An Ordinary Radical Event

As we head into the New Year, it is very easy to forget the controversy and explosive events of last year with regards to the Synod debacle over women bishops - and some other controversies have, of course, overtaken our thinking in recent days, which I will look to write on soon.

But I encourage you to read the following, which is an extended version of my article published today in the Church Times.  It unpacks some of what I believe to be at the heart of the matter.

Women Bishops: An Ordinary Radical Event

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.

Bruno Pasqualini
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. iysh) 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 iysh 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.

Cody Miller
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.
David Hayward
 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 Gordon Fee says: "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 CorinthiansThe 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.

posted by tribalicious
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.

Barbara Perrin Chu
Deborah is God's answer to Israel's cries

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.


Roger Hurding said...

Jody, many thanks for this beautifully written and totally convincing piece! It does my heart good!

Johnny Douglas said...

Hi there Jody
A great piece of writing on this
I particularly am struck by this:-
"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."
Shine one,

Tanya Marlow said...

You know how you think you know a topic inside and out and have read everything there is on the subject, and then someone observes something about scripture that makes you go, 'oh yeah!! Of course! How cool!'

That was this line for me:
"It is clear from the narrative that the adam who fell asleep, is not the quite the same as the iysh who wakes up"

Great stuff!

Jody Stowell said...

Thanks all

the person to read on this is Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. She really looks at what the language is saying and challenges us to see it afresh.

We are taught to read things in a particular way and so 'new' things (although this isn't new really), can be shocking or even scary, because it changes our worldview.

I think that often women struggle with a reevaluation of who they are in their relationships - sexual, work whatever. Having to see themselves as equally responsible and decision makers can be difficult.

For all the 'equal but different' talk that goes around, I think that when women and men are confronted with the reality of being equal it's much more life changing that they could have imagined.

This text confronts people.

Bob Lewis said...

How about crediting the artists of the paintings?

Anonymous said...

A very interesting article, and very well argued.

I am still, however, unconvinced about women's ordination. You show that God did not create man and woman unequal, but this does not mean that both should be ordained.

Herein lies the difficulty. Priesthood is not a role like being a governor or an administrator. It is primarily a cultic function. When a priest acts as a priest, in persona Christi, he is acting as Christ the bridegroom. His bride is the Church. It is not accidental that Christ is a man, nor that those through whom he acts sacramentally are men.

Hence the fact that the holiest person to ever live (other than Christ himself), the Virgin Mary, was not ordained. If it is a matter of who is "worthy" or "best" there can be no doubt that she would have been ordained.

Furthermore, this does not get round the central problem for the Catholic section of synod. The universal opinion of the Fathers was that the first bishops were all men and only ordained men. It is just not possible to change the basic elements of a sacrament. One cannot have communion with beer and steak (both of which, I, for one, think superior to bread and wine), just as one cannot baptise someone with sand rather than water. It is not a matter of the value of the materials, it is just that that is how God decided to order things when he instituted the sacraments.

All this said, I do certainly think that it is preposterous to ordain women as priests and not as bishops. If they can be priests, of course they can be bishops! The sacrament of orders is one sacrament. No radical distinction between the priesthood of they presbyterate and the priesthood of the episcopate has ever been known to any part of apostolic Christianity.

In Christ, Felix Romanus

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Bob

quite right - I've added the artists apart from the first as I haven't been able to find the name of this artist. If you happen to see it, please do send it to me! I absolutely love it, so would like to know who painted it.

blessings, Jody

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Felix

I guess that my heart lies in the Scriptural arguments because I have grown up an evangelical in my Christian journey. So this is more from that perspective.

However, I am, of course aware of this concern. I guess I would argue in this way that women and men are equally able to represent humanity at the communion table. I do not think that men and women are essentially different and in this I do see Christ's maleness as appropriate but not necessary.

As far as the tradition goes, I think that it is not a tradition found in Scripture to simply have male leaders/priests etc and so our 'traditions' are not really fixed in quite the way that you say. Whilst I respect our journey through history, under God, to this point and beyond is important, I don't think that we have carried on the tradition infallibly.

As Stephen Cottrell said in his part of the Church Times spread on this, it is a growing into what has always been there, not a departure from tradition.

blessings, Jody

Anonymous said...

Thank you. An interesting perspective. What you say does certainly seem to flow naturally from the founding principles of the CofE.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, above comment from me!

Felix Romanus

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Bob

I found the other artist! Bruno Pasqualini :)


Ben Thompson said...

Hi Jody,
I found your article stimulating and engaging - I had never come across the distinction between adam and ish before in the way that you propose it. Isn't there a problem however in the fact that the author of Genesis appears to see the lexeme 'adam' in Gen 2v22 as referring to both 'pre-Eve' and 'post-Eve' Adam...(the woman was taken from 'ha-adam' (pre-Eve) and then brought to 'ha-adam' (post-Eve).... ie adam wasn't essentially changed by the process?
Or am I missing something?

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Ben

Yes, there is continuity between the 'adam' and the 'iysh', but there is also a specific discontinuity in the poem that spills out from the iysh. There is a point in the poetry which draws out the idea, I would argue deliberately, that the creature 'adam' is not quite the same as the creature who wakes up - things have fundamentally changed.

The continuity is obvious, but the world shattering impact is found in this discontinuity and this is what is being emphasised in the text.

I would also argue that this is then drawn out in the story of God which then continues through scripture and indicates that God is trying to restore the relationship between men and women - a relationship which scripture charts as ever more broken and distorted. From Abraham's relationship with Sarah and Hagar, through to Solomon's wives and concubines. It is a fast decline where women have become interchangeable objects, and God does not seem to care too much for that idea! :)

Ben Thompson said...

Thanks Jody,
it seems that you are still seeing the 'adam' as referring to the creature who existed before Eve was formed and the 'ish' as the creature who existed once the 'ishah' had been brought into existence. Is that what you think? (whilst recognising that there is clear continuity between the two).

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Ben

I'm not sure that the language and genre lends itself to the way that you want to use it. It is not a literal timeline of human development.

it's not about the physicality of 'adam' ('when did the penis appear?'), it is about what the text is trying to *do* in us, and I suggest it is trying to tell us that there is no 'iysh' without 'ishshah'

Ben Thompson said...

thanks Jody,
I wouldn't want to claim to be an expert in Hebrew poetry but I'm struggling to follow what you are suggesting.
It seems to me as though 2v22 speaks of 'ishah' being brought by Yahweh 'el ha-adam'. Surely if the author was trying to make the point that the adam had been changed by the creation of ishah then that would have been precisely the moment that he (or she I suppose!) would have introduced the lexeme 'ish' rather than continuing to use 'adam'. Further, in the poem (2v23) the very first time that the lexeme 'ish' is used is when the author says that 'ishah' was taken from 'ish'. I don't want to press the language too hard, but again, the suggestion here is that 'ish' was the creature who preceded ishah, since he was there for ishah to be brought from.

So, I guess it's not clear to me at all that the intention of the author is to stress the discontinuity between adam and ish. In fact I can't see anything in the text to suggest he/she would recognise the distinction.

Do you see why I'm struggling to follow your argument? Can you help me?
I hope I'm not imposing my (?patriarchal!!?) system onto the text, I'm trying to let the text speak for itself so that it can 'do' in me precisely what God means it to 'do' - as you rightly say!


Jody Stowell said...

Hi Ben

I guess I would ask why introduce 'iysh' at all? What is the purpose of 'iysh' in your reading of the text?

The other thing I would say is that I am aware that others will not agree with this interpretation of the text. I personally think that the emphasis on the understanding of identity, male and female, being found in the 'other', is truer to the text and to the outworking that is then seen. But I understand that others will not agree.However, I doubt regurgitating this again and again will be helpful.

I'm interested though in your own story, have you always thought of women and men as having quite different roles and responsibilities?

Ben Thompson said...

I'd suggest that the author (and Adam!) uses 'ish' because of the lexical similarity with 'ishah'. It's a beautiful and simple way of expressing the fact that they are equal in nature - here finally is a helper fit for the man - and their equality in nature and dignity is precisely because isshah was formed from ish. That seems to be the point that the author is making.
Is your position based upon the fact that 'ish' isn't introduced until after the creation of ishah? I'm really not persuaded that this is enough for the weight you are trying to put on it - especially when it cuts against the way that Paul seems to understand the incident.

You ask about my story - i guess I've moved from a strong egalitarian position to a complementarian one - mainly through an exposure to the arguments in Scripture. Much of me would love to be persuaded again of the egalitarian position - complementarianism doesn't tend to get a particularly good press, and added to which I find the call of servant leadership (e.g. Eph 5v25) humbling, hard and convicting - though I suspect that becoming an egalitarian wouldn't allow me to duck that!
love, b

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Ben

I think we're probably not going to get too much further with this - I think that the rhetorical device of the 'adam' from the 'adamah', the creature is in relation to the earth, and then the 'adam' discovering he is 'iysh' to the 'ishah' is compelling, but I understand that you don't.

I also think that Paul uses the birth metaphor 'man from woman, woman from man', in order to say, 'for goodness sake, stop trying to be in charge of each other!'

Let's pray for God to work with us all on this.


Ben Thompson said...

thanks Jody,
I like the symmetry - that's really interesting. I guess I still don't feel like I fully understand what conclusions you draw from that, but I'm happy to leave the discussion there if that's what you'd prefer. I'm certainly very grateful that you've helped me get a bit clearer on what you're saying. I hope we cross paths at some point in real life!