Doing the right thing when it counts

Eight years ago, John Kerry ran for president against then-incumbent George W. Bush. The campaign was seen by many as a referendum on President Bush’s foreign policy, particularly the misguided war in Iraq.

There was just one problem, and it wound up costing Kerry the election.

Kerry, like most Senate Democrats, voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. At the time, President Bush still enjoyed post-9/11 meteoric approval ratings. Democrats were keen not to be labeled “weak” on foreign policy or “soft” on terror. So when the call to arms was sounded, the opposition marched obligingly in step.

By 2004, the public was souring on the ongoing occupation of Iraq, which put candidate Kerry in the awkward position of opposing a war he had once voted to authorize. To many, Kerry’s shifting position on Iraq looked more like political posturing than a principled stand. And for good reason.

Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign offers a cautionary tale on to those who would wait to do the right thing until it becomes the socially acceptable thing to do.

It seems the Church of England will have to learn this lesson the hard way. Having narrowly failed to approve women serving as bishops, the CofE found itself the subject of scorn, derision, and intense pressure from all corners. Last week even saw Britain’s conservative prime minister telling the Church to “get with the programme.”

So now, having failed to do the right thing for the right reason, the CofE faces the unenviable prospect of being pressured to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

The problem, summarized by N.T. Wright, is that progress isn’t always progress. The Church of England shouldn’t assent to women bishops because David Cameron tells it to or because it’s the sort of thing that social progress demands. It shouldn’t do so in order to salvage its last vestiges of cultural relevance.

The Church should embrace women bishops because Jesus accepted women as fully participating members of his kingdom — long before it was popular or politically correct to do so. Initially, the Church led on matters of equality; it’s only in recent history that it’s been leapfrogged by much of the rest of the world.

In the New Testament, women were the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus — the first to proclaim central message of the kingdom of God. Women were numbered among the apostles and deacons of the early church. To quote N.T. Wright:

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual, and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans 16:7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The kingdom of God carries a promise that all the old barriers which divide us will be swept away by the new creation — a new kingdom where all are welcome.

Sometimes it’s taken a while for the Church to give full expression to this ideal. (It took 1,800 years for the abolition of slavery to come about, for example.) Sometimes we’ve lost our way. When that happens, it’s the resurrection we should turn to, so we can be pointed in the right direction again.

Today, the main reason the Church of England should reconsider women bishops isn’t to appease an offended culture but so it may return to the values which Jesus instilled in his Church from the beginning — values which likely helped pave the way for the broader cultural embrace of gender equality.

7 thoughts on “Doing the right thing when it counts

  1. Maybe this is the American in me coming out, but I did find it quite odd that,

    1. British politicians, some of whom are not even Christians so far as I know, were trying to tell the Church what to do.
    2. Most reporting on this fact seemed to find nothing strange about it.

    Perhaps the difference is that this is the “Church of England” and not, say, the “Methodist Church” or something. So the whole nation gets a say? Just felt weird.

    • I’m part of the Anglican Communion, and I had a similar reaction. I think you’re right that a lot of it has to do with the fact that the Church of England is a state church. (That’s a whole other can of worms.) So technically, the queen of England is the supreme governor of the church. So perhaps that’s why the prime minister (who technically leads the government on behalf of the queen) felt it was his prerogative to say something.

      I think N.T. Wright’s op-ed (which I link to in my post) was a helpful critique of the social pressure being imposed on the church from someone who, like me, would very much like to see women allowed to serve as bishops (but not for reasons of social pressure or political correctness).

  2. Okay… first of all, let me explain that, as the son of a Mennonite Conference Minister (equivalent of a bishop/overseer) who happened to have two X chromosomes and not one of each X and Y, I have no problems with women in ministry, even in high authority positions.

    But as always, the folks against whip out 1 Timothy to challenge this idea. Verses 11 and 12 can be contextualized to refer to a society in which women, being relatively uneducated and also unfamiliar with “proper” behavior in discipleship ministries and such (as well as the somewhat dubious explanation of early gnostic ideas of women having “special” knowledge), would need to learn in the same way men do: with submission and humility.

    But verses 13 and 14… that’s the troubling part. These are the verses used so often to “put women in their place” and to outline that their role is one of nuturing and submission, totally, to men.

    Could you give commentary to this, please? As I said, my own mother was a “bishop” so I’m curious as to how these two verses come into the conversation?

    • Hi Robert, several months ago I wrote a post laying out my take on 1 Timothy 2:

      http://benirwin.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/worst-verse-in-the-bible/

      I believe this passage should be read in light of the religious environment in Ephesus (where Timothy served at the time, according to 1:3). The patron deity of Ephesus was Artemis. whose priests were exclusively female. The cult of Artemis taught (among other things) that women were created first and were thus superior to men. They also taught that Artemis protected women while giving birth (an attractive prospect in a world where as many as 1 in 3 women died giving birth).

      So I think Paul is putting a handful of overbearing women (who may well have been Artemis worshippers before their conversion to Christianity) in their place, so to speak. He’s telling them, in effect, not to think they’re all high and mighty, as Artemis has taught them to think. And he’s urging them to trust Christ, not Artemis, to protect them through the perilous endeavor that was giving birth in the ancient world.

      I also found this piece by N.T. Wright very helpful. He specifically addresses 1 Timothy near the end. http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm

      • THAT certainly helps a lot… I knew there was something to do with the cultural context but I wasn’t coming up with anything in my own research. Thanks for that, Ben! Gonna reblog that “worst verse” thing for tomorrow on my own blog… Although, it may lose me a few readers. ;-)

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