On Saturday Northern Baptist College, together with the North West Baptist Association, held a half day conference
on the theme of “Leading Women”. The aim was to gather a number women from Baptist churches who are interested in developing their ministries, whether “lay” or ordained. Seemed to work well. We told and listened to stories, shared practical information about how the college could help and reflected on the biblical texts that are often used to justify limiting women’s ministry.
I’m not usually a big fan of single sex groups whether male or female. It’s not that I’ve got anything against them, I just find them inherently less interesting. However, when it comes to the issue of women and church leadership where a big part of the injustice is down to the part played by men, it is important that we blokes get out of the way to allow the discussion to happen. The handful of men there yesterday made only minor contributions (with one exception) and dipped out of the story-telling bit entirely. Quite right, and hopefully liberating.
Being one of just four men in a group of about thirty meant that the singing felt weird, good, but weird. It really does make a difference to the feel of much of what we do when one gender seriously outnumbers the other. I remember a few years ago at a national church leadership conference where I was leading worship, complaining that those songs with male/female responsive singing were in fact an accusation against us. Three hundred church leaders and the men so out numbered the women that you could hardly hear them. Even in the act of worship we were giving voice to just how seriously our corporate life was a denial of the gospel.
A couple of things stuck with me from our time together yesterday. One was a reminder from one of the participants that the absence of female role models has a hugely debilitating effect on the ability of women to discover what leadership, preaching and other forms of ministry might mean for them. How do you even begin to imagine what it might look like for you if you have hardly ever seen it? One of the most significant times of learning in ministry for me came from having a female ministerial colleague for he first time. The way she went about church leadership was markedly different from my own approach. A big part of that difference was because she had lived life as a woman. What she did worked. Previously I would not have commended her approach indeed at one time I would barely have recognised it as leadership. How wrong I was and how pleased I am to have been taught an important lesson. Hopefully my former colleague’s example has opened up new possibilities in the minds of other women in the church who have seen a woman do it and seen here do it well.
The second thing that I was reminded of was that we often tell lies about the Bible in our attempts to justify the male domination of leadership. There are two lies in particular. First of all our vigorous defence of traditional readings of the New Testament gives the impression that the question of whether and in what ways women may lead in the church is really rather straight forward. It’s not and we can only give the impression that it is by silencing those parts of scripture that speak differently and by privileging those other verses that appear to support male domination. Once again because of our obsession with neat consistency and our misguided longing for the scriptures to speak with a distinct and single voice we do violence to the Bible in the name of being biblical. The second lie is that to question the received interpretation of the Bible is to question the Bible itself. Once again we betray the fact that, despite all our protestations to the contrary, in practice our loyalty is not to the Bible but to certain interpretations of the Bible which we happen to prefer for other reasons.
In the long run it remains to be seen whether or not our little gathering in Manchester will make much difference in getting Baptist churches to look and act a little more like the kingdom. After all there were barely thirty of us which is not many. In fact it’s tiny, mustard seed tiny.