Just how compatible are feminism, Christianity and women becoming bishops?

Jesus was a FeministOne of the more interesting developments over the summer in the blogosphere was the launch of Vicky Beeching’s Faith in Feminism website. The point of the site is to ‘tackle the themes of religion and gender equality, putting them under the microscope’. Vicky who describes herself as a theologian and feminist has used the site to present a range of views on feminism from contributors from different faiths and none. It makes for interesting reading.

As someone who spends quite a bit of time thinking and reading about the equality of women in society and particularly within the church, Faith in Feminism has thrown up some challenging questions. It is a reminder that feminism encompasses a broad church of people with a wide range of views. Feminism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ At one level this is very simple, seeking equal and fair treatment for both men and women, not discriminating against either just because of their gender. it could be said that feminism aligns itself with the Biblical statement that we are all created in God’s image, both male and female (Genesis 1:27) and God’s image can’t be second-rate.

On the other hand feminism as a concept has become hugely loaded and divisive. So often it morphs into a form of identity politics where women’s rights become tied to a pro-choice, anti-marriage, secularist agenda supportive of LBGT rights and hostile towards perceived masculine privilege. To call yourself a feminist causes others to make assumptions about you that may or may not be true.

Vicky Beeching has described Jesus as a feminist. She is careful to qualify this and in one sense she is is right. Jesus treated women in a revolutionary and totally counter-cultural way. In a society where women were treated as second-class citizens, he made the effort to break down barriers, talking to and even teaching them. His ministry was largely funded by women and Jesus showed them a great deal of respect in a way that amazed and offended those around him. However to call Jesus a feminist is a bit like calling God a liberal. It’s placing a tag on him which carries a whole load of baggage. Jesus is greater than any label we can place on him and it’s always dangerous to try to fit him into a certain preconceived mould

Whether a Christians can genuinely call themselves feminists is brought into sharp focus during teh course of an interview with Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the website, who despite being Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter is an atheist with what appears to be scant regard for religious belief. When asked whether there any possibility of being a feminist and following one of the Abrahamic faiths, she gave this response:

‘The only way devotees of these religions can serve the cause for equality is by renouncing those aspects which undermine equality in all its forms. This is what some Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers almost seem to do – downplaying or distorting certain aspects; over-emphasizing or transforming others – but it demands an approach to their religious texts, traditions and practices which is so selective that the end result might as well be the formation of a spin-off sect. Ultimately, religious beliefs and practices are human, social constructions. For the religiously-inclined, it would be better to rip up the old blueprints and start again.’

I have to say that I completely disagree with Stavrakopoulou and find her stance troublesome and lacking in understanding. I don’t see anywhere near that level of conflict in my faith, but even so, would I dare to call myself a feminist? Well, working on the disputed assumption that men can be actually be feminists, I’m still reluctant to use that term without being able to explain what I mean.

I have a strong dislike of attaching labels to myself. As a Christian, my identity is found in my relationship with God through Jesus. That is my starting point and everything else is secondary. If I was to call myself a feminist it would be in the sense of treating women with the same level of respect and impartiality that I treat men. For we are all one in Christ Jesus; there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female (Galatians 3:28). That doesn’t mean it should be assumed that both men and women think and act identically. That is nonsense; there are obvious differences between the sexes, but I have no urge at all or good reason to see either sex relegated to that below the other. This is why I find it frustrating that Christians are perceived (although often with good reason by the way many of us talk and act) to hold on to a religion where men are placed above women.

During the debate on same-sex marriage in the Lords back in June, Justin Welby expressed his sadness and sorrow that the church has failed to serve LGBT communities in the way it should. I feel something of this for the way that the church has held women back, sometimes vehemently, in leadership in particular, depriving some the opportunity to serve God as they have felt led to.

This disappointment has recently been tied closely to the ongoing saga of the ordination of women as bishops. Although the Church of England is just one branch of the church, this struggle for acceptance has reflected unfavourably on the it as a whole. The failure to pass legislation at last year’s General Synod has left some warning that the decision will turn and keep many away from churches considering it irrelevant to modern society. This is a poor judgement for several reasons. Firstly the church should never be swayed by what those on the outside think of it in an attempt to be liked. The foundation of the Gospel never has and never will be popularity. Secondly there are far bigger obstacles for the vast majority of people stopping them entering into a church than whether there are any women bishops. Thirdly it implies culture is more important than Biblical belief and understanding. Which of these is most likely to lead us to discerning God’s will?

Unfortunately the Bible has been used over time to hold women back. I am still working through some of the key texts on women, but as I study those passages that supposedly put women under the authority of men and limit what they should do, I find that historical reasons to keep women away from leadership fall away. Amongst others, the renowned theologian, N. T. Wright and Bishop Graham Cray have both written at length on a Biblical understanding of women’s leadership and have come to the conclusion that women should not be deprived of leadership within the church. Their essays provide good basis to argue that an evangelical understanding and interpretation of scripture can provide a strong case for the equality of men and women permitting women to hold positions of leadership within the church. This interpretation is backed up by my own experiences of seeing women effectively leading in the church with strength and a Godly passion.

Last week the Church in Wales took the landmark decision to allow women to be ordained as bishops. In response the Rev. Dr Peter Mullen on Archbishop Cranmer’s blog complained that the church is becoming politically correct with a corresponding dearth of doctrine and theology. He described those assuming control of the church as being ‘generally uneducated’. In fact in Wales as in England, the male-only bishops during the debates and voting process were more favourable towards women bishops than the mixed-sex clergy or laity. You would hope that the majority of bishops would be educated on this issue having at least a solid understanding of scripture.

The Church of England’s protracted attempts to pass a measure to finally introduce women bishops will take another small step forward when the steering committee meets again on October 11th. Where the Church in Wales has walked, hopefully the Church of England will soon follow.

A third of Church of England clergy are now female, a higher leadership percentage than a lot of companies. To call yourself a Christian and a feminist will undoubtedly continue to be seen by many as controversial, but in the not too distant future it could well be society and feminists who look to much of the church as a beacon of fruitful leadership encompassing both genders and also equality (i.e. mutual respect and appreciation) between the sexes. I truly believe that is the way it should be.

Categories: Church, Equality, Faith in society, Theology

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11 replies

  1. Yes, this is a fascinating and divisive topic. I thought much of Peter Mullen’s post was incisive (particularly the C.S.Lewis quote) and your third paragraph says much of the current perception of christian feminism within many churches – and outside. One hopes that women in leadership can develop and flourish in the church but hopefully also taking account of the differences men and women bring to leadership. How to reconcile the undoubted qualities that both genders bring, the examples of women leadership in the bible with the clear complementarianism of much of the OT and NT language and imagery?

  2. I like how any time the Bible disagrees with the values of an individual Christian, the Bible has been used in such and such way. However, when the Bible agrees with their personal values, then it is the Bible says. The Bible has been used to support slavery, or the Bible has been used to hold women back. No, not because that is the actual message conveyed by the Bible at all:

    1 Timothy 2:11-12 “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.”

    Yes, ignore that part (“it was just Paul”) and instead focus on how Jesus taught women. That will make it compatible with modern Western egalitarianism.

  3. I have to agree with the Rev Dr Mullen that the feminisers of religion and christianity do not seem to have a clue about what it is all about and do seem to have reverted to a pre-christian and heathen ‘spirituality’. It was, to begin with, very much a sixties thing and is generally ill-educated, ‘politically correct’, and naive about the creation of both man and woman. Let us hope and pray that this silly season soon passes; but I suspect that it will not.

  4. Problem is – like with so many isms you just can’t rest. At the core is sin, and it just doesn’t go away. Minorities seem to be allowed air time. Women are simply strident or shrill- words never used of men.
    If you would like an insight into what we put up with, follow everyday sexism on twitter. The reason why things seem mostly ok is that mostly we can’t be bothered to fight back- it’s too flipping dangerous.

    • Sexism and misogyny is an ongoing battle. The attitudes towards women by a significant number of men are still appalling. You are right Tracy and the Everyday Sexism site is a welcome project. This is an area the church should be attempting to make things better, although in practice I doubt it does much to help, at least in the general public and media’s eyes.

      • It’s the fallen world thing. Take nothing for granted. Be thankful for blessings. Be watchful of ourselves.

        And it’s true for chaps too. The same advertising industry that uses sex to sell doesn’t hesitate to portray men as incompetent fools who need mothers not wives- and we women fall for it and buy the stuff.

        There is an incidious undercurrent in the world which would set man against woman, black against white, young against old, poor against rich…name any combination you like. Once read a quote from Zig Zagler something along the lines of “marriages would be stronger if the parties realised they are on the same side. True of humanity in general.

        And Zig Zagler is a great name.

  5. Thanks for this article. I think it expresses particularly neatly what a lot of Christian people are thinking, even if I don’t agree with your conclusions.

    I do agree though that there is a ‘dearth of doctrine and theology’ in the contemporary church, and especially of that most ancient and precious doctrine, the Trinity. One of our starting points on the matter of men and women should be, as you said, that all humans are made in the image of God and so have equal worth and value. But, I suggest, that by no means excludes a natural difference between the sexes, and even an order. The Son submitted himself in some way to the Father’s authority (e.g. Lk 22:42), and the Spirit is sent by both. The Son and the Spirit don’t consider their position in the Trinity to mean that they lack equality of God-ness with the Father! That seems to be exactly how Paul argues in 1 Cor 11:3.

    If being made in the image of God means absolute equality of role and position, what do you do with the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

  6. I am more and more coming to the view that Professor Stavrakopoulou is correct. In the end a choice will have to be made – accept the “sexist” view of the Bible, with authority for men over women; or, accept that the re-interpretation of Scripture means that a different sort of faith is being born. There comes a point when it is no longer honest to describe a contemporary faith as Christian – “post-Christian” is probably the best so far.

  7. Thanks Paul and Sam. I strongly believe that there are clear differences between the sexes and that men and women were designed to complement each other. Paul eludes to a natural order with man being the head of woman and I’m not keen to disagree with this, but we need to be careful how we understand what ‘head’ means and its implications. Paul talks about husbands and wives giving themselves to each other. I don’t believe that any headship should be oppressive. Do we elevate others or suppress them?

    I’m really not interested in re-interpretation of scripture, but I am desperate to understand it as fully as I can. There are all sorts of theological things I would disagree with Catholics over, but I don’t accept that stops them being Christians. The same goes for those who believe women should be allowed to lead in the church. I’m not convinced that makes someone post-Christian just on that basis.

    I accept that there is plenty of debate on this and that I may be wrong, but I have no intention of sitting on the fence on this matter. I base my thoughts on prayer, study, Bible reading and trying to listen to the Spirit. I’m doing my best to fit myself to God rather than the other way round.

  8. The tem “generally uneducated” is often used against someone when someone has lost the argument. The truth is people matter – both the male and the female were made in the image of God – male and female he [God] created them. Genesis 1:27. From there on we are left to learn to live together and adapt. In the reality of the world we have to adapt to changes good and bad. Deborah was a leader. I know the male did not stand up to the plate, but no one said hey chaps gotta wait for a bloke to step up to the plate]. It was seen as a judgement If that be the case I think we need to see women leaders from a different perspective.

  9. CALLING ALL CHRISTIAN WOMEN – Tired of the war on women? Ready to flex your beautiful muscles? You can show your power after you Google “The Male-Dominated Pretrib Rapture Cabal” (on Joe Ortiz’s blog dated Mar. 6)!

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