Conference Speech: Church in all its Fullness

The original song of creation needs to be heard again through the image of God in a shared humanity.

God's Song in a Strange Land

Conference Address (Text Version)

Church in all its Fullness #wb16mar

by Jody Stowell

Index to Conference Page for other addresses

The song that we just heard was the award winning and fabulous Emeli Sande (Read All About It) and I think she captures some of what we need to own as those who want to see the image of God restored between men and women.

Because that is why we are here today, we have a big vision – for men and women to live up to their first calling, that of being the Image of God. It is not a small vision. It’s not an easy vision. But it is God’s vision.

I believe that this is God’s Vision, and I want you to believe that too – to feel it in your bones, so that even when they are dry bones, God’s breath is all you will need to bring you to life again.

There is fire in the belly of that song

‘Let’s get the TV and the Radio to play our song again, it’s bout time we got some airplay of our version of events’

The way that we see things needs to be made known.

There’s a sniff of revolution about it, especially for those of us who have felt so often that we are told not to complain, to stay silent, otherwise we’ll sound ‘ungracious’ – but I think Emeli Sande speaks to us of fanning a burning ember back into life….and it is a fire that we need to stoke, it’s a song of liberation.

And songs have always been important to those experiencing oppression, slavery, apartheid, exile, exclusion. From the Psalms of lament and exile (By the river of Babylon), to the redeemed slave trader John Newton and the abolitionists (Amazing Grace), to the slaves in the Southern states of America (Gospel songs), to the black South Africans (We are marching in the Light of God) – they sang in order to keep their hearts strong in the face of everything around them telling them that they are wrong, that their cause is dead, that they will never see their hope realised, that their dream is deferred for ever.

Songs and music sneak into the soul where sometimes nothing else will. When the mind has become overloaded with heavy legislation which, quite frankly, seems designed to sap the life and energy from any God created human being because it speaks of death, not life, so often.

The conversation revolves around and around getting absolutely nowhere, and killing us if we’re not careful.

Now I’m very grateful to those who go into those spaces, and it needs to happen and we need to be there, but we also need to know what it is and what it can do to our soul, so that we can be there and not have our joy sucked from us.

So…when our minds are overloaded and our hearts are sick – because as Proverbs tells us a dream deferred makes the heart sick – song brings life, breathes life into us again. Song sneaks in our ears, and brushes our skin without us inviting it to, and we can find that something is implanted in our mind and heart, taking root, and we suddenly find that we’ve started dancing.


After Synod a lot of people were very tired. Not just a physical or mental tiredness, but a deep spiritual weariness. The discussions and conversations around the women bishops legislation had gone on for a very very long time. In a very real way all hope was on November. There was not another option, all options had been exhausted.

We need to learn to sing our song again.

Those who are part of the Synod processes and for the majority who are not, this is our job, this is our part of this history making - we need to let our song of justice, equality and liberation infect us all over again. Because it is infectious, this song of ours: because it’s God’s song.

You know it… it seeps into the marrow of your bones, because it is about the restoration of our very being, our first calling, to be the image of God.

But I don’t think that we’ve been very good at singing it. The joy of the song, in many ways, got stolen from us. Songs are not really welcome in legislative process I find. In order to work with our system – which we have to work with – there has been a silencing of the song that was the point of working through the process in the first place.

It has been tough to remember that the Sabbath was made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath, or rather Synod was made for the Song, not the Song for Synod.


In the Celtic tradition of which I am also a part, they have a continual question that is asked of their communities, and they must always remember to ask it in order know that they are being faithful to their calling, and that question is this:

‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

You may recognise it from Psalm 137, that Psalm of exile and pain and oppression.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars

we hung our harps,

for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

while in a foreign land?

It was a joke at first: ‘sing for us’ - but then – Israel sang in that place. It became imperative – moving swiftly from the inherent sense that we gain from the Psalmist of ‘well we can’t! We can’t sing in this place’, to ‘May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.’

We must sing the Lord’s song, even when the land is strange. Even when the place seems hostile. This is the Lord’s song and it must be sung. It is a deeply subversive act.

To sing to Synod, to sing to a committee – is there any land stranger? Anything quite so dissonant?

Yet in the words of Emeli Sande ‘If no-one ever hears it, how we gonna learn your song?’ There are people out there who want to hear this song, I see it all the time when I tell this story of human beings made equally in the image of God, there is a light that sparks in the darkness that people have felt consumed by when it comes to this issue, and once lit, the darkness will not overcome it.

And we have a right to use this Gospel language, because that’s what we believe this is. This cause is at the heart of the Gospel. We believe this is God’s song, this is God’s story in a strange land, and it has been God’s song since the beginning.

We’re talking specifically about women bishops today, but this is a much deeper cause than that, and I think that most of us know that. The reality of women bishops in the Church of England will be transformational, as Stephen says, but it is also a sign and a symbol that we are no longer willing to collude in the system of the world that says women are not quite the same type of human as men and that this means, in reality, that they, women, bear the brunt of poverty; that they become privatised human beings, unable to represent humanity in all places and spaces, because the true humanity is really to be found in the male; that when food, medication and education become scarce, then they are given to men first.

And the longer that it takes for that ‘Holy Spirit tongues of flame’ mitre to be placed on a woman’s head in the Church of England, the longer we collude in what is not right, what is not God’s song in a strange land. We are naked before the whole world and our shame is paraded for all to see.

I hope we don’t sit here in order for women to progress up a career ladder: that is not what this is about. And it’s not even about human rights….but it is about what is right.

This is why I am utterly utterly convinced, in my bones, that the interpretive key to all of this is found in the Genesis passages, those beautiful pieces of poetry and prose telling us of the beginning of human beings and their place in Creation, their place with each other and in God.

Briefly, before we look at Genesis, it’s important to recognise that there are some assumptions that we inherit, whether we like it or not,

Adam was made first

Adam was involved in creating Eve

Adam named Eve

Eve is Adam’s helper because she is created from him

There is a deep psychological impact that happens in our psyches, which comes from imbibing these assumptions: priority of Adam, Eve’s relationship to Adam as Creator as well as to God, the power of Naming as ownership, Eve’s purpose as being ‘for’ Adam. We must not underestimate the power of these assumptions.

Okay, let us move on to the text.

Importantly, we need to understand what the words are ACTUALLY saying.

Genesis 1.26-27

‘Then God said, “Let us make 'adam' in our image…So God created 'adam' in his image…’

The word that has traditionally been rendered ‘Man’ in our bible translations has never been intended to be understood as ‘male’ ‘a man’. It was always understood that this means ‘Man’ in the inclusive sense, this is the only way it actually makes sense with the following verse which speaks of ‘male and female’ included in the term. This now tends to be rendered ‘humankind’ to be more truthful to that understanding.

But more than that, this word is a rhetorical device. The ‘adam’ is made from the ‘adamah’, which is the dust. Some translators have suggested that the rendering of this word might be better put ‘dustling’ or ‘groundling’.

This creature is not specifically Male, but is the one who is made from the dust – the ‘adam’ from the ‘adamah’.

A note about inclusive language – Using language which includes male and female is not, or doesn’t have to be seen as a silly or OTT, but actually it represents the biblical text more truthfully. To use ‘Man’ has meant that we have learnt to interpret this verse in such a way that our psychology works with assumptions about men and women, which are not actually biblical and are probably more built on a secular anthropology.

Try using ‘woman’ inclusively to mean ‘man or woman’ and we’ll see how inclusive it really is – sometimes it is important to deliberately ‘jar’ our own senses in order for us to become aware of the lenses that we have been given and we simply forget we have them.

I have been part of two theological college settings – in one college inclusive language was a given, it was simply part of the DNA, at the other it was derided and seen as a joke, political correctness gone mad. I’ll let you guess which one I came out of having been brought to life and which one left me diminished as a human being. Serious point. Be aware of the language because language creates the world that we live in, it doesn’t solely describe it, it can prescribe the world you create.

Moving to the Genesis 2 story:

‘So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon ha’adam, and he slept…the rib that the LORD God had taken from the adam he made into a ishshah and brought her to 'ha'adam'. Then the 'ha'adam' said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

This one shall be called ishshah, for

out of iysh this one was taken.”

As we’ve said the creature who is created the adam, has the gender neutral word, because the language is being used to paint a picture – it is a rhetorical device used to great effect, the adam is made from the adamah, the dust, the dustling from the dust, or the groundling from the ground.

This is the image of God at play in the mucky and messy stuff of Creation. God gets down and dirty with us, forms us out of the mud – God is not affronted by the material nature, but loves it and shapes us with great intimacy, with language of touch and breath. Don’t we miss this poetry when it is offered to us as a mechanistic factory line of human creation?!

So this adam has been created in God’s image.

Put with the Hebrew names in plain sight, we can see that the creature – the adam who goes to sleep, is not quite the same as the creature who wakes up.

There is a redefinition, they are no longer found within each other in the adam, but they are defined by each other in the iysh and ishshah.

Phylis Trible puts it like this: Only in responding to the female does the man discover himself as male. No longer a passive creature, 'ish comes alive in meeting 'ishshah’

Even though there is that continuity between the adam and the iysh, the language leaves us with no room for misunderstanding – this is not the same creature, the one who wakes up is not quite the same as the one who slept.

There is a mirroring found in this poem that spills out from the ‘iysh’: he becomes himself and she is called into herself as woman. They belong to each other and are defined by each other.

In other words there is no male without female and no female without male.

The image of God together! This is joyful and beautiful.

And isn’t it sinful to see this shared humanity destroyed and distorted in the story that is to come?! In the distorted patterns of relationship that occur in Genesis 3, where iysh and ishshah step away from their relationship with each other and with God and things are broken.

There is a catalogue of events that happen that outline how the relationship between men and women deteriorates very swiftly. How so quickly in Genesis the pattern moves from the shared humanity of Genesis 1 and 2, to the woman being an interchangeable object, entirely incidental in the story of God with Men, who, within this distorted pattern, take on the sole ownership of the name human.

Most distinctly this is seen in the relationship between Sarai and Abram. Abram is given a promise from God in Genesis 12 that he will be a blessing to all nations, that he will have descendants that will fill the sky – but in Abram’s mind this doesn’t include Sarai, she doesn’t have a place in this promise, because she is simply an accident in this story, and clearly because she is unable to have children, he is entirely justified in dumping her on Pharoah when he reaches Egypt.

If you’ve read this story often enough you will have seen the signs in the narrative that ‘going down down down to Egypt’ was not going to go well for Abram. It wasn’t his best idea.

He was meant to bring blessing upon all nations, but because of his treatment of Sarai, he ended up being a curse to the first nation he arrived at after this amazing promise!

But God has other ideas, God’s intention for Sarai is that she is as much a part of this story as Abram is. God goes in and rescues Sarai from Egypt, he restores her to Abram, he places her once again at the very heart of the story of the People of God! Abram might think his is the only humanity necessary in God’s story, but God has other ideas!

And I would suggest that this is the template, the metanarrative, that we should be using to understand the whole of the rest of scripture and what God does throughout scripture in saving and restoring the relationship of the iysh and the ishshah. I would argue we see it again and again throughout Scripture: through the Hebrew scriptures, and then the Gospels and so it is impossible to read the very few proof texts of Paul and not see them in an entirely new light.

God’s heart is to restore us to that poem of shared humanity – bone of my bone – WE ARE BOTH HUMAN – flesh of my flesh – WE ARE BOTH HUMAN.

At the heart of the argument that we face is the idea that we are not the same – that women cannot represent humanity in the same way as men.

The bible does not support this.

I want you to go away from here knowing without doubt, that this is God’s mission, not our good idea, it’s not a secular agenda, it’s not progress for progress sake. In fact it is a very old idea, it is our old story and we know it within our bones, because within our bones is the same breath of God that was breathed in to the dustling and which brought us to life. It lives within us still.


But, let’s get real, that is not the story that has been told - our history, our church history and human history has advocated men as the true human.

St Aquinas says:

‘As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist…’ Summa, Part I, Q92, Answer to Objection 1

Tertullian says:

‘And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. ‘ On the Apparel of Women, Book 1, Ch 1

Or see the depiction Vitruvian Man of Leonardo Da Vinci, which was inscribed on the outside of the Space Probe Voyager as the only necessary representation of humanity.

Or this clip from Ellen:

I show you these not to depress you but to galvanise you. These things all tell us that now more than ever, there is a need for us to tell that old story, because it is God’s story, the true story.

In the words of Emeli Sande

‘Let’s get the TV and the Radio to play our tune again, it’s bout time we got some airplay of our version of events. There’s no need to be afraid, I will sing with you my friend.’

We need to find our voice, to not be tamed and to sing God’s song again in a strange land.

1 thought on “Conference Speech: Church in all its Fullness”

  1. Genesis 2:22. ‘And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man (ha-adam) he made into a woman and brought her to the man (ha-adam).’

    There is continuity. The same word is used for the man before the rib (or part) is taken out of him, and after. We know that he was a male before, so it is reasonable to conclude that he was a male before, since the same word is used.

    Another thought. If these were two new beings created out of one ‘creature’, to use Jody’s term, could the man be held responsible for the instructions given to the (hermaphroditic?) creature?

    Look at 2:25 ‘And the man (ha-adam) and his wife (isha) were both naked and were not ashamed.’ It’s the same man, Adam, who was formed first (1 Timothy 2:13), and to whom God gave the wonderful gift of a woman. Hallelujah for His perfect plan and order!


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