The Prophetic Voice & Women's Ministry
A sermon for Advent II

I am rather stretching one of rules of preaching today by preaching on a theme, rather than on a scripture passage, but it strikes me that something needs to be said from the pulpit about the issue of women's ministry that has come to dominate the life of the wider church of which we are a part and the public perception of it, because we cannot pretend that it doesn't affect us.

And it seems to me to be appropriate, on the Second Sunday in Advent, when we traditionally think about the prophets, those people who listen to God and who lead God's people into God's future kingdom, to focus this morning on how the prophetic voice operates within the church and the world today.

And that has a direct bearing on the issue of women's ministry because the Church exists primarily to listen to God's word and to obey it. And one of the things that has got me very upset about this issue (apart from the appalling devaluing of women who have been called by God to exercise costly, sacrificial ministry) is the way this issue is spoken of, not only in the press, but sometimes even in church, as though this were a battle between modern society and the Bible. The Bible (it is suggested), is a first century book, hopelessly out of date and holding the church back in a long dead world. I'm sorry to use intemperate language, but that is an ignorant lie! And the irony is that those who dismiss scripture for such reasons are bible literalists every bit as bad as the fundamentalists they purport to hate. The only difference is that they use their lazy literalist theology as a pretext for rejecting the Scriptures, rather than living by them.

The reality is that the vast majority of Christians in the Church of England have argued passionately for women priests and bishops because they believe that the bible compels us to recognise women's ministry. I am of their number and I hope, in a few minutes time, to explain briefly why. It is only a small minority in our Church who interpret the bible in so narrow and literal a way as to think otherwise. They do not have the support of the vast majority of biblical scholars and most of us in the Church believe that they are simply wrong. Properly understood, the bible does not undermine women or their ministry. In fact, quite the opposite, so if you've been lured into believing the press on this point, repent! (Advent is a good season for that, after all!)

Now a second reason why this idea (of a battle between modern thinking and the bible) is wrong, is that much of what gets bandied around in the press is not really modern thought at all. It is political correctness. But the Church is not here simply to be a reflection of modern society and to embody society's view of liberal niceness. For one thing, the politically correct police may like to tell us what the "spirit of society" is, but in reality it is not nearly so easy to discern as they like to pretend. They're very good at telling people off, but not actually very good at listening. And for another thing, political correctness is often not grounded on thought or principle, but rather on a combined set of emotional reactions and personal experiences that may be entirely understandable, but which don't necessarily make up a coherent thought process or lead us to a better future. History is, after all, littered with catastrophic mistakes made by nations and civilizations who have (with the best intentions) drifted down some very bad paths - remember Germany in the 1930s, for example. The "spirit of society" is not to be trusted and we in the Church are here, not to embody the "spirit of society", but to live by the Spirit of God, a Spirit that speaks to us through his Word.

Now, that is not to say that there is no tension between eternal truth and modern thinking. But, just as we should not assume that eternal truth is a straight jacket, equally we should not confuse the s "spirit of society" with modern thought. The "spirit of society" often has as little to do with modern thought as literalist, fundamentalist Christianity.

In fact, from its earliest infancy, Christianity has engaged enthusiastically with modern thought, from the Greek philosophers, through the age of enlightenment and into modernity. One of the great principles of Christianity is that it is incarnational. In other words, because our God was born in time and space in the muck and mess of human life (the very " incarnation" that we're preparing to celebrate), so Christianity must always be rooted in a particular time and place - in the reality of every day life in the here and now.

So if it is a fallacy to assume that the politically correct spirit of the age must always be right, it is just as much of a fallacy to assume that eternal truths are inimical to modern thought. For Christians, our eternal truths must be continually re-translated, not only in terms of re-translating God's word from the original Greek and Hebrew (though that is an ongoing necessity), but also in terms of translating the eternal truths into modern life.

And that is why I oppose those in church who want it always to remain the same. Eternal truth must always live in the present. To chain it to the past is very dangerous and leads to the sort of hot water the church is in now. Scripture is eternal truth, but eternity does not mean the past - it means past, present and future, and for that reason it must be continually re-translated.

And that is where the prophetic voice comes in to play. The prophetic voice today is not about writing scripture (that has been done and nothing can be added to it), but about translating scripture into modern life.

So, if we are to understand scripture, we ask ourselves two critical questions when faced with any particular passage:

1. What did this passage mean to the original writer or speaker? i.e. what is this passage trying to communicate?
2. What does that mean for us today?

The first question seeks to understand the eternal truth and the second question seeks to translate it for today.

Now in some cases, we can do this in a very straightforward way. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan as an interpretation of the command to love our neighbour can be applied almost directly into modern life. Equally, when, in 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul asks Timothy to collect his cloak from Carpus's house and bring it to him in prison, we know that this was a request for a specific time. If you're a bible literalist, trying to finding Paul's cloak in Carpus's house today in order to obey his command, you'll quickly become disillusioned about the Bible.

So we can see that by applying those two questions we can begin to understand what parts of the bible are eternal and what parts of the bible are culturally specific to their time. The church has managed many of these decisions quite easily. For example, I notice that most women here this morning are not praying with their heads covered. Presumably, you've all decided that 1 Corinthians 11:5 was culturally specific and doesn't apply directly today. And it has to be said that part of the reason why the opponents of women's ministry lose credibility in my eyes is that they do not apply their literal interpretations consistently. Very few of those who interpret 1 Corinthians 14 as an unchanging command apply 1 Corinthians 11 in the same way. They are selective in their interpretations.

But even when we've carefully answered those two primary questions about any one biblical passage, we have to ask ourselves another question: "How does this passage fit in to the message of Scripture as a whole?" After all, if you take passages out of context and stand them alone, you can come up with all sorts of contradictory ideas. To understand the eternal truth, you have to join the dots, see where the great sweep of scripture is heading and understand it in context.

And in this regard, we Christians act corporately. Yes, we are encouraged to wrestle with scripture personally and apply it in our individual lives, but we are fallible. We're quite likely to get it wrong. Jesus' answer to that problem was to give authority to the Church. He gave us the Holy Spirit, who, he promised, would "lead us into all truth" (John 16:13). So the Holy Spirit guides the prophetic voice of the Church corporately and what the Church as a whole decides is correct scriptural interpretation and doctrine stands as authoritative.

So in one sense, all I need to say today is that the Church of England has established the principle that a correct interpretation of Scripture requires us to consecrate women as bishops (and that principle has been established, the only issue, of course, is how we cater for those who have concluded otherwise from their study of scripture). But the Holy Spirit has guided the Church to this interpretation of scripture and that really is the last word.

But, of course I encourage you to think about these things and not be mere sheep, so let me now outline some of the reasons why, applying the principles I have set out, I believe the Church is right so to conclude.

Well, if you've followed the scriptural debates on this issue, you're probably familiar with the two main passages that appear to forbid women's ministry:

1 Timothy 2:12-15 - "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."

and

1 Corinthians 14:33-35 - "women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

Now, interpreting these passages literally gives rise to two main ideas: (1) the idea of "male headship" - that because of Adam and Eve, men intrinsically have authority over women and (2) that women teaching and speaking in church is unbiblical.

Take both ideas together and women's ministry is forbidden entirely. But if you conclude that the command in 1 Corinthians 14 was culturally specific, then you might allow women in ministry, but because of the male headship issue, you couldn't have them as bishops (and this latter point permitted the compromise we reached in 1994 when we admitted women to the priesthood, but not to be bishops).

And of course, it does not escape people's notice that both those passages come from Paul's letters and some lazy theologians have suggested that if we just ignored Paul's teachings we wouldn't have these problems.

But this is the same Paul who, just a few verses earlier in 1 Corinthians 11 was talking about women praying and prophesying in Church (albeit that he wanted them to cover their heads when doing so). So it is illogical to assume that by chapter 14 he's suddenly turned against women's ministry.

Moreover this is the same Paul who argues passionately Galatians 3:28 that "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." And it is also the same Paul who, earlier in 1 Corinthians (chapter 7) argues that women are better off not marrying. Why? Not because he's against marriage (he specifically explains that), but because married women were just property. "Of course", Paul says, "she is free to marry anyone she wishes.... But in my judgement she is more blessed [i.e. happy] if she remains as she is." 'Don't be property of your husbands' Paul is saying, 'be a free person in your own right.' Paul is arguing very passionately here for women to be free and NOT to be under the dominion of men.

This is Paul, the alleged misogynist, sounding more women's lib than Germaine Greer! So when people tell you that Paul is a misogynist and that the Bible is reactionary and out of date, it is utter nonsense!

So applying Paul's teaching in context, what is clear is that in Paul's churches women were radically liberated: they prophesied, they taught, they enjoyed freedom and equality with men and were not merely marriage fodder or pieces of property to be traded among men. But so radical was this within the male dominated Jewish and Pagan cultures of their day, that it was causing a scandal. And going to some women's heads. Some of them were clearly leaving their husbands because they considered that Christ had set them free. And some exercising a kind of revenge over men by usurping them from positions of authority. And in at least some churches these women appear to have been uncontrollable, talking so much that it was disrupting the services. Now, I often want to tell clergy to stop talking and listen for a change, but it doesn't mean I want them to stop preaching! And that is the spirit of Paul's command to silence.

So in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, Paul is recalling these liberated women to order and equality, as opposed to chaos and inverted domination. They've gone so far in liberating themselves that they're trampling on everyone else. But Christ came to bring an equal freedom and a restored order to creation, not the kind of liberation chaos seen in the French and Russian revolutions. The same problem, incidentally, applied to slaves who now considered themselves freed by Christ and equal to their masters. Paul's letter to Philemon addresses one such example.

But Paul's pleas for order and balance should not take precedence over the radical liberation that he himself did so much to implement in the church.

So taking 1 Corinthians 14 and applying the first of our two key questions (what did the passage originally mean?) we find it meaning something very different to what a face-value literal interpretation might suggest - quite the opposite in fact.

And applying the same question to 1 Timothy 2:12-15 gets us into a very strange position. The original Greek is frankly very unclear. It uses some very unusual Greek words in even more unusual contexts and frankly it is almost impossible to translate with any degree of philosophical confidence. That's why, if you read a range of translations, you'll find a plethora of different ideas. So for example:

The phrase in our New Revised Standard Version, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent" is rendered

"In the area of teaching, I am not allowing a woman to instigate conflict toward a man. Instead, she is to remain calm." in the International Standard Version

and in the King James Bible:

"I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."

Very different meanings, all justified from the Greek - and as for the bit about being "saved through childbearing" the original Greek is so obscure and has led to so many wildly varying translations that it would make your head spin.

That is not to say that we simply ignore the passage, but if you are building your theology on that passage alone, you are building on very shaky foundations. And within the context of Paul's wider theology already outlined, the idea that Paul is here constructing a principle of male headship is simply not a credible conclusion.

But above all, neither of those passages is the key starting point on questions of Christian ministry. After all, they're not the passages from which we derive authority for men's ministry, so they're clearly not where we're supposed to begin with women's ministry either.

So where do we begin? Where it all began - in the empty tomb, witnessing the earth-shattering moment when the whole course of human history was changed in the resurrection of our Lord. Christian ministry (and episcopal apostolic ministry in particular) is all about witnessing and testifying to the resurrection of Jesus.

And to whom did Jesus entrust the supreme moment of his resurrection? Who was his first witness? Who did he entrust with the message to take back to his disciples? A woman, Mary Magdalene. That is the key passage in all of this. If you're going to use the bible to oppose women bishops, you have to explain that one away, or you're simply ignoring the most important episode in the entire Bible.

And since we're putting things into context, in the great sweep of scripture, let's add into the equation the way Jesus treated women, especially his friends Mary & Martha, commending Mary's abandonment of her traditional womanly role and telling Martha to get out of the kitchen and listen to his teaching; and the fact that Jesus had a great number of women among his original followers. A revolutionary equality for women appears to have been an important part of the way in which Jesus exercised Messianic authority to embody the great prophecy of Isaiah quoted in our gospel reading today: "Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made plain".

And there is the fact that Paul's letters list countless women in ministry: Priscilla, Phoebe and Julia are three mentioned frequently with particular honour, but there are a great many others besides. More importantly still, there is Junia, mentioned as an "apostle" (the apostles were the predecessors of the bishops). Now for years Junia was assumed to be a man, but we now know that Junia is a woman's name. Of course, it's not impossible for men to have women's names, but surely the most reasonable conclusion is that Junia was a woman apostle - a women bishop right there in the New Testament. And that assumption is borne out by the paintings we see in the catacombs in Rome which appear to depict women bishops presiding at the Eucharist. Yes, they could be effeminate men praying in a headscarf, but then you have to explain away 1 Corinthians 11:4 - "any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head". I'm afraid that if you're a biblical literalist, you are hoist on your own petard!

Now let me be very clear. I myself am an evangelical Christian and it is fundamental to my faith that the church stands under the authority of Scripture and that is why I disagree both with those who reject scripture or try to edit it and with those who apply it in a lazily literal way that does not do the important work of translation into modern life and therefore misses the prophetic voice of Scripture for today. I go back to where I began: affirming scripture as the authority for women's ministry, including women bishops.

So, despite all the negative publicity we've had recently, let's affirm a few positives:

1. The bible is not a reactionary book condemning us to the dark ages. That only happens if you apply it in a lazily literal way. Apply it correctly and it emerges as the most revolutionary, exciting and futuristic book in the world. It is eternal, not because it is rooted in an unchanging past, but because it changes us from one degree of glory to another and draws us towards the future - the coming kingdom of God.

2. The prophetic voice of the Church has recognised that as the correct interpretation of Scripture for our day and for all eternity. Whatever the administration of General Synod, we are not backwards or irrelevant. We're just rubbish at admin. Let's put that behind us and strain with every fibre of our being for the glorious future that scripture sets before us.

And finally, what do we do with those who still don't agree, who cling to the old interpretation and cannot bring themselves to handle scripture in this way? Well, that is the big question Synod has to decide, but if you want my opinion, here goes...

They are still Christians and I feel for their pain when they fear that their church no longer has a place for them. And though I think they are fundamentally wrong, we cannot but recognise them as our brothers and sisters. Some of them are among my personal friends and they are good people and good Christians. We must continue to offer them the hand of fellowship, to love them and to break bread with them (if they wish to do so with us). But their inclusion in the Church cannot be gained by excluding the overwhelming majority of us - and especially those women who are called by God under the authority of Scripture to minister sacrificially for Christ. I'm in favour of a broad Church, but there comes a time for the Church to nail its colours to the mast.

And to do that we must assert a positive case from scripture. This is what the Church believes scripture is saying and if people want to be part of this Church, they must recognise that the Church has exercised its Divine authority to interpret Scripture in this way under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whatever our personal view, no-one in this Church, has the right to deny the authenticity of women's ministry or usurp the authority of the Church on this question. If they do, ironically they are themselves falling foul of Paul's teaching.

So let's nail our colours to the mast, let's affirm the authority of scripture, the most radical, the most liberating and the most exciting piece of writing on earth (for it is none other than the eternal Word of God). And let us strive with every sinew for the coming Kingdom of God where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; but we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Preached: Great Strickland 8 December 2012