of Paul the apostle who if alive today would have had quite different views on the role of women - he would be an enlightened egalitarian. Of this she is quite certain.

  5. Rather reminds me of Desmond Tutu when he said Jesus got it wrong on divorce.

  6. Canon Andrew Godsall11 May 2011 at 12:05

    So let's be clear what you are saying about Paul. Do you believe that everything in the letters bearing his name is absolutely universally to be appl;ied, is not at all culturally limited and we must not challenge anything in them?

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  7. Andrew, do you mean you agree with Desmond Tutu about Jesus being wrong on divorce?

    Mark B., W. Kent

  8. I believe the real question here and the one which I think Canon Andrew is asking, is whether passages we read in scripture are culturally conditioned or whether they are culturally invariant.

    So how should we decide? Is our modern culture a reliable guide?

    Chris Bishop

  9. Canon Andrew Godsall11 May 2011 at 20:23

    No Mark - I'm asking a very specific question about Paul's letters - which were written to particular churches at a particular time in a particular situation. I am asking John (Thompson and Richardson): do you believe that everything in the letters bearing Paul's name is absolutely universally to be applied, is not at all culturally limited and we must not challenge anything in them?

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  10. Andrew: It isn't just about Paul - Jesus had no female apostles, though he certainly had female followers and supporters. He appointed the apsotles the leaders of his new community. Was Jesus also "culturally limited" - or politically restrained by his times?
    And if you "challenge" what is in the Pauline epistles, are you saying you know better than an apostle or have more authority than one? How do you stay "apostolic" in your faith? How do you know that what you call "cultural" isn't part of the 'esse' of the Gospel? Is the relationship of marriage "cultural" or trans-cultural, rooted in creation? After all, I hear many voices today saying "marriage" is "genderless", so it's what you choose to make of it.
    Mark B., W. Kent

  11. Andrew

    It is one thing to say that some aspects of what Paul taught may be culturally limited - greet with a holy kiss, for example - it is another thing to say that he (or Jesus) got it wrong; it is especially so when he universalizes his command (Paul or Jesus) and bases it explicitly on creation.

    Mark's comments express my own viewpoint.

  12. Canon Andrew Godsall12 May 2011 at 14:48

    Let's check one matter then. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 2:15 that Jesus 'abolished the law with its commandments'. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law. Who was correct?

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  13. "Let's check one matter then. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 2:15 that Jesus 'abolished the law with its commandments'. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law. Who was correct?"

    Both are correct. Jesus affirmed the law as a revealtion of God and his character, and 'ended' it insofar as it brought death. Paul makes both points in Roamns (3.13 and 10.4).

    Mark B., W. Kent

  14. I would agree with you that it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile Anglican concepts of ordained ministry with the New Testament. I am pleased that you have raised this topic which, as you rightly say, rarely gets discussed.

    Quite frankly, this is one of the reasons why I find it hard to understand the way that conservative evangelical Anglicans are so opposed to women in leadership. If you regard it as contrary to scripture or requiring questionable exegesis (and I don’t see it as either), why are you not fighting against a whole list of other topics that are in these same categories? The wearing of clerical dress, infant baptism, confirmation, the prohibition on lay celebration, even ordination itself, are extra-biblical and could quite easily be argued to be unbiblical (ie against the teaching of the scriptures). Yet I see little or no effort being made to challenge them.

    It’s a strong word, but hypocrisy is probably the right term. It’s also why I believe that sexism or even misogynism are the real reasons for the approach of groups like Reform. The publicity for Reform’s latest round of "regional consultations" relates "gospel ministry" to the issue of women bishops. Are they serious? What on earth does the gender of their bishop have to do with the practical ministry of a local church? And why don't they launch a campaign against liberalism and refuse to accept the oversight of bishops who will not sign up to a conservative evangelical statement of faith? The existing male liberal bishops do far greater harm to the gospel than any future female evangelical bishops might!

    Anyway, rant over.

    I wanted to respond to your last point related to the situation "on the ground". This is not something I recognise to any real extent, as a member of an evangelical Anglican church. I think we've had three female curates over the years. I know at least one of them is now a vicar. We've at least two female members train for the ministry, one is currently a curate and the other is now a vicar. Both the vicars are in charge of their own churches. More widely, I have a friend in another diocese who has recently been ordained and she is currently a curate, and I also have met a few female ministers in non-conformist denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal). I can say from personal knowledge that all are totally evangelical by conviction and would identify as such.

    I think there is possibly an issue in that women's ordination is fairly new and so female clergy are still relatively inexperienced. Hence they may not yet be at the stage where they would be suitable for the leadership of a large parish (and many evangelical parishes are large). But that will change over time.

    [To Mark B, comment of 7 May, my church is large and we choose our clergy on ability alone, and would reject any outside pressure. Our female curates have been young, they trained full-time at evangelical colleges, and were as good at preaching as the men.]

    Your closing remark that the arguments for women's ordination are "essentially liberal" is sadly typical of the way that conservative evangelicals demonise those who interpret the Bible differently, even though we are totally committed to the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I find this very upsetting, and I know that all the female evangelical clergy I have met would be deeply offended by your views. I just looked at the Church of England Evangelical Council website and noticed two ordained ladies on the members list (Tamsin Merchant and Gill Dallow) – would you even dream of telling them in person that they are liberals at heart? Can I suggest that you would do well to meet them (or any other female evangelical clergy) and find out what they actually believe.

  15. Trust me... Modern culture is not even a reliable guide to modern culture.

    Newlyn, Cornwall

  16. John, is there something wrong with 'Blogger' or whatever? My replies to Andrew have appeared, then disappeared.

    Ian S, most of us (myself included, and I think John as well, but he can speak for himself) don't have a problem with women "in ministry" as such, we just doubt whether women are called to be spiritually leading men. We think there are distinctive callings for men and women, as there are for fathers and mothers. I really doubt whether a large church would call a woman to be its spiritual leader because men need to be led by men. The lack of men in our churches and the rather feminized character of western church life is not helped by female pastoral leadership - it only intensifies the problem.

    Mark B., W. Kent

  17. Hello Ian. Sorry that your comment was briefly identified as ‘spam’. Blogger does this with depressing regularity and I have to keep an eye on things.

    I wonder if I might begin with a bit of history? In 1977, as a very young curate, I attended the second National Evangelical Anglican Congress in Nottingham. That Congress issued a statement which included the following: “We repent of our failure to give women their rightful place as partners in ministry with men. Leadership in the church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male.” (J6)

    That was then the clear majority view of Anglican Evangelicals — and obviously prevailed as their view for some years after. Personally, I agreed with it then and I still agree with it now.

    That is why I don’t feel any embarrassment about continuing to hold these views as an Anglican — it was what most of us believed when I became an Anglican minister, and it was what most evangelicals once thought. Some have changed their views, but I am (so far) not persuaded.

    You raise a number of other points, some of which I would agree are contentious, some are not. On clerical dress, you will be aware there are many Anglican evangelicals who find this superfluous and act accordingly (though not strictly in keeping with the canons). On infant baptism, if we disagreed with it, we would be Baptists. Most of us are not because we don’t. On lay celebration, again you will know that, whilst there are disagreements amongst ourselves, some evangelicals (myself included) have consistently argued in favour (though you should note the opprobrium heaped on the Diocese of Sydney for the steps it has taken in this direction).

    So if you see ‘little or no effort’ being made to challenge these things, I would simply say that, nevertheless, they are being challenged.

    Thus I cannot agree that primarily there is ‘hypocrisy’ ‘sexism’ or ‘misogynism’ at work here. And whilst I would agree that liberal men do a great deal of harm, two wrongs will not make a right.

    The thing with personal experience, of course, is that it may vary with our perceptions. You point to numerous evangelical women clergy. Personally, I see the term ‘evangelical’ used by so many people today whom I forebears would not recognize as such that I need a bit more evidence than just the title. After all, forty years ago to be ‘evangelical’ was to agree with the Nottingham Statement on ministry!

    Finally, you state that I have said “the arguments for women’s ordination are ‘essentially liberal’”.

    Actually, if you read carefully what I wrote I do not. Rather, I said, “one is ... left wondering whether either the arguments of egalitarians ... are, in fact, essentially liberal in their formulation”, which I described as “the real worry for me”.

    This is a much more careful statement than you assume.

    There is certainly a ‘liberal hermeneutic’ — I don’t think that is a contentious suggestion. As I have said, my worry is that the same hermeneutic may be operating amongst self-identified evangelicals. A good example would be Paul Jewett in Man and Male and Female. This is not the same as saying that everyone persuaded of this particular view is ‘a liberal at heart’.

  18. Mark, short answer "Yes there is, but I can't be bothered to migrate to WordPress". Blogger occasionally has fits of identifying posts as spam when they are not. The trouble is, they show up in my e-mail and not on the blog and it sometimes takes a while for me to spot this. I was out yesterday, but I think I've put it right now.

  19. John, just to prevent any more misunderstandings, how would you define "evangelical" ?

  20. As it happens, Ian, I had to produce a working definition for the Evangelical Anglican Junior Clergy Conference I am organizing. For these purposes, I said that 'the defining feature of evangelicalism is evangelism, meaning the proclamation of what in Scripture is sometimes called “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18), sometimes “the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:49), sometimes simply “the gospel”, and exemplified by Paul’s words to the Corinthian church:

    “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures ...” (1 Co 15:1-4)'

    To clarify what this means in relation to your question, I would say that therefore evangelicalism has at heart the proclamation to all that:

    1. The problem with the world is the sin that separates us from God.

    2. That sinners are personally under God's wrath and face Christ's judgement (Rev 6:15-17).

    3. That out of God's great love, Christ died to reconcile us to God and God to us (Article II).

    4. That sin is dealt with entirely, and only, by the death of Christ on the cross, whereby he bore the punishment for our sins (Isa 53:6) and overcame the powers of evil, delivering us from wrath and preparing us for the coming Kingdom.

    5. That a right relationship with God (salvation) is found only, but entirely and immediately, through faithful trust in his word to us that we are sinners reconciled to God by the death of his Son.

    6. That ultimately all the blessings of God, and in the first instance his Holy Spirit (Gal 3:14), are given to those who, believing this gospel message, are born again.

    As an Anglican, I would also want to add that baptism is the tangible sign of these truths and of God's promises, so that those who believe ought to receive baptism, in obedience to Christ, as an outward assurance of the gospel, and that those who are baptized ought to believe what the sign of baptism displays to them (Article XXVII).

  21. I should add a point 7!

    7. That Scripture is the vehicle in which the gospel is preserved and through which it is proclaimed to every generation (1 Cor 15:3,4; Gal 3:8; 1 Tim 4:13, cf also, for Anglicans, the Prayer Book Ordinal admonition to those about to be ordained priest).

  22. Hello from Sydney!

    Just popped in to give my 2p. I hope that's alright.
    You raised the issue regarding the decline of evangelical women putting their hands up for ordination. I can perhaps suggest a possible reason for that, though I am happy to be corrected.

    I believe that in decades past, there was more tolerance in evangelical circles towards women preaching while not necessarily holding a position of presbyter. In Sydney it was allowed by the diocese since the 1940s. The notion that women could preach under the authority of the senior clergy was the "middle road" if you like (between the liberal view and conservative evangelical). Deaconesses were therefore able to assist Senior clergy in most aspects of church life.

    At least over here, since the battle over women's ordination in the 90s, certain key evangelical leaders' views have moved more and more into a dominant position. Consequently there has been a greater drift towards the form of evangelicalism that holds women preaching in mixed congregations as, if not sinful, then completely proscribed. In some circles there is suspicion towards people who hold the "middle road", so more and more have moved to the more conservative position.

    For a while I believe this led to a drop in the number of women seeking formal ministry positions (and an exodus of women to other dioceses), as evangelical women seeking ordination feared being considered 'suspect'. However in recent years, there has been a resurgence of women entering the diaconate, mainly due to a number of churches offering "non preaching" positions for women, aimed mainly at ministry to women and/or children/youth. In recent years the Sydney diocese has been trying to raise the profile of women's ministry, and to respond to accusations of being "anti women" by encouraging churches to provide more formal places. However, these places are usually limited to the larger parishes with a multitude of staff (Minister, Assistant, Youth minister, Women's minister or Children's minister).

    - Sydney evangelical woman.