Women's Ministry

Sunday 18th July 2010
Year C, The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 18:1-10
Luke 10:38-42

In today's Old Testament Reading and Gospel we have, in spite of appearances, three rather different women: Sarah, wife of a rich nomad, whose primary purpose as a child bearer is now well beyond her, is feisty, argumentative and deeply ironical; Martha, who seems to have renounced the child bearing in favour of running a sibling household, might be somewhat grumpy but she's also hard working and resourceful; and Mary who "takes the better part" as a contemplative. And so, for all the apparent similarity in their cultural milieu, they are actually highly individual, with different outlooks and vocations.

As we look back across the centuries, we must be careful not to 'write across' stereotypes of their vocations; and a quick look at women in the Bible will show us why. The President of the United States, for example, might not want to remember that Barak, in the Book of Judges, was such a wimp that he wouldn't go out to fight unless the Judge Deborah went with him; and I don't suppose many in today's church would want to be too fulsome in praise of Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, although her heroism, not her profession, that is the point; and if you look at the genealogy of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, you will see that it is punctuated by three other really remarkable women: Ruth, the Moabites who stayed faithful, Bathsheba who secured the Kingdom for Solomon when David was in his dotage and, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus.

But, after Mary, perhaps the most remarkable symbolic figure in the New Testament is her namesake of Magdala who first saw our risen Lord, which brings us, perhaps not so elegantly as you or I would like, to the decision last week of the General Synod at York to send legislation on the ministry of women in our Church to the Dioceses for consultation.

The two primary objections to the ministry of women are, on the conservative evangelical side, that they cannot exercise headship in the church as this is foundationally male and, on the traditionalist catholic side, certainty that the sacramental acts of women are valid. Those who support these claims will have ample opportunity to state their case and I will not undertake the customary Church of England office of being fairer to those who disagree with me than to my own case.

I want us, as a starting point, to think about four fundamental questions which arise from the debate on women's ministry.

Summing up, we might finally want to ask ourselves whether the problem that some people have with the ministry of women arises because of their perception that priesthood carries power; it would be very difficult to deny that in the case of the doctrine of "male headship" that this is true and there is something of it in the idea that the Priest, rather than the Holy Spirit, is the unique means of consecration. Would there, I wonder, be such a fuss if the priestly ministry was defined in terms of humble service that looked more like the face of Christ than the Emperor Constantine?

This is only the start of our duty to consider our response to the draft legislation but, in the meantime, we might reflect on the salience of women in Scripture in spite of the cultural odds stacked against them.