Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Women Bishops and the Anglican Church Part 1

As is well known the Anglican Church just missed moving with the times and finally allowing women to become bishops and take  leadership roles in the church. Some people might say what's the problem? the church is irrelevant, yet I feel that although I am no longer a church goer it sends all sorts of wrong signals about the possibility of a progressive form of religion, which even though I'm an agnostic, I would have more respect for than the current attempts  of a vociferous minority in the Church to move back to the dark ages and oppose every progressive development in society.  The current position just confirms my view that the Church has been hijacked by a combination of reactionary Anglo Catholics and Conservative Evangelicals who would otherwise have quite different theological views but have come together to prevent a long over due reform.

In this post I want to challenge some of the premises made by those who oppose women bishops and maybe introduce people to some quite novel ideas about the role of women in the early church that they might not have heard of before. There are two main premises I want to challenge

1) The Bible justifies the inferior status of women (a typical Evangelical argument)

2) Jesus selected twelve male apostles to found his Church thus women cannot have leadership roles (A typcial Anglo Catholic argument)

Most of what I have to say is summarised in Ehrman's book on the New Testament a standard college textbook and so representative of current scholarship. 

Ehrman B 2008 "The New Testament A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings" 4th Edition

I will consider the first premise in this post "The Bible prohibits women taking positions of authority in the Church"

In an earlier post I have given my reasons why I don't believe that you can just read off ethical positions from the Bible written two thousand years ago and transplant them to positions in the 20th century.

However I want to challenge those who refer to the Bible to justify their obnoxious position. The main verses in the Bible used to justify the position that women should not have any authority in the church are those from the Pastoral letters in particular the second chapter of 1 Timothy (ch2 v11:15) which enjoins women to obey their husbands, keep silence in church  and not to have authority over men. More bizarely, the quite ludicrous claim, is made that woman was created from man and this justifies the inferior status of women. This goes against all biological facts, open to anyone who has had children or even who was born. However even if one accepts this ludicrous claim, there are still problems about the significance of these verses. The usual claim is that this is Paul's teaching, and the words given in Timothy were written by Paul. This goes against current thinking in mainstream academic theology departments (See eg Ehrman Chapter 24). At the time of Paul the church was in a fledging state and hardly institutionalised, indeed as the expectation of both Paul and Jesus was that the world was going to end soon. It is hardly likely that fully formed institutions were set up. The whole tone of the Pastoral Epistles is that of letters written to those who had faced up to the fact that the world was not going to end imminently and hence the move to making the church more acceptable to Roman society. Current datings have the pastoral letters written at about the year 100 AD well after the death of Paul.

What is of more relevance, is the fact that in the letters which Paul is thought to have written Paul himself refers to women leaders in the church, this is hardly consistent with the sentiments of the author of the letters of Timothy. For example Romans ch 16 mentions many women Phoebe a deacon, (vv 1-2), Prisca who is responsible for the Gentile mission and many others (for a full list see eg Ehrman Ch 25 pp 404). Thus those who would quote Timothy in favour of not allowing women to take leadership roles in the church are (as is usual with anyone who quotes the Bible to justify oppression) being highly selective to say the least. 

That should be enough to refute the premise, that the Bible says that women should have no authority in the Church. Some parts  of the Bible do, but other parts  do not, thus the Bible is at best ambiguous on this issue, but as the Pastoral letters were probably not written by Paul, those bits that do maintain the inferior status of women are arguably of less importance than those of Paul. (This includes parts of 1 Corintihians generally considered to be a later interpolation see Ehrman ch 25 p410).

In the next post I will write about a supressed tradition about a female called Thecla who is portrayed as preaching alongside Paul in some early paintings but who seems to have been air-brushed out of history.



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