Celebrating Lynn Green’s election

Today, the Revd Lynn Green has been elected as General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. (Report here.) On one level, this news is distant from me. It happens that I do not know Lynn – we have met, more or less in passing, but I certainly cannot claim any close relationship with her. And it is eight years or more since our family moved to Scotland, and so I transferred my ministerial accreditation from BUGB to the Baptist Union of Scotland. That said, BUGB is the denomination into which I was baptised, which tested and affirmed my call to ministry, which ordained me, and in which I began my ministerial service. The two General Secretaries before Lynn are personal friends, as are several other national and regional leaders. I owe BUGB more than I can say, and retain many relationships with individuals, churches, and translocal structures within the denomination; I still feel as if I belong to some extent – I do not know if BUGB would still want to own me as one of theirs, but I would want to be so owned; for me, there are deep ties of history, loyalty, and friendship here. So today, knowing from friends that something exciting – I did not know what – was in the offing, I repeatedly checked my Twitter feed between sessions of our church awayday. I saw that Lynn had been proposed, and then that she had been elected; I saw the rejoicing from brothers and sisters ‘down south’ at the election; I shared in the rejoicing; I saw at least one friend, an Anglican priest, express a wish that she were a Baptist today; I began to reflect. The General Secretary of BUGB is the leading Baptist office in the UK. This is, so far as we have one, the equivalent of the Archbishopric of Canterbury, or the See of Westminster. Lynn is the first woman to be called to the role. I saw numbers of friends down south tweeting ‘proud to be a Baptist today’ – and, as I say, at least one Anglican friend wishing to be a Baptist. What did all this mean? Of course, the calling of the first female General Secretary is a moment of history; this will be recorded and remembered as the moment when a decisive change became visible. And many – perhaps on my timeline 75-80% – of the comments were celebrating this moment in history. They did not know Lynn; they had no doubt that the selection committee had made a wise choice; but the celebration was for the crossing of a Rubicon: now there is no office left in (British) Baptist life that is not open to women and men indifferently. The other 20-25% of the people I heard celebrated because they knew Lynn and had no doubt that this was a transparently excellent appointment, to be rejoiced in because Lynn is Lynn, not because Lynn is female. It seems to me that both reactions are valid, and both are important to understand why today should be a day of rejoicing for British Baptists. The second first: Lynn was called because, simply, she was the best candidate for the post. Nothing I saw even began to0 suggest any element of ‘tokenism,’ or even of a desire to right a lasting injustice, appropriate though such a desire might have been. I was not privy to the internal discussions, but I feel completely convinced that I have heard enough today to assert with utter confidence that Lynn was called because she was the best candidate for the post. The first reaction: as I read the reaction – and the reports of voting percentages – this was not a moment where the view of the denomination changed; rather, this was the visible working out of a change in view that had already happened. Almost nobody in BUGB is worried about the highest office being occupied by a woman now. Many of us knew, or suspected, or hoped, that that was the case; the Assembly’s calling of Lynn, however, was a public and visible confirmation of what we knew, or suspected, or hoped – as such it is worthy of great celebration, not as a moment of change, but as a moment when a change that happened before became transparently visible. I have read dozens of tweets announcing ‘Today, I am proud to be a Baptist’. Yes. Today, I am proud to be a Baptist. Not just proud, but hopeful. Lynn’s calling is profoundly important because she is the first woman to be called to this position, and that will, I pray,...

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On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

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Another myth about gender and church leadership

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the regularly-heard assertion that embracing the ministry of women led to a slide into liberalism, and pointed out that there was simply no evidence to back this up. Today someone told me that a certain well-known pastor from Seattle had spoken at a church leaders conference in the UK and insisted that one proof of the rightness of denying preaching and leadership roles to women was that denominations that did were growing and denominations that did not were shrinking. It struck me on hearing this that I had heard the same argument four or five times in the past few weeks – sometimes as a broad assertion, as my phrasing above; sometimes phrased more anecdotally (‘I have encountered very few churches pastored by women that are growing…’), but with the anecdote used to establish a general principle which was then the basis of an argument. In an idle moment this evening, I wondered what the evidence base for such assertions looked like. First, comparing denominations is of little use; they differ on too many variables. Good evidence will come from comparing local congregations which are as similar as possible in all things save the gender of the core leader. Data like this is in fact easily available, for Church of England parishes, and it suggests that the gender of the incumbent (=senior/sole minister in CoE terms) does in fact influence the prospects for church growth slightly but measurably: Churches with female senior/sole pastors grow more often and faster than churches with a man in the role. This data can be found in tabular form in Bob Jackson’s The Road to Growth (Church House Publishing, 2005), p. 44. Jackson was a mission enabler for the Church of England, and did some survey work on various dioceses (and the New Wine network) between 1999 and 2004. 75 of the parishes he considered had a female incumbent for some or all of the time surveyed, and on average they recorded growth of 9%, against 2% for parishes with solely male incumbents. Now, this data is far from perfect: n=75 is not bad, but not very good either; given the dates and the Anglican context one has to consider whether openness to a female incumbent is acting as a proxy for some other variable (Anglo-catholic parishes shrinking badly, e.g.); it would be much more convincing to have data across a range of denominations – and indeed countries; … All that said, this is hard data, as compared to the windy rhetoric or the personal reminiscence of my opening paragraph. As such, it deserves respect at least until other, better, data is available. The evidence, such as we have it, is that churches grow faster with female senior pastors. How does this play into debates over gender and ministry? I am pulled two ways on this: as an evangelical, there is a strongly pragmatic streak to my beliefs about the church: ‘if people get saved, if churches grow, then we should do it – I’ll make the theology work later…’; as a Baptist, I have a conflicting hesitancy about ‘numbers’ arguments: ‘we are called to fidelity, not to success; you can grow easily by compromising with the spirit of the age…’ So, even if the data were compelling in one direction or the other, I would still hesitate to argue from data to ecclesiological principle. That said, I opened this post with the comment that I have heard the assertion that churches led by women do not grow four or five times in recent weeks; each time, it has been offered as a reason to reject the ministry of women. But the assertion is, on the evidence available, simply false – just as the assertion about ‘egalitarianism’ being a slippery slope to liberalism is simply false on the basis of available evidence. The temptation to get polemical here is strong; I will resist, and simply note in general terms that if someone continues to pile up demonstrably false arguments in support of a position, there inevitably comes a point when the reasonable response is to suppose that there are in fact no good arguments to offer, and that the position is based simply on prejudice. Those who believe there is good reason to support the position in question, therefore, should be as hawkish in calling out poor arguments as their opponents...

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‘Saying Goodbye’: remembrance services for people who have lost babies in pregnancy

I’ve been aware for a little while of a new organisation called ‘Saying Goodbye’, which has been set up to run a series of remembrance services around the UK for people who have lost children during pregnancy. This is an excellent idea, long needed, and everything I can see makes me believe it will be very well implemented. Culturally, we tend not to acknowledge early miscarriage in any way, but, even if we have not experienced it ourselves, anyone who has been a pastor knows that the pain and grief is real and serious – and can be made worse by the isolation, the inability to talk to anyone about it. Offering families a chance to grieve, and to acknowledge their loss in a supportive context where others understand, is a great service. Saying Goodbye have organised seven services this autumn, in Exeter (15/9), Edinburgh (22/9), York (29/9), Birmingham (28/10), Cardiff (3/11), London (24/11), and Bristol (8/12). Further dates and locations are planned into 2013. Zoe and Andy Clarke-Coates, who are behind Saying Goodbye, are experienced and professional events managers. I’ve seen some of their work first hand, and I am sure that, in cooperation with the cathedrals who are hosting the services, they will do this with sensitivity and meaning. They are being supported by the Miscarriage Association, Bliss, and the Association of Early Pregnancy Units, amongst others. Saying Goodbye have a website describing their services and intentions here. You can find them on Twitter at @SayingGoodbyeUK and on Facebook. It’s a cause worth supporting, and publicising – there are so many who might benefit from what is being...

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On writing and being read: Jared Wilson on Fifty Shades…

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, ch. 6) A rather ugly storm in the blogosphere has broken out over the last couple of days over a recent post on the Gospel Coalition website. I don’t want to adjudicate who is right and who is wrong (like anyone involved might listen to me…), so much as to reflect on the misunderstanding – and the anger – to understand a bit more about what we do when we blog, or write in other contexts, and what our proper ethical responsibilities might be when addressing a sensitive subject. The post, by Jared Wilson, was an attempt to account for the popularity of E.L. James’s Shades of Grey trilogy. This is a worthwhile aim: we understand our culture better by understanding those parts of it that become popular, and so understanding why a piece of – by all accounts – very poorly written pornography has suddenly achieved enormous mainstream success is an relevant task for the church. Jared Wilson quoted several paragraphs from a book by Doug Wilson which applied the ‘complementarian’ understanding of gender relations to the act of intercourse in the context of marriage; Jared Wilson then suggested that this was God’s intention for human sexuality, and that male rape fantasies and female submission fantasies – such as those reflected in Shades of Grey – arose because of our cultural refusal to practice proper male headship/female submission. Our culture’s embracing of gender equality leads directly to the popularity of the books. Now, I I have not read the book quoted, or – to the best of my recollection – anything else Doug Wilson has written, but, insofar as I can understand it from the post and the ensuing discussion, I do not find his account of the marriage relationship to be convincing when tested against Scripture. Even if it is granted for the sake of argument, Jared Wilson’s analysis of 50 Shades at least needs a great deal of expansion to be plausible (he accepts without comment Freud’s bombastic claims about the universality of rape fantasies, which have surely been comprehensively demolished by the last century of psychological work in this area; I can begin to imagine how an attempt might be made to extend the argument to reflect such data, but that attempt is wholly absent from the post…) Disagreement with the claims made does not make a blog post offensive, inappropriate, or otherwise worthy of the opprobrium heaped on this one, however. After all, only by disagreeing, and teasing out our disagreements, can we hope to make progress in understanding. Yes, I find the casual assumption that Freud’s bizarre theories of a century ago are right very difficult – particularly coming from a site that professes a commitment to Biblical authority – and I confess to serious concern over the apparent lack of any awareness of the extensive work that has been done in understanding the real causes of rape and domestic abuse that has been done since then (which would point in very different directions to those proposed in the post). All this, however, is a cause for engagement and (hopefully) mutual edification, not for a call for removal. So is there any reason to regret the fact that the post was published? Yes – because the post contains language which will inevitably be heard by some as promoting or justifying domestic abuse, and we have an extremely serious pastoral responsibility not to use such language. This has been repeatedly pointed out, but both Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson have attempted to defend the language used. The defence is summed up in a second post by Jared Wilson, and seems to consist of two, rather contradictory, lines – one of which has some validity as an argument, but does not lead to the conclusion pressed. The first line can be summed up in a quotation from a comment by Doug Wilson, quoted in Jared Wilson’s second post: Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class. The defence here is that the offending language is being read out of context, and so misunderstood. As I say, I have certainly not read enough of Doug...

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