Sunday, 9 December 2012

Celebration ... and still a way to go

I attended a very fine Eucharist today at St Paul’s Cathedral, celebrating twenty years of women’s ordination to the priesthood in this diocese.

The liturgy was strongly led by Bp Barbara, and a great sermon was preached by Colleen O’Reilly, interweaving the Johannine text (Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the risen Christ in the Easter garden) with the story of women’s ordination.  Colleen reminded us too that the authentic descriptor for a priest was not ‘woman’ but ‘faithful’.

There was lovely cantoring by Muriel Porter, and a choir sensitively and ably led by Elizabeth-Anne Nixon. For women clergy, the Service included a re-affirmation of our commitment to our ministry and a blessing by Archbishop Keith Rayner.

Afterwards, as we all huddled on the steps — more than fifty of us — to have our photo taken, there was a sense of euphoria and joy. If this is not irreverent, I was reminded of Jesus’ saying in Luke 10:23-24: ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

A great celebration indeed, and heartening for all who attended: that was exclusively and rightly the focus of today’s event.

But the war is not yet won. We still have a way to go and today was an oasis, a deeply-felt thanksgiving to God, as we pick up our packs and prepare to journey on.

There are still dioceses in this country that will not ordain women as priests. What we take for granted in the Melbourne diocese, they don’t yet have.  There are countries overseas which, though coming breath-takingly close, are still not consecrating women as bishops — though we in Australia will soon have four women bishops, including Bishop-Elect Alison.  There are still husbands who demand obedient and submissive wives in their homes and cloak their need for power in wooden exegesis and threadbare theology.

And also for us here in our diocese, there are still those who would discourage women from responding to their call — who would push us back to a time more than twenty years ago, when men led and women followed.

There are even choirs in this country, in this diocese —well, yes, in this Cathedral, as a matter of fact — who will not, by definition, permit women and girls to join them.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Unity & Women Bishops

Unity and Women Bishops

It’s great to know that so many people are concerned with the unity of the church, and that John 17 is again being quoted freely as the source of our commitment to unity (even though the prayer is about glory and only in a secondary sense about unity).

Having being brought up in a Presbyterian tradition which happily engaged (and engages) in schism over matters that are not to do with the substance of the faith, I am fully committed to upholding that unity which is one of Christ’s great gifts, as well as tasks, for the church’s life.

But I can’t so easily dull the pain of the CofE’s most recent decision with the thought that we/they have maintained unity, even at great cost.

The issue of women bishops may seem, to some, a matter of secondary import in comparison to the church’s mission in the world. But it does not seem so to me. The church’s primary task (if a lapse into Presbyterianism is permitted) is not mission at all, but rather ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (cf John 17).  Let’s put that alongside Ireneus’ famous statement, ‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive’ (gloria dei vivens homo). I find it hard to believe that a church with a seriously flawed anthropology is fulfilling its primary purpose of glorifying God.

Women are not ‘fully alive’ when their created and baptismal identity in Jesus Christ is denied. This is not fundamentally a question of human rights and social justice. It’s much more elemental. It concerns basic Christian anthropology.

 It’s all very well for those opposing the consecration of bishops to tell women we’re ‘equal but different’. That reads like patronising rhetoric. What it is saying in effect is: ‘Yes, you women are equal to us but you don’t have the requisite gifts for servant-leadership in the church because God has created you without that gift. The capacity for authority which is a fundamental part of being human doesn’t apply to you. You are not as like God as we men are.’ In other words, we are not equal at all in the sight of God, nor in the ministry of Christ.

And yet, baptism does draw us into Christ, women and men alike: into his saving, sacrificial death, making us one, calling us into his servant ministry. We are all of us clothed in Christ, the Servant of all. We are called to be his servants, servants of one another, servants to the world — servants in leading and in following.

(As a matter of fact, women are quite good at serving. We’ve had years of experience. Does it or does it not qualify us for servant-leadership in the church? Or is it that, the moment the word ‘authority’ creeps in, suddenly servanthood is reserved only for men?)

How is God glorified in an anthropology that in effect denies the validity of women’s baptism, our relationship to Christ, our capacity to be self-giving for his sake and that of the gospel?

I have little comprehension of why Catholic Anglicans, who have accepted the ordination of women as priests, can oppose their consecration as bishops. The consistency of a Catholic Anglican position should be that women are eligible for all three or for none. Why cavil at the last of the three?

As for the conservative Evangelical position, I have some (though limited) understanding of where they’re coming from in terms of certain passages in the New Testament that seem to deny women headship. Here the real issue is the dominance of the husband in the home and, by extension, the church.

Once again, we never hear exactly why women can’t hold leadership in home and church, and yet can do so elsewhere. The position is surely inconsistent. Some of these same men have wives who display leadership in the secular arena, yet that somehow is not problematical. The sheer inconsistency is mind-blowing. It’s based on an uncritical reading of Scripture that refuses to interpret Scripture by Scripture, but runs away with a fistful of text to support a power-agenda.

So, back to the question of unity. The Revd Dr Kevin Giles, in a letter in the latest issue of The Melbourne Anglican, points out that a number of clerics in the USA strongly supported slavery in the South on the basis of certain biblical texts (the same texts, in fact, that oppose women’s leadership). Opposed to them were a number of Evangelicals who read the Bible very differently, with a deeper understanding of the message of the gospel and its transforming imperative.

In what sense would we have been able to maintain unity with the pro-slavery party in the church during that period? Would we have commended unity in quite the same way?

In other words, does the upholding of unity mean we forsake our principles, our core theological beliefs, our conviction of the shape of the gospel?

I can’t support a unity that compels me to accept a distorted theology on fundamentals such as Christian anthropology. That doesn’t mean I have no sense of unity with those who hold a different view. Being with them at the eucharistic table is what I can do; serving them in love is (I hope) what I would do. What I can’t do is accept their interpretation of women’s place in the church — women who are re-made, along with men, in the image of Christ in baptism.

I don’t believe a commitment to unity demands that of me or of anyone else who supports the gracious calling of God and the place of women in the episcopate.

Dorothy A. Lee
24th November 2012

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Did Jesus have a Wife?

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

A papyrus fragment has recently been discovered which contains reference to Jesus' wife. The fragment is in Coptic and is very small (8x4 cm) and very damaged, but the following is an English translation provided by Prof Karen King of Harvard:

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…” 
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[ 
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it[ 
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[ 
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [ 
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [ 
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [ 
8] an image [

1 ] my moth[er 
2 ] three [ 
3 ] … [ 
4 ] forth which … [ 
5 ] (illegible ink traces)

As you might imagine, speculation in the press has gone wild, claiming that this fragment from 'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife' (as Prof King, rather problematically, names it) is direct evidence that Jesus was married - and, most likely, to Mary Magdalene.

However, there are serious difficulties with this conclusion. In the first place, it is still not certain that the papyrus fragment is genuine. Nothing is known of its discovery or even its current owner who, apparently, wishes to remain anonymous. 

Secondly, if it is genuine, the dating is later than the canonical Gospels (which were all written in  the first century AD). King dates the papyrus fragment to the fourth century, although she speculates that it might be a translation of a Greek Gospel from the second century AD. Even the earlier date would place this fragment among other apocryphal Gospels of the second century, which give little, if any, access to the historical Jesus, as King herself points out.

Later tradition from the late second to early third centuries (Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian), believed that Jesus was celibate, a view that has persisted in church tradition. The canonical Gospels, however, are completely silent on the issue of whether or not Jesus was married: they say nothing to support or deny this view. 

Thirdly, the fragment itself is so full of gaps that it is difficult to be certain of its meaning. It is not clear whether the 'Mary' referred to is Jesus' mother or Mary Magdalene. Magdalene herself was not confused with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 until later (Gregory the Great in the sixth century), but was seen simply as a disciple of Jesus and a primary witness to the resurrection. The discussion in the papyrus fragment, apparently between Jesus and his disciples, centres around the worthiness of this Mary. Second century Gospels do speak of a close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but it is never quite clear whether this language is literal (explicitly sexual) or metaphorical (discipleship) - or both.

What is possible, as King argues, is that the papyrus fragment is part of an ongoing Christian debate on the significance of marriage vs celibacy from the second century onwards. It may be that, in fourth century Egypt, where celibacy was gaining such ground, this fragment offers an alternative view, based on a tradition, among some Christians, that  Jesus himself was married. 

There is little to conclude. The papyrus is too late and too fragmented to say anything about Jesus' own life. What it can offer is an insight into early Christian debate, suggesting that, whereas the majority believed Jesus was unmarried, a minority of Christians may have believed otherwise. 

What the papyrus cannot do, however, is offer support for the view that Jesus was married. It would not, of course, be a problem for Christians if Jesus had been married. What is a problem is speculation beyond the dignified silence of the canonical texts that quickly turns into probability then fact (Dan Brown is a grim warning here!). For the four evangelists, the issue of whether or not Jesus was married was irrelevant to their purpose.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Husbandly Love

I've been thinking about some of the implications of the Sydney Diocese proposal for the marriage liturgy, including some of the remarks made by Archbishop Peter Jensen on Q&A.

I should say that there were points where I found myself in agreement with the Archbishop. His critique of secular individualism was spot on, and I appreciated his compassion towards refugees and his overall composure and refusal to resort to abuse. I valued too his call for open, respectful dialogue.

In that spirit, I have respectfully to disagree with the Archbishop on the gender and marriage question - although not, I hope, from the perspective of liberal individualism. I can't accept the theological reasoning that wives should be the only ones submitting in marriage. In my view, submission is mutual in marriage and not just for wives.

Indeed, I find the argument for wifely submission deeply inconsistent. Men, we are told, have the more difficult deal in this arrangement. Whereas wives are required only to submit (or obey), husbands are required to give their lives.

But what, I wonder, does that actually mean? Well, it means, of course, that in a terrorist attack, husbands should act self-sacrificially and protectively of their wives, even if it means the loss of their own; each is to put his wife's safety before his own. Here the model is that of Christ's love for the church, evidenced in his sacrificial death.

That's all very well. But, truth to tell, in our context it's hardly a likely scenario. How many husbands will be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for their wives?

So, if the literal meaning is so unlikely, what about the metaphorical? The husband, we're told by Archbishop Jensen, will have his natural masculine arrogance and bossiness challenged and softened by the vows he makes in marriage; no recipe, this, for domestic violence which the Archbishop regards (rightly) as a very serious sin.

But in what way will the husband metaphorically give his life for his wife? Will he support her career? Will he look after the children so that her work will thrive? Will he share the housework with her, if not do the bulk of it when required? Will he be prepared to give up his career for hers? Will he ensure she has regular time for herself and her own development, spiritual, intellectual, emotional?

Or will he expect her to surrender her life to his, her career for his? Will he expect her to serve him, day after day, supporting his career or vocation, placing her gifts at the disposable of his, feeding him, taking care of him, supporting him emotionally, taking the lion's share of the work for the children and the domestic chores?

In this model - by far the most likely scenario in such marriages - it's the wife who is taking the burden of self-sacrifice, not the husband; she is the one giving her life for his, not the other way round.

The truth is, I just don't get the (theo-)logic. I'm bemused at the conclusion that women are less capable of leadership than men by reason of their God-given biology. I'm dismayed at the implication that men are deemed more Christ-like in marriage than women. I'm cynical of the self-evident chasm between the rhetoric and the reality.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Proposed Form of Marriage Vows Problematical, TMS

Proposed form of marriage vows problematical
To replace ‘obey’ with ‘submit to’ in a proposed change to the wedding vows by a Sydney diocesan panel is to misunderstand the context of submission in the ancient world of the Bible, argues New Testament scholar Dorothy Lee.
In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald (‘To live and to submit: a marriage made in 2012,’ 25/8), the liturgical panel of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney is reported as proposing a new form of the marriage vows that would ask brides to “honour and submit to” their husbands, “as the Church submits to Christ”.

Bishop Rob Forsyth has reportedly claimed that “submit” is “a deeply biblical word” which, he argues, is “more nuanced” than the word “obey”.

I have four problems with this proposal as, indeed, with the whole issue of wifely obedience.
In the first place, if we are to accept such a vow, we will find ourselves in a serious theological and logical inconsistency. The New Testament contains four lists of “household codes” that set out the relevant duties of one partner to another in the context of family relations (Col 2:18-4:1, Eph 5:21-6:9, Tit 2:1-10, 1 Pet 2:18-3:7).

The husband-wife partnership calls for submission by the wife to her husband. It is paralleled by the father-child relationship, which calls on children to obey their parents. The third parallel is the master-slave relationship, which calls for obedience and submission from slaves to their masters. The slave is even to accept suffering, if it is needed to show acceptance of the master’s authority.

It is true that, in the case of the husband-wife and master-slave pairing, there is also a Christ-dimension: Christ’s love for the church, in the case of husbands, and Christ’s willingness to suffer, in the case of slaves.

The problem is that there is an acceptance of slavery implied in these household codes which none of us today would be happy to endorse. If we accept the codes, exactly as they are, we need to accept them all. Is Sydney calling on slaves, in those parts of the world that still have slavery (or something very like it), to submit to their masters? I would imagine not.

But why pick on the husband-wife paradigm while discounting the master-slave paradigm, which is part of the same unit? If one is impossible to interpret literally, then perhaps the other is also!
Secondly, we need to allow for the fact that the household codes reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist).

The household codes reflect, in other words, the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.

At the same time, in more foundational ways, the New Testament proclaims a more radical and counter-cultural status afforded Christian women in the new order of things, in and through Christ. There is no better statement of this than Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Easter stories in the Gospels likewise give women an extraordinary authority to proclaim the Lord’s resurrection, far beyond the patriarchal norms of the ancient world. Even the women disciples’ status as witnesses to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection challenges the values of the day. Why should we ignore these explosive, evangelical texts in favour of others that support a more conventional model of human relationships?

Thirdly, in theological terms we can’t call something “biblical” just because we happen to find it in the Bible. We can find all sorts of commands in the Bible – against usury, skin diseases, and tattoos, along with the death penalty for cursing parents – which we would not necessarily endorse today. What is truly “biblical” must be discerned, not by arbitrarily grasping verses here and there, but by understanding the tenor of biblical texts. We need to interpret Scripture in its context and discern its theological heart: to interpret Scripture by Scripture.

It’s not the submission of wives to husbands that is “biblical” in this sense, but rather the mutual submission of Christians to one another, in loving knowledge and service.

Fourthly, I have yet to hear an argument explaining why husbands need to be the head of their homes, apart from the rather na├»ve statement, “because the Bible says so”. What is it about the nature of men that associates them with leadership and authority, which is lacking in women?

In the ancient world, where women were by-and-large uneducated, and society had strict gender differentiations, it might have made some sense, but in the modern context, it makes none at all. Both the world and the church have had fine leaders among women; women who use authority well – sacrificially, wisely, strongly, responsibly.

The young Sydney bride, interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald, who promised to “submit to” her husband, spoke of the “joy and freedom” of submission. I take the point. The great truths of the gospel can sustain us, even in the most unpromising situations.

Saints and martyrs down the ages – some of them slaves and many of them female – have endured suffering, privation and imprisonment, and found that Christ’s vibrant presence has filled them with a paradoxical sense of joy and freedom. But that doesn’t justify either the privations or the imprisonment.
Revd Dr Dorothy A. Lee is Dean of Trinity College Theological School and Frank Woods Distinguished Lecturer in Biblical Studies, MDC University of Divinity.