Women Bishops: An Ordinary Radical Event

(Co-published with the Church Times, this extended version can be found here and at www.jodystowell.com)

I believe that the case for women and men working alongside each other in the Episcopate is an issue of justice and equality that is found firmly in the Biblical narrative. My primary case for ‘women Bishops’ would be what I understand to be the overall story of gender found in the Bible and from which we understand something of the very nature of God.

As in all good stories, we must start at the very beginning. Our case begins in Genesis 1.26, where we first find Humankind (traditionally rendered ‘Man’ – the capital ‘M’ denoting the inclusive representation of men and women within a ‘type’). This type of Humankind is then differentiated, male and female, and both are said to be made in the image of God. In Genesis 2 we find this interplay becomes further explored as the first human (hb. adam or Dustling) is made from the ground (hb. adamah or Dust) . We then learn that ‘it is not good for adam to be alone’ and so the adam is made to sleep and from the adam two different beings emerge, the Man (hb. ish) and the Woman (hb. ishshah). It is clear from the narrative that the adam who fell asleep, is not the quite the same as the ish who wakes up! In other words there was no Man without Woman and no Woman without Man. We define each other. In one fell swoop a number of ‘arguments’ suggesting a divinely established hierarchy between the Man and the Woman are demolished. Adam was not ‘made first’, Eve was not made from an offcut.

Man and Woman, uniquely and equally made in the image of God.

So far, so good. And then it all goes wrong. In Genesis 3, the relationships disintegrate. Not just between God and humankind, but between humankind and the Creation, and between the two humans. Man and Woman find themselves in an unequal relationship of domination and oppression. This is a direct result of the brokenness that they find themselves in because they chose to step out of the patterns of relationship which would cause them to flourish – the story traditionally called ‘The Fall’. To be explicit, the inequality found in the relationship between men and women is as a result of Sin rather than divine order. The Man and the Woman find themselves in patterns of relationship that are destructive. From here – and very quickly – we move from the happy equal partnership of male and female found in Genesis 1 and 2, to a situation where women are interchangeable when it comes to sex, marriage and motherhood. Indeed in a few short years we find Solomon not with one wife, but with 700! And that is not to mention the concubines: a far cry from the initial intention.

The Biblical narrative however, does not leave us without clues as to what God’s intention is regarding this situation. As with all things broken, by intention or failure, God’s desire is for redemption and restoration. We find many stories throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament which indicate that God is working to restore the relationship between men and women to the equality of shared humanity found in Genesis 1 and 2. The first obvious example is with Abram and Sarai. Abram does not understand that Sarai is as much part of the promise of blessing given in Genesis 12, he has absorbed the mindset that she is simply an interchangeable object. What is more, she is not going to be very useful for his job of ‘being the Father of many nations’ because she is ‘barren’. And so when he goes to Egypt, he sells her to Pharoah to save his skin and get rid of his ‘barren’ wife. But this is not the way that God sees it. Sarai is to be the Mother of many nations, the promise is for her too, directly and equally alongside Abram, in the story of God. God thus rescues Sarai from Egypt.

Remaining in Genesis, we begin to see the effect of this distorted relationship on women themselves. Sarai and Abram leave Egypt with some slaves. One of those slaves, we can assume, is Hagar, who receives very rough treatment from Sarai. Sarai has learned that women can be bought and sold, and in her treatment of Hagar – the gentile, woman, slave – shows that she has begun to collude in the story she has inherited. For Sarai, Hagar has a role to conform to and if she will not, she will have to go! But here again we see God’s intention. As Hagar disappears off into the desert, she meets God. In fact she is the first person in the Biblical narrative to experience the theophany of ‘The Angel of the Lord’. She is the first person to ‘see’ the Lord, and she is the first person to ‘name’ God in Scripture. She is given her own promise of blessing, to be a Mother of a Great Nation. And who is she? She is a Gentile, Woman, Slave. This story is the opposite bookend to Galatians 3.28: a mark of God’s intention to have full equality throughout all humankind.

And there are many other stories throughout Scripture which indicate God’s desire for full inclusion and equality between men and women: From the Old Testament; Deborah, Ruth, Esther: From the New Testament; Mary, Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia, who were all shown to have specific qualities of leadership, whether as the archetype of a disciple, as in the case of Mary, as those in church leadership as in Phoebe and Priscilla, or business, as in Lydia. But my particular favourite women from the New Testament are those who remain unnamed in the text where they are found: the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery and the woman who poured oil on Jesus’ feet. These women represent the restoration of women to their full humanity, quite literally, by God. Jesus takes their shame, whatever it is deemed to be, and restores them and returns them to their community. Their namelessness indicates the relative invisibility of women in Scripture, and thus the place of women at that time, and yet their stories are stories that Jesus makes sure are heard. He does this by subverting the assumptions, not only of the time, but our assumptions too. If we briefly unpack one of these ‘nameless women’ stories - that of the woman caught in adultery - we can see this double subversion. These women have many labels attached to them, and not just those that we expect to see. And Jesus undoes them. The woman caught in adultery has many labels that were given to her in the story – whore, slut, adulteress – we are well used to, but there are others too. Labels that have built up through many years of reading these stories through the lenses that we have been given to read them – not always ‘women friendly’ lenses.

Firstly, and fairly easily for those brought up on these stories, we sense the misogyny of only the female half of the adulterous couple being brought before the accusers, furthermore the hypocrisy of the accusers to believe that they can stand in judgement over this woman, when their own sin condemns them. But at this first level, the woman still has her labels – she is still a whore in the eyes of those reading at this level only. She may be a forgiven whore, but that is still a defining label for her. However there is another level at which we might read this story and see the true liberation and restoration which Jesus’ brings to this woman. Women and sex has always been an issue for those reading and interpreting the stories of women in Scripture – it is an issue for all these nameless women. When women and sex come together in Scripture it often exposes the ugly truth of how women are viewed and valued. It is easy for us to read this story and see the redeemed whore, but better for us to look at this story and see a fully human woman. This is in fact what Jesus does for this woman. Of course he does expose the misogyny and hypocrisy of the situation; those are indeed part of the restoration. He sees that this woman is being used as a pawn in their game to test him. She is not really a person to them. But she is a person to Jesus and he refuses to let her be peripheral, as the accusers want. She becomes the point of the story. He reminds the accusers that they are, in the depths of their humanity, the same as her (‘Let those who have no sin…’). And it is not simply a ‘sin thing’ it is a ‘human thing’, they are all human beings experiencing the same human condition. Finally, right at the end of the story he says to the woman ‘go and sin no more’. And rather than seeing these words as a confirming her status as a redeemed whore, we should understand them better in the light of Jesus desire to restore her humanity. The reality is that her power to choose her sexual relationships was significantly diminished as a woman living in 1st Century Palestine. In telling her to ‘go and sin no more’, he is liberating her to make different choices in a world where her choices feel limited. Jesus has exposed the misogyny and hypocrisy of the men involved in her shame; he has revealed that they are all deeply humanly the same; and he empowers her to be liberated to make her choices, to be fully human as a woman.

But actually it is how we interpret Genesis that forms how we understand these further stories and the rest of Scripture when it comes to men and women. If the nature of both male and female can be found equally in God, as indicated in Genesis 1, then God’s nature provides us with the model for relationship between men and women. There is no hierarchy in God and there is no hierarchy indicated in Genesis between the man and the woman. Jesus constantly attempts to restore this non-hierarchical relationship between the sexes in his encounters with women.

I believe that working for the inclusion of women in the Episcopate is the continuing story of God, found in Scripture, working to restore men and women to their right relationship.

But let us take a moment of pause. Those who disagree with my position on this would have a very different interpretation, not just of Genesis, but of a number of other key texts in Scripture. I am not going to deal with all the key texts in the New Testament which seem to prohibit women teaching or becoming leaders/priests in church setting in depth, those will be dealt with by another contributor, however I do wish to say a little about them and also about how we approach Scripture.

It is not enough to say that all Scripture unequivocally affirms women in Church leadership, we all know that there are tricky texts, we hear them often. However the most quoted texts, 1Tim2 and 1Cor14 have all been gone over with a fine tooth comb when it comes to how we interpret them in when it comes to women in leadership, in this I am not saying anything new. The text in 1Cor14v34, which states that women are not permitted to speak in church is clear to those who endorse a ‘plain meaning’ approach to Scripture because it simply ‘says what it says’. How can women lead in churches when these words exist in Scripture? However, even within the same letter of Paul (1Cor11v5), it seems clear that women do, in fact, speak in church – to pray and prophesy. If we take the 1Cor14 verse at ‘plain meaning’ then we do so in contradiction to the whole narrative of Scripture and even to the rest of Paul’s teaching within the same letter. It does us well to remember that we are listening to one half of a conversation, when we read the letters in Scripture, sometimes we do not have the knowledge to understand exactly what the other half of the conversation was. To interpret this one verse in such a way that it seems to undermine the story of God’s restoration of the relationship between male and female, does violence to God’s Word written. 1Cor14v34 can indeed seem so dissonant to its immediate and wider context that it led Gordon Fee, that eminent evangelical NT scholar to suggest that: "Although these two verses are found in all known manuscripts, either here or at the end of the chapter, the two text-critical criteria of transcriptional and intrinsic probability combine to cast considerable doubt on their authenticity." (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, 699.). This of course seems an extreme approach, particularly to sister evangelicals, and I would prefer to suggest that there is a conversation occurring in the context to which we are, perhaps, unaware and which would be the interpretative key to this ‘odd’ verse. Nevertheless, we need to take seriously the scholarship which honours the text and yet finds this particular verse untenable if we are to take the whole Bible seriously. Similarly with the contentious 1Tim2v12, one of the most difficult to interpret in Scripture, and which, Tom Wright suggests, should in fact be interpreted in the opposite way to that in which it has traditionally been understood. Rather than saying that women should not teach, Wright says, Paul is writing to endorse women teaching. Verse 12 rather than saying that women should not have authority over a man, is rather saying ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men, in the same way as previously men held authority over women’ (Paul for Everyone: Pastoral Letters: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Great Britain: Westminster Knox Press, 2003, 25). As Wright goes on to say, the signs are there that Ephesus, the context into which Paul is writing to Timothy, is rife with the cult of Artemis and the worship of the goddess Diana. In this situation Paul is keen to say that women are not now ‘in charge’ in the way that men had been assumed to be prior to Christ’s reversal of that assumed order. However, the dynamite in 1Tim is that Paul is saying that women must be allowed to be educated, learners and teachers under submission to God, just as men have been and should continue to be.

Having said all this, I would want to say that these interpretations are nothing new. Any basic foray into theological study or investigation of a commentary will give us the tools to understand the meaning of these verses. And there are different ways to interpret these texts. We have to admit to there being an element of choice in the conclusions that we come to about their true meaning. The reality for me is that the overall narrative of the Biblical story leaves us with no other trajectory than to establish women and men alongside each other leading the Church. It is not a case of dismissing those other texts, but of understanding them within the whole story. I do not dismiss 1Tim2, but I do read it in the context of the whole narrative of Scripture. In doing this I understand Wright’s translation of 1Tim2v12 to be more consistent with that narrative. Indeed I believe this approach to be a more deeply biblical approach than the so-called ‘plain meaning’ approach. Undeniably ‘plain meaning’ is itself influenced by context and formation so as to be disingenuous to be called ‘plain meaning’ at all. There is no such thing.

Indeed, I delight in the God who comes to dwell with humanity and who has worked with humanity in the particularity of their historical context. But this means that it is not neat and tidy. The ‘right’ options are not always open to God. When I read the book of Joshua, for example, I find myself uncertain, confused and disturbed by the divinely ordered genocide I find there. I would argue that is exactly the right way to read it. It is confusing and deeply disturbing! I do not think it sanctions those actions, instead I choose to understand it within the context of God working within humanity as it is. Sometimes this means that there are practices which were culturally appropriate at a particular point in human history, which are simply not appropriate or even morally right, at this point in human history. We would not advocate the Joshua approach to geographical relocation now and we rightly question whether it was the right thing then! We do not consider women as chattel to be bought and sold, we happily take out mortgages, borrow money at interest, wear hats and polyester/cotton mix clothes and live in a world where slavery is understood to be ‘a bad thing’. All of these biblical practices we have understood within their particular cultural and historical context and have reversed the practice seen in the pages of Scripture. When we read Scripture we must read it with those lenses, rejoicing that God enters human history and that that includes whatever ‘mess’ is there. But we must also open our eyes to scan the whole story: a story which affirms the place of women and men together, equally, for the glory of God.

The relationship between men and women has been distorted from almost the beginning of human history. The Biblical writers saw this as the reality in which we are living and have sought to address it at the different points of history in which they are writing. We see this story from Genesis, through the Pentateuch and the Torah to the New Testament in which Jesus continues to restore this relationship to the intended equality and Paul writes gender equality dynamite both to Ephesus and Galatia (Gal3v28). The choices that we make in what to believe about the role and place of women in the human endeavour will themselves be formed by our own context and formation. We need to own this if we are to get anywhere in recognising where we are now in the discussions regarding women in the Episcopate. The weight of Scripture points towards a new reality in which men and women work together in equality, this begins in Genesis and continues throughout the Biblical narrative. However, as with other ethical questions throughout history, our cultural context impinges on our ability to break with the status quo and imagine a new way of being. In a world where the vast majority of women experience explicit oppression daily and others bear the implicit inequality so commonplace that we forget to expose it, it is unsurprising that there are those who work for this to remain our paradigm. It is truly world-shattering to make a change. But there are clues as to how to do this, both within Scripture and in our own history. God answers Israel’s cries for help with Deborah, Jesus exposes hypocrisy and misogyny by liberating a woman about to be stoned and Wilberforce spent his life repeating the same arguments over and over again until the world changed.

As Christmas and Epiphany begin to fade from our memories and our world gets busy again with day to day life, we can forget the radical nature of our own faith. The nature of the world was changed by the ordinary event of birth. We are now in the pregnant pause before women Bishops are given life, but when they appear, it will be world changing, but will also seem a very ordinary radical event.

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