Tag Archives: women

Evidence or attitude?

10 Apr

CerulaI managed to catch most of Channel 4’s Sunday night special, ‘Jesus’ Female Disciples: The New Evidence’. I guess I’m not your average Sunday night Channel 4 viewer, but there wasn’t a lot of new evidence for me. In fact, I reckon there’s a whole lot of old evidence that could happily have added to their case – though perhaps not made quite as watchable television. (If you missed it, never fear, that’s what catch-up in the modern watch-on-demand TV world is all about; you can find it for the next 28 days at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/jesus-female-disciples-the-new-evidence.)

But that’s “evidently” not really what the programme is about. Even a cursory reading of the gospels, Luke in particular, makes it pretty obvious that Jesus sought out, welcomed and encouraged female disciples. Obvious, that is, to anyone whose understanding of history and notions of the Jesus movement have not been moulded by centuries of patriarchal rule or its related anti-women tradition and dogma that have dominated church culture.

But that’s not the world we live in. As can be seen in the ongoing scandal of the “wage gap” between men and women, there’s a fundamental breakdown in the way women are treated that seems to be written into the way we view the world. (Talk to any teacher and you’ll realise that it’s not getting any better; despite gallant attempts to the contrary, anti-female thinking is rife and growing amongst teenage lads.) Of course, this won’t be seen in the PC declarations of the majority, but it stands out loud and clear in the unspoken – and often unrecognised – attitudes that shape our ideas and actions.

Unfortunately, none of us is exempt from the influences that mould our perceptions and convictions. A long history of wrong assumptions mean we project a skewed and potentially harmful bias onto our understanding of reality. The church is no exception – and may even be more guilty than society at large; religious fundamentalism has a habit of making cultural values into divine absolutes.

We read Scripture with our minds already made up, or at least predisposed to certain conclusions. Take Christmas, for example. What is enacted in nativities across the world bears little relation to historical reality or even what is actually recorded in Scripture. Yet we still cling to the essentially absurd idea that Jesus was born in a stable.

jesus-disciplesAnd so, of course Jesus didn’t have women disciples. He had twelve – all men. We’ve seen them walking across the Judean countryside, like Robin Hood and his merry men, having left Maid Marion back at camp preparing supper. Jesus may have healed an occasional woman, spoken with a couple and even taught one who refused to do the dishes, but disciples? Twelve men.

Take this programme for what it is – a challenge to us to systematically and deliberately work to remove from our minds and hearts the male-dominated thinking that makes the notion of Jesus having female disciples so surprising. And as a result, perhaps also to be in a place to convey to the wider world a different experience of church that models genuine gender equality.

I’ve little doubt that Jesus’ contemporaries were shocked by his unashamed embracing of women as disciples and (yes!) apostles. Wouldn’t it be great if we managed to do the same.

PS It was TV, so inevitably a bit sensationalist, but kudos to Channel 4 for a decent documentary, well worth the watch :)

PPS The Telegraph’s article prior to the programme going out also makes a good read – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/31/early-church-found-place-female-bishops-experts-claim/


A veil of tears

1 Apr

MaryMagdaleneBut Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Mary — the first on the scene. Confusion. The stone’s been moved from across the entrance. Panic. Wait, no body? What the… Quick, Peter, he’ll know what to do. Or John. Come on! They’ve taken him. Gone. Gone!

Peter and John did little but confirm what she already new. He’d gone. And Mary understood no more than they did. But when the disciples went home,

Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Maybe it is unfair and a gross gender stereotype, but — typical men. “No point hanging around moping, nothing we can do now. And anyway, if we’re not careful we might get accused of nicking the body. Best get home…”

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Mary’s tears kept her where she needed to be, the place where she would be the first to meet the risen Jesus. Yet the same tears blinded her from seeing him. Through a veil of tears her eyes were kept from seeing; it was his voice that penetrated the grief.


John was right. “He calls his own by name and […] they recognize his voice.”

“Rabboni.” Teacher. But wait, it can’t be. Master. Is it you? Lord. Jesus. It is you. OMG…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

MaryMagdalene1“Who, me?”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“But they just left…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“What if they don’t believe me?”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“But I’m only a woman.”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

Even in death, Jesus turned the tables on the sidelining of women that ran through the society he lived in. Who else would choose a woman as the first and — until that time at least — only witness of his resurrection? The Talmud is clear:

Any evidence which a woman (gives) is not valid (to offer)…This is equivalent to saying that one who is rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman (Rosh Hashannah 1.8).

And Josephus was no less blunt:

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15).

MaryMagdalene-NoliMeTangereEaster is about resurrection. Life conquering death. The vindication of the Son of God before all creation. A way into eternity being paved for humanity. A message of hope and purpose. All entrusted to a woman.

Its significance may be lost on us today, accustomed as we are to the Hillary Clintons and Angela Merkels of this world. But the Bible is to be lived in its context, and this was momentous. A woman, bearer of the good news of the resurrection. Mind-blowing. Quite simply unthinkable.

In this deliberate act of cultural rebellion, Jesus, the risen Lord, delivers another blow to the male-dominated status quo of his day. Faithful to the script he had lived throughout his earthly pilgrimage, so now in his life-after-death. Mary. The one he had healed. The one he had delivered…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“I have seen the Lord.”


I suffer not a woman…

22 Nov

Enough has been written on the subject of women bishops in the Church of England in the last 24 hours, is there anything left unsaid? Probably not, but I may as well add my pennysworth to the fray…

I understand, and share, the disappointment. Having taken the step of allowing the ordination of women, it seems strange – to a relatively uninvolved outsider such as me, at least – that the natural progression to the role of bishop has caused so much heartache, and has ultimately been rejected. And it appears all the more strange when 42 of the church’s 44 dioceses had already given the move their backing, it meets with the approval of the majority of church members and 75% of the General Synod voted in favour. (Who said electoral reform was only needed for Parliament? Representative democracies, it appears, do not always reflect the wishes of the people.)

Naturally, there are those on both the Anglo Catholic and conservative evangelical wings of the church that reject women in such positions of authority – albeit for different reasons – who are pleased with the results of the vote. Perhaps the negative vote will prevent a minor exodus by those who fundamentally disagree to the Roman Catholic church. (About 60 clergy, including 5 bishops, have already taken that road, along with some 900 individual members.) But the majority remain hurt, confused and deeply dismayed.

We will never find agreement within the church on this issue, that much is clear. However, I cannot help but think that this decision has been taken with purely internal perspectives on the table. Little thought would seem to have been given to the potential impact of the vote on the 95% of the UK’s population who are not church-goers. What of the good shepherd, who leaves the 99 in the fold to devote his attention to the one outside? Decisions within the church cannot be taken solely with the good of their members in mind; they must cater for those yet to come to Christ. We are called to be a missional community, the body of Christ, the Christ who was not afraid of offending the religious establishment or even his own disciples in order to demonstrate the love of God to outsiders.

The internal debates of the established church are of utter irrelevance to the vast majority of this country, not to mention equally unintelligible. But the results, and the media coverage, of this vote are not; these will only serve to cement in the minds of most that the church does in fact belong to a bygone era and is unable to move beyond its own petty wranglings to engage with what the country actually needs at this point in history. Any doubts about the church’s irrelevance will have effectively been resolved and bishop Julian Welby is left a difficult legacy with which to start his stint as archbishop. God help him preserve his missional commitment whilst navigating the tensions he inherits.

In that vein, I can only echo the words of James Jones, bishop of Liverpool: “I fear the next decade will envelop the Church of England in a mist which will make us more and more hidden from the rest of the world whom God has called us to serve.”

I pray he may be wrong, but right now, it does not look like it.


1 Jun

One of these days I am going to get myself a bracelet made with WDJW on. And before you ask, no, I haven’t spelled that wrong if I wanted a “What Would Jesus Do”bracelet, I could just go and buy one. I wonder if anyone would notice the difference? And if they did, what would they think anyway? Probably that I must be a bit dyslexic, something of that ilk.

Never mind WWJD, I am more interested in WDJW: “What Did Jesus Write”. I don’t mean books. I know he never wrote a book, not that we know of anyway; anything he did write has long since bitten the dust. But speaking of dust, he did write on the floor, and that’s what I want to know. Just what did Jesus write on the ground that day? Whatever he wrote, it was pretty powerful stuff. John tells us the story:

Early the next morning Jesus went back to the Temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all. “Teacher”, they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our Law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?”

They said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him. But he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger. As they stood there asking him questions, he straightened up and said to them, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they all left, one by one, the older ones first. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there. He straightened up and said to her, “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?” “No one, sir”, she answered. “Well, then”, Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11, GNB)

Wow. What Did Jesus Write? I have some ideas, but just ideas. I won’t find out for sure till I get to ask him in person; I look forward to that, and have a few other questions lined up for that moment too.

Imagine the scene. They drag the woman in, pushing their way through the crowd to the front, interrupt Jesus in mid sermon that’s another of my questions: “What were you talking about right at that moment?”, for I cannot imagine that this caught him unawares and suspect rather that he was already preparing the crowd for what was to follow. Maybe something along the lines of: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Anyway, back to the temple… They push the woman out into the arena, and deliver their carefully contrived trick question.

Trick questions. Jesus asked his fair share of those too. Try this one, also delivered in the temple: “John’s baptismwhere did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” That sent the chief priests and elders into a tail-spin. “If we answer this way… no, we can’t do that, but there again if we answer that way… no, no, no, no, no, that won’t do either. Best say we don’t know.”

Jesus could have found himself in the same mess. “Moses did say an adulteress should die, and I can’t really just go and contradict Moses. But then if I agree, I’ll deny the Father’s love and compassion. Oh, help…” What are you supposed to do you do when neither of the two available options is acceptable? Well, like Alexander and the Gordian knot, there was a much better way.

Apparently ignoring the question, Jesus bent over and started writing on the ground with his finger. I can’t think that he was just passing the time of day or practicing his calligraphy; he wanted the crowd to get something without being told up front. But he wasn’t on a beach with fresh wet sand to inscribe a message in or writing on a steamed up window; it was the temple courts, according to Josephus “laid with stones of all sorts” throughout. It’s not easy to write something that can be read on a cold stone floor like that try it some time though perhaps a little easier than the youth-group game where you have to spell out a word to your team by writing letters in the air with your rear end…

So What Did Jesus Write? My top guess is that he quoted Leviticus 20:10. Not most Christians’ favourite book of the Bible, but Jesus seemed to appreciate it. The verse would have steadily emerged, together with a running commentary no doubt, as the onlookers gradually deciphered letter upon letter:

I… F… If, A… If a… M… A… N… If a man… C… O… M… M… I… T… S… If a man commits…

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife with the wife of his neighbor…”

Time for another barrage of questions: “Yes, that’s the one, that’s what Moses said. So, do we stone her? Any other suggestions on how to kill her? What are you waiting for? Lead the way teacher! Want us to get some stones for you?”

Jesus looked up from the floor, delivered his now infamous “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”, and then went back to writing:

“… both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death”. Let’s have that again in big letters, bold font, point size 160 please. “Both the adulterer and the adulteress.” Italics and underlined. “Both the adulterer… the adulterer… the adulterer… Both. Both. Both! BOTH!!!”

There was the woman, frightened and shamed, but where was the man? By definition it takes two to commit adultery, and one of them is a man. If she had been caught in the very act, she certainly wasn’t by herself. Where was the man? More to the point, why hadn’t he been dragged out with her to share her shame and intended punishment? What were her accusers playing at? Their well thought-out plot to trap Jesus suddenly didn’t look so well thought out and they found their own hypocrisy laid as bare as the anonymous woman’s sin for all to see.

The most surprising part of the account is still to come. In their dealings with Jesus, the temple authorities rarely seem to have been moved by conscience or an acute sense of right and wrong. Self-preservation and political astuteness were more the order of the day. But it seems that Jesus’ method wrought something deep. The older ones were the first to bow out, and one by one the rest followed suit. You see, Jesus didn’t just love that woman, and want to give her a chance to find forgiveness and life; he loved the men too, and his final words to her could just as well have been his words to them.

Jesus’ words live on, just as relevant today to all of us who have ever experienced that “aha” moment, the sudden realization of our own sin. When Jesus stoops to write on the hard stone of our lives and God’s perfect strategy brings us undeniably face to face with who we are, we do well to hear for ourselves: “I do not condemn you. Get on with life… but do not sin again.”

“The audience are literally electrified and glued to their seats”

7 May

Having just watched A.N. Jacobs’ TED talk on “The Year of Living Biblically”, in which he tried to live out – literally – every one of the Bible’s commands, I thought it a good moment to fire off a couple of thoughts on biblical interpretation. You see, a couple of Sundays ago we hit 1 Timothy 2 in our small group Bible study… certainly got people talking — thankfully with respect and much grace, albeit not always with a whole lot of understanding — and it’s been going round in my head since then.

Just how are we supposed to view this text?

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1Timothy 2:8-15)

Whilst some called for a “literal” interpretation, we soon got into deep water with that one. It went a bit like this:

What is modesty, decency and propriety in dress sense? In India it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to show her midriff under a sari, but in Spain? If topless is OK for Kalahari Bushman women, why is it frowned upon for good Christians at the beach? Is decency, then, in fact a cultural construct with no absolutes at all? And if so, how do we assign absolute value to anything in Scripture? Who decides what is cultural and what is not, what is to be taken “literally” and what needs cultural unpacking?

But back to Paul’s list for now. When it comes to hairstyles, just how elaborate is elaborate? Curlers OK? What about highlights? Perms? Gel must be acceptable, though we have no agreement on how much hairspray we can use before reckoning that it really must be classed as elaborate if it needs that much to keep it in place…

No gold? What, none at all? What about my wedding ring, that’s hardly bling is it? And pearls — are cultured pearls OK? Imitation pearls? What if you can’t tell, is it OK to ask someone if their string of pearls is genuine? We’d better stick to silver, emeralds and rubies then, at least they are not banned! We could even start a new line in 1 Timothy 2 compliant luxury jewelry…

Back to clothes. At what price does a shirt become expensive? What if I got a $129.99 pair of Levis in a sale for $14.99, or last year’s model as a hand-me-down from my must-have-the-latest-fashion more-money-than-sense neighbours, do they still count as “expensive clothes”? Anyway, isn’t price a relative concept? What is expensive in Bangladesh might be cheap in Brick Lane. And if that is relative and cultural, maybe the whole text is. Where does that leave us? Whatever, one thing is clear if we are after literal interpretations — there is no mention of make-up, so don’t worry ladies, at least you can keep the lipstick, foundation and “I’m worth it” mascara.

And that’s all before we get to the thornier issue of women teaching and holding authority, or even speaking at all. “If they could just keep quiet, that would save us all a lot of headaches, ha ha”. LOL… not; jokes from stereotypes don’t help achieve consensus in understanding. Maybe we should allow women to take on roles where they don’t have to be telling men what to do? That does away with leading worship then — “Please stand to sing the next hymn…” But there again, the Greek word used — αὐθεντεῖν, authentein — seems to mean “to usurp authority” more than just to hold authority. Maybe a woman can do anything as long as a man has told her she can. Or maybe it’s just about wives and husbands, not all women and all men; as long as her husband is happy, it’s OK. Not sure where that leaves single women though. Maybe they are exempt and can do what they like. Or maybe they are the ones that should just keep quiet…

Whatever, let’s not forget that all this isn’t Paul’s big idea — he draws it from Scripture. The biblical underpinnings of our theology are vital. So, yes, Adam was formed first. But if creative order is that important, wasn’t the donkey formed before Adam? And for that matter, even if Eve was the first to take a bite out of the proverbial apple, Paul — who elsewhere lays the blame fairly and squarely with Adam — does appear overly harsh in suggesting that all women share her undiscerning taste in fruit peddlers.

What’s all this about Eve anyway? Well, maybe Paul really does mean that all women are gullible and easily deceived, so it’s best not to let them teach. It’s not all bad news, though. We are only going to ban women from teaching men; they can still teach heresy to our children in Sunday school if they like. And it only applies to church too — teaching, even adult literacy, is still an ideal career for the good Christian woman wanting to make a positive impact on her society.

Then, just when we think we might be making some progress against a strong headwind, we hit verse 15 — not very good news for the single ladies in our midst. The theological overtones of “saved” are strong and resist any other translation — but am I really to think that salvation for men is by faith, and for women, by having kids? Could it not be instead that Paul means that women will be kept safe through childbirth? Given the number that die in giving life to another, that would hardly seem likely. Unless, that is, we are going to accuse those that do die of “lack of faith” (plus, in this case, love and holiness with propriety), the universal get-out clause for every case of non-recovery at the hands of a faith-healer. The dead don’t argue, so perhaps we will just have to take their word for it… Whatever, this verse cannot be separated from the rest; we cannot sanction a “literal” interpretation of verse 12 unless ready to to the same with verse 15. The two form part of one unified thought in Paul”s mind and must be understood together. The necessary flight from dogmatism that accompanies a humble reading of verse 15 is not a bolt-on extra to categorical statements about the role of women in church but has to characterize our reading of the whole passage.

So much for a “literal interpretation”.

In reality, a “literal interpretation” of Scripture is as unreal as an unbiased opinion. An opinion, of necessity, carries the individual’s bias. Likewise, as soon as we use the word “interpretation”, we leave “literal” behind. Whilst we may be deceived by some “easier” texts into thinking that we take Scripture literally, we do not. Everything we read is understood through the interpretive filter that connects us with the world around us. So the question is not whether we interpret Scripture or take it literally, but whether we interpret it well.

What does that mean for 1 Timothy 2? That will have to wait for another day.

PS. For those mystified by the title, the BBC television commentator Ted Lowe made that statement during a particularly exciting (!) snooker match. His other classic comment was from the 1970s, aiming to help viewers who were not privileged to own one of the new colour televisions: “Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”

“The Woman That You Gave Me”

8 Mar

Adam and EveSo far this year “only” 9 women have died in Spain at the hands of their partners, including one in my own town, Zafra. I say “only” for the figures are lower than the average 6 a month of the last few years. Still, it’s not even Spring yet so there is plenty of time to catch up with last year’s total of sixty-six women who died at the hands of their partners or ex-partners, or the seventy-eight in 2010. Terrible. But even so, Spain is still somewhat below the European average. It seems that this scourge is part of our humanity itself, rather than a peculiarly Spanish or macho Mediterranean characteristic. This is no surprise – in the garden of Eden man (as in the males of the species, not generic humanity) started to burden woman with the guilt of his own weaknesses and failures, and little seems to have changed since then.

Wherever you look you find the same thing. Each year between one and a half and three million women and girls lose their lives as victims of gender violence, to use the current politically correct terminology. Beyond femicide itself, fully a third of the women on this planet will experience physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. And this not just an issue in the developing world or Islamic nations: in the industrial countries of the world domestic and sexual aggression causes 19% of absence from work for women aged between 15 and 44.

Domestic violence is nothing but the visible tip of the iceberg of deeply rooted attitudes which govern the sociocultural construction of sexuality – in other words, what it means today to be a man or a woman, male or female. In this world, it is men who sit centre-stage, and women who are the “extras”, responsible for ensuring the smooth flow of life for men. A woman tends to be considered an object over which a man has a natural right. And when she ceases to live up to his expectations, more than one man turns to physical or psychological violence to get his own way with “the weaker sex”.

This tendency is by no means absent from the biblical record. The Bible does not just contain advice on how we should live, but also gives frighteningly honest descriptions of how people actually live, sometimes with precious little comment. The reports of the treatment received by Hagar, Tamar (both Judah’s daughter-in-law and Absalom’s sister of the same name) or Jephthah’s daughter, to name but a few, give mute testimony to the systemic abuse of women that plagues fallen humanity.

The attitude of the stereotypical Jew of Jesus’ day, who thanked God that he had not been born a woman, and who, in the eyes of one school of interpretation of the law at least, could send his wife away if she had burnt his dinner, was firmly and unequivocally rejected by Jesus. Jesus made clear to the Pharisees that Moses had permitted divorce because of the hardness of their masculine hearts. Who knows – without the get-out clause of separation more than one would have got rid of his wife by other means, so adding yet another name to the list of victims of “domestic terrorism”, as El País calls this act.

It is easy to criticize Judaism, the common scapegoat of European anti-Semitic thought, but the Church hardly has the best record either. With a few rare and brilliant exceptions Christendom has both perpetuated and propagated this collective discrimination of women. As a rule women are denied access to the structures of power from which edicts are issued about their condition and participation in Christian ministry. Let’s be honest – women are notable by their absence in the historical institutions of Christianity.

What about today’s churches? It really isn’t the moment to turn our gaze away as if it were only a problem that affects others. We mustn’t fool ourselves; this is about us too. We are born as sponges in a world that relegates women to the place of second class citizens. Since childhood we have drunk deeply from the fountain of thought which undergirds our society and collective history, and whose values impregnate our subconscious thought. Freedom from this burden does not come easily.

Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are crying out to God for his intervention to bring reform to these attitudes, the irruption of his kingdom amongst humanity so that we might live according to his purposes here too, just as in heaven. The mere fact of being a Christian thus implies two things: firstly, the search for a transformed society, not through the rule of law and the imposition of an external legal code, but through the renewal of the heart of each and every one of its members. Injustice invites Christians to roll their sleeves up and be seen, to be salt and light where these are most absent.

And in second place, it places our own lives sharply in focus; as the apostle Peter said, judgement begins with the house of God. Our prayers must find answer in our own daily individual and communal lives. The Lord Jesus’ attitudes, words and affirmative actions towards women still offer guidance today for those who have ears to hear. When the rabbis of his day espoused the idea that it was better to burn the words of Torah than to give them to a woman, who but Jesus would support Mary in her longing to be taught rather than to lock herself in the kitchen? Who but Jesus would provoke the incredulity even of his own disciples, over and above their racist prejudice against the Samaritans, when they found him talking with a woman? And who but Jesus would choose women – whose testimony was considered invalid in legal proceedings – as witnesses of his resurrection?

Respect cannot be taught from the pulpit. Our Christian communities must embrace an unconditional acceptance of the full participation of women in all aspects and at all levels of our activities, as well as initiating whatever institutional changes may be needed to guarantee this. In doing this, we will not just not be guilty of killing our own wives. Maybe in the long run we will help stop others from doing this too.

(Posted today, International Women’s Day, in honour of women everywhere.)

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