Two great Christian resources for International Women’s Day 2018

I spent a good chunk of Thursday (International Women’s Day 2018) at the launch of two excellent resources. One is the Sophia Network Minding The Gap research. This is a survey of 1200+ women in the UK church, asking them about their experiences. There was much hope in the stories uncovered, and much darkness too. My friends at Sophia were kind enough to ask me to respond to the research at the launch (my first time speaking at an event in the House of Lords…); what I said will appear on their blog soon, and I don’t want to pre-empt it here, but I do want to honour them for doing the work so well, and for their ten years now of advocating for gender justice in the UK church. The second is the Project 3:28 Database. This is, simply, a database of female Christian speakers in the UK, created in the hope that it will become big and comprehensive enough that the endlessly tedious, and always weasel, suggestion that ‘we couldn’t find a woman’ to speak at this or that conference will be rendered obsolete. I’m honoured to be able to name the people–Natalie Collins; Hannah Mudge; David Bunce; Vicky Walker–who made this happen as friends, but I also feel a tiny slice of ownership. Natalie collated the stats on Christian conference speakers in the UK in 2o13; on the back of this, a group of us got together about four years ago and asked what we could do to change things. It was one of those tables that it was an utter privilege to have a seat at: I looked around at Natalie, Hannah, Paula Gooder, Elaine Storkey, Wendy Beech-Ward, and Krish Kandiah, and wondered what I had ever done to merit being in that company. We committed to continue to publish the stats year on year, which we have (Natalie has done most of the work), with visible results. Some conferences embraced the implied challenge: Spring Harvest, for example, committed to producing their own data, and to working towards improvement. Others didn’t–I remember the day we received a formal letter from one organisation’s lawyers, the sinking feeling of what that might mean, and then the elation of realising that they were actually scared of our little collective, because we were speaking the truth in public. We dreamt at that first meeting in 2014 of some resource profiling and championing female speakers at conferences; we continued to dream and pray. We were committed to doing it well, or not at all. An astonishingly generous anonymous gift of nearly £5000 pushed us to try to make our dreams a reality; we raised a good chunk more, and Natalie, Hannah, Vicky, and David created the website we now have. We are grateful for the donor who gave thousands, and for the many donors who gave £10. The website is both beautiful and wonderfully functional, and I am hugely impressed with the way my friends have brought it to reality. I have just checked and, three days after launch, there are over 120 gifted female speakers registered. Some–Amy Orr-Ewing; Paula Gooder–are as well known as almost anyone in the UK church; others are much less famous, but are women who have something to say. I hope and pray that it will grow ten-fold or more, that there will be a mighty army of gifted women offering themselves to the UK churches to preach the gospel and to teach the faith. I hope and pray too that event organisers–from the biggest national conference to the most modest local church away day–will use it to expand their imagination of who could come and speak. It’s not perfect. I look at it already and think and pray about questions of intersectionality, about how we prevent this thing, if we can, from being another way of silencing other oppressed groups. We want all women, not just white women, not just able-bodied women, not just straight women… We will have failed if somehow our structures exclude some class of women. East of Eden and longing for the End, however, perfection isn’t available to us. All we have are our best attempts to make things a little better, and the promise that, in the redemption won by Christ and in the transformation brought by the Spirit, our best attempts might be graciously taken up by God and made into something truly significant. Could this be one such? I don’t know. I do know that at the small launch event we were joined by Veronica Zundel. I’d not met Veronica before; I discovered that she had worked back in the day with John Stott, no less, on the...

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True Christian Manliness: On the Acts of St Andrew

Here in St Andrews, oddly enough, we mark St Andrews Day in various ways—this year I shall be at a graduation ceremony and, in best Hobbit style, at two formal luncheons. To mark it on a blog, I turn the to apocryphal Acts of Andrew, or rather to what we have left of them. Attributed by Pope Innocent I to a pair of ‘philosophers’ named Xenocharides and Leonidas, and a century and some earlier by Pilaster of Brescia to ‘disciples who followed the apostle’, we have a set of fragments in various languages, together with an apparently-garbled Latin summary by Georgius Florentius Gregorius, which together were reconstructed in the 1980s into two slightly different versions of the text by Jean-Marc Prieur (whose edition is published in CCSA 5 & 6) and Dennis MacDonald (who published in the SBL Texts and Translations series, vol. 33). The lost original can be dated to around, perhaps before, AD200. There is little doubt that the authors intended to construct a Christian version of Homer’s Odyssey, a text which was being used by Greek writers in the early Christian centuries as an allegory of the soul’s journey. The connection with St Andrew, MacDonald hypothesises, is not in any way historical but because ‘Andrew’ represents masculinity, and the text is a Christian attempt to reconstruct visions of masculinity. MacDonald says ‘the AA replaces the ethically questionable traits of Homeric heroes with Christian virtues. Instead of Odysseus’s wealth, sex, and violence, the heroes here represent poverty, chastity, and military disobedience.’ (p. 55) In the miracles reported in the Acts, warriors are repeatedly disarmed. Sometimes (e.g. Gregory’s summary, 9) this is against their will; other times, Andrew prevails upon his followers not to fight, but often there is a conversion to pacifism. Examples of the last two occur in the story in Gregory 18, and the longer version of it in the fragment preserved in the Coptic ms Utrecht 1: Soldiers are sent after Andrew, and a crowd comes armed to protect him, but he dissuades them from fighting. Then it turns out one of the soldiers is demonised; when he is delivered he throws off his military uniform and declares that from now on he seeks to be clothed in the uniform of God. The fragment ends with his confession, ‘there is no sword in his [Andrew’s] hand, nor any instrument of war, but these great acts of power issue from his hand.’ Masculinity is re-ordered by this text away from violence and militarism, towards pacifism and intentional peace-making. Mercy is another striking feature of the text. Repeatedly Andrew is depicted as raising from the dead those who have been struck down by God in judgement against their evil deeds so that they might repent. This happens with Varianus’s son in Gregory 18, and with the Myrmidons in the Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Flesh Eaters (which MacDonald has as the first book of the Acts of Andrew, but Prieur has as a separate text). In Gregory 23 Callisto, a proconsul’s wife, is struck down dead for falsely accusing a convert, Trophime, of adultery (a crime she herself is guilty of); Andrew raises her from the dead, even after her husband suggests she deserved death and should be left, and then invites her to repent. In the Acts of Andrew, to be a proper man is to be merciful. The story of Trophime gets us to questions of sexual ethics. It seems that the original Acts saw even marriage as impure, and commended chastity instead (Gregory conceals this in his summary); one of the recurrent motifs of this, however, is the protection of women threatened with rape or sexual violence. Trophime is enslaved into prostitution as a result of Callisto’s accusation; she is miraculously protected from all who would abuse her, in one case by the appearance of an angel who strikes the man down dead (and she then raises him from the dead; mercy triumphs over judgement once more!). Andrew is martyred by Aegeates, the proconsul of Patras, because he encouraged the proconsul’s wife Maximilla to stand firm in her desire not to have sex with her husband. Aegeates presents his wife with an ultimatum: if she will be sexually active, Andrew will be freed; if not, he will be tortured and killed. Undoubtedly in the narrative her desire to be celibate stems from an unhealthy ethic; behind that, however, it is striking that Andrew is martyred defending a very modern, and feminist, concept: ‘no means no’ (even in marriage). We might finally note humility; the servant who denounces Andrew and those who have been...

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‘These are the days of Rebekah’

My friend Natalie Collins was on Twitter tonight bemoaning a youth resource that claimed to cover the whole Biblical story in 32 sessions (!…) but that managed to mention only one woman who appears in the Bible in that survey, that woman being Eve. I don’t know the resource, and Natalie didn’t elaborate, but I’m guessing that Eve was not given a positive write-up. I have three daughters who are in youth and children’s programmes at church; it would be nice to think that the people who write the material they will access were actually working to make sure they are aware of the many positive female role-models there are in Scripture, rather than erasing all women except Eve from the story of God. In this spirit, I offer a parody I started to write a couple of years ago, but never did anything with. If you know modern evangelical songbooks, you may be able to find a tune that this fits quite well… These are the days of Rebekah, Who trusted the word of the Lord. And these are the days of your servant Deborah, Who led forth your people in war.   These are the days of Queen Esther, Who rescued God’s people through faith. And these are the days of your prophet Huldah, Who renewed the temple of praise.   Behold God comes, in tongues of rushing flame Opening daughters’ mouths to prophesy in God’s name So lift your voice, sisters of the Christ Out of Mary’s womb salvation comes.   These are the days of the women Who funded the ministry of Christ. And these are the days of the Magdalene, Who first preached of resurrected Life.   These are the days of Priscilla, Who taught male church leaders the truth, And these are the days of your apostle, Junia, Before whom Paul was just a youth.   Behold God comes, in tongues of rushing flame Opening daughters’ mouths to prophesy in God’s name So lift your voice, sisters of the Christ Out of Mary’s womb salvation...

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’Shadows and Broken Images’: thinking theologically about femaleness and maleness

I’ve been reading Megan DeFranza’s new book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). In response, I want to argue that our best way of thinking through an adequately postmodern account of human sex-difference might come from reflecting on medieval commentaries on Lombard’s Sentences.

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Lucy Peppiatt on 1 Cor. 11 and 14

Lucy Peppiatt’s Women and Worship at Corinth (Eugene: Cascade, 2015) is a very good book. I don’t say this because I agree with the conclusions, although I do; I don’t even say it because Lucy is a good friend and a former student of mine, although she is; I say it because her book is comprehensively researched and carefully argued, and that combination is what makes a book ‘good’ in the academic world I inhabit. Lucy treats three difficult texts in 1 Corinthians: 11:2-16; 14:20-25; and 14:34-36. She proposes that they may be best read by assuming that in each case Paul is in part quoting his opponents’ views back at them. For this argument, she draws gratefully on Douglas Campbell’s major recent work on Romans, and his extensive investigations into the nature of rhetorical arguments in the world in which Paul wrote his letters. I confess to remaining unconvinced by Doug’s arguments on Romans, but his research on rhetoric is solid, and Lucy’s deployment of it here seems – to me at least – far stronger. Why? Three reasons, roughly in order of significance: 1. the texts in question are self-contradictory unless we invoke some argument like this; 2. we know that Paul is quoting the Corinthians’ views back at them in other places in 1 Cor., which makes an extension of this principle plausible; 3. Lucy’s reconstruction of the basic theological argument of 1 Cor. – that it is cruciform, and God has reversed the standard power hierarchies of the world – make readings of the gender texts which suggest Paul is here reinforcing hierarchies implausible. Lucy’s research is thorough; I do not know if she has read every scholarly commentary on 1 Corinthians, but (admittedly as a non-specialist) I cannot think of one (in English, at least) that she has not read and interacted with; she works extensively with scholarly essays and journal articles also.  As she points out, the sort of ‘rhetorical’ conclusion she is offering here has been proposed before in relation to each of the three texts, but no-one has used Campbell’s work on rhetorical pointers to suggest that the three texts share common literary features which allow us to identify Corinthian quotations within them. Previous work argued that the logic could be sorted out here or there if we imagined an act of quotation; Lucy argues that there is textual evidence of an act of quotation in each case. Her case is not confined to identifying Corinthian quotations: she holds the three ‘headship’ clauses of 1 Cor 11:3 to be Paul’s own, and investigates carefully the (endlessly-debated) question of the meaning of kephale, for instance. That said, the rhetorical arguments are her real advance over earlier interpreters, or so it seems to me. Lucy gives us a reading of the texts that is centred on the cross, and the re-ordered society that the church should be under its crucified Head. In this society, ministry is based on gift and calling, not on gender, and the powerful gifts of God’s Spirit are normal and necessary for the building up of the Body. I am no New Testament scholar, and would not presume to judge the detailed points of the argument; but this reconstruction is theologically convincing, and fits well with the broader themes of the epistle, and of the Pauline corpus more generally, for me to be convinced by...

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