We need feminism because my daughter thinks most TV shows are for boys

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Most weekday mornings, I get my daughter up. It’s a frenzied ritual of brushing teeth, combing hair, trying to persuade her that wool sweaters aren’t the greatest choice for the middle of summer (even in Michigan), and finally—after a series of delicate and sometimes tense negotiations—helping her get dressed in her chosen outfit. Then I make my way to my basement office and start my day.

Weekends are a different story. The two of us head downstairs together—usually before her mom and baby brother get up. We eat cereal and she picks something for us to watch on TV. Some mornings it’s Pingu. Sometimes she asks for “something on Hulu.” (I think she mostly just likes saying the word Hulu.) Sometimes it’s Phineas and Ferb. (Which, I’ll be honest… I have mixed feelings about, mostly because of how the older sister is portrayed, reinforcing the popular caricature of sisters as bossy, controlling, and otherwise inept. Not the picture of sisterhood that I want to paint for Elizabeth, who, as a new big sister, already has the makings of being a wonderful teacher and mentor to her younger brother.)

A few weekends ago, we were well into our Saturday ritual. She was about to choose something to watch when a look of apprehension came over her not-quite-four-year-old face.

“Daddy,” she asked, “is this show for boys?”

I was totally caught off guard. Where did my daughter get the idea that certain shows are “for boys”—and that she can’t watch them? It certainly wasn’t from us. My wife and I are intentional about teaching her that girls and boys are equal, that nothing is off limits to her because of her gender.

We go to a church where women can serve equally alongside men. Our current priest happens to be a man, but women hold a number of visible leadership roles—on staff, on the vestry (think: elder board), and at almost every level of ministry.

When we watch sports (which isn’t that often), we try to watch a balance of men’s and women’s events. We’ve even talked about taking Elizabeth to Canada next year to see the Women’s World Cup, if we can swing it.

When it comes to TV shows, we look for ones with strong female characters. But we don’t push our daughter toward stereotypically “girly” shows. Nor do we discourage her from watching shows that are supposedly “for boys.”

So where did she get this notion? What gave my daughter the idea that she can’t watch some shows because they’re for boys only? Maybe she got it from TV itself.

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans shared 35 compelling reasons why we all need feminism. Many of them are sobering, like the fact that 1 in 4 American women experience some form of domestic violence. Or the fact that 80% of 10 year-old girls say they’ve gone on a diet.

Ten year-old girls, already being told their bodies are the only thing of value they have—and even then, only if they’re the “right” size.

Rachel shared another reason which, at first glance, may seem a bit more trivial by comparison. That is, until you consider the impact it has on a young girl’s perspective. In 2011, only 11% of the protagonists in films were female. This figure is only slightly better for children’s TV shows. Yes, there’s Dora and Kai-Lan. But there’s also Bob the Builder, Daniel Tiger, Super Why, Elmo, Phineas and Ferb, and a host of other lead characters who are male.

One study found that only 30% of the characters in children’s shows are female. And female characters are far more likely to be sexualized and/or presented in a way that glamorizes a narrow and unhealthy notion of beauty—even in children’s shows. (Case in point: Sofia the First.) To quote the study, “Females, when they are on screen, are still there to provide eye candy to even the youngest viewers.”

Even in 2014, the overwhelming message of children’s entertainment is that girls like my daughter are little more than props in a man’s world.

(So much for feminism being a capitulation to the dominant culture.)

That Saturday, I told my daughter she didn’t have to worry about whether the show she wanted to watch was “for boys” or not. If she wanted to watch it (and as long as there wasn’t any legitimate reason not to—e.g. violence), then it was for her.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell her this.

Patriarchy is not natural. Our daughters are not born into this world thinking they’re inferior or subordinate to men. They get that idea because that’s what the dominant culture tells them.

It’s what we tell them in our movies and TV shows.

It’s what we tell them when we objectify their bodies to sell everything from hamburgers to sex.

It’s what we tell them when we tolerate a 23% wage gap for a woman doing the same job as man.

It’s what we tell them when we trivialize and dismiss the reality of sexual assault—something a quarter of all female college students face.

Patriarchy isn’t natural. It’s learned. And it’s time we start telling our daughters a better story.

Photo credit: Aaron Escobar

“Boys can be anything they want. Girls can be princesses.”

I don’t usually find flipping through the Christian book catalog to be an uplifting experience. Take the one that was waiting on my front porch this week…

There’s yet another children’s book reducing the gospel to a formula. There’s one reinforcing the notion of heaven as a disembodied reality “out there” somewhere.

There are Duck Dynasty Valentine’s Day cards. A whole section devoted to James Dobson. Amish fiction (or as a friend of mine likes to call it, Amish porn). The only thing missing was a picture of Joel Osteen blinding me with his shiny white teeth.

And then there was this.

IMG_7680A set of companion books by fiction author Karen Kingsbury: one for moms to read with their sons, called Whatever You Grow Up to Be, and another for dads to read with their daughters, called Always Daddy’s Princess.

On the face of it, the message for boys appears to be, “You can grow up to be whatever you want.” The message for girls: “You can be a princess.”

It may not be the author’s intent to limit boys and girls to these predefined roles. But do we really need another set of products perpetuating the notion (intentionally or not) that boys can choose their identity, while girls’ identity has been determined for them?

This gender stereotype is pervasive in our culture. If you don’t think so, try raising a daughter.

Try counting the number of children’s TV shows with a female lead — Dora the Explorer, for example — versus those with a male lead (along with, perhaps, the occasional female sidekick): Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Super Why, Caillou, Handy Manny, Justin Time. You get the idea.

Try fending off the Disney princess juggernaut which, for all the refreshing progress of recent films like Brave and Frozen, still rakes in billions teaching girls that their main source of value lies in their appearance and their desirability to men.

The church should be a refuge from this kind of thinking, not a co-conspirator. The church should be the one place where we actually behave like there’s no “male and female,” as the apostle Paul once wrote.

Now, my daughter loves pretending to be a princess. She insists on wearing a dress every day. We run through tights like there’s no tomorrow. And she wants to be a ballet dancer. (She also loves trucks and airplanes and thinks farting is hilarious, for what it’s worth.)

The fact that she likes dressing up as Cinderella doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll grow up thinking she’s inferior to men. But as a parent, I’m learning that I have to be intentional about reinforcing her equality. She’s only 3 years old, and already she’s made comments like, “Boys can do this, but girls can’t.”

This breaks my heart. It’s a sobering reminder of how our culture bombards girls with a message of inferiority, a distorted view of their own value. It’s a reminder of how, despite all our efforts, the propaganda of inequality still manages to get through to my daughter.

The irony is, those in the church who insist on a hierarchal distinction between women and men think they’re being countercultural, that they’re going against the grain of this world and that this somehow proves them right.

The reality is anything but. Those who think patriarchy is a virtue are unwitting accomplices to Disney’s princess-ification of the world. They’re simply dressing up our culture’s subjugation of women in religious garb.

And it’s time that stopped. My kids deserve better than another set of books telling boys they can be whatever they want, while girls should stick to being princesses.

For those exiled to the wilderness…

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CBMW’s review of Jesus Feminist — and the fact that they won’t allow comments on their website — prompted this epic Twitter response from Sarah Bessey. (This link is the recap Sarah posted on her Facebook page afterward.)

The most telling line in the whole review (which, to CBMW’s credit, struck a softer tone than much of what I’ve seen from them in the past) was this:

“At the end of the day I do not see how we can do that together.”

By “do that,” they didn’t mean find common ground on gender roles. Obviously that’s not going to happen anytime soon. They meant anything Christians might normally do together.

“Love the lost.”

“Proclaim the gospel.”

“Serve in ministry.”

If you disagree with us, we can’t have anything to do with you.

This, a week after the full extent of women’s exclusion from the whole Christian conference scene was laid bare. Yet again, women who feel God’s call to lead, serve, teach, etc. are denied a place at the table. Exiled to the wilderness.

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The thing is, God has a habit of meeting people out in the wilderness.

That’s where he met Moses after his own people rejected him. In exile, Moses became a “foreigner in a foreign land” — not one but at least two steps removed from anything vaguely resembling home. Yet that’s where God met him in a burning bush and gave him a new calling.

The wilderness is where God met the Hebrew slaves after they were driven from the only home they’d ever known. For a whole generation, they wandered the wilderness, flanked by hostile nations who wouldn’t let them pass through, much less take a seat and refresh themselves at their tables. It was there in the wilderness that God came to Israel on a mountain. It was in the wilderness that God never left their midst, going ahead of them as a cloud by day and a fire by night.

The wilderness is where God met Jacob, not once but twice, after he fled his brother’s vengeful wrath.

The wilderness is where Elijah took refuge when the political-religious establishment of his day threatened to kill him. Elijah pleaded with God to do it for them. But instead of ending his life, God fed him. Then he revealed himself to Elijah in a gentle whisper, telling the broken prophet that he was not alone. There were 7,000 others like him, there in the wilderness.

The wilderness is where God sent John the Baptist to preach a baptism of repentance. Like the Essenes at Qumran, John lived on the fringes of Jewish religious life. Yet the masses poured “out from Jerusalem” to hear him speak. Those who could not find a seat at the establishment’s table found something even better in the wilderness.

The wilderness is where Jesus prepared a ministry in which he would confront an establishment that didn’t always like making room for outsiders and outcasts at its table.

The wilderness is where Paul, who’d made a career of driving others into exile, found his own calling and emerged with a new mission: to welcome all manner of people to God’s table.

So when they try to silence you and deny you a place at their table, don’t be afraid to go out into the wilderness and sing your song anyway. You won’t be alone. There are others there.

And more often than not, the wilderness is where God shows up.

…..

UPDATE: In honor of Kelly, who noticed a glaring omission from my list…

The wilderness is where God met Hagar, after she was spurned by the  man who had taken her as his concubine and impregnated her. Hagar and her son were sent away to die, but God heard their cries and answered them in the wilderness. He promised Hagar a legacy of her own. When her family made their home in the desert, God was with them.

Listening to other voices: it won’t just happen by accident

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There was a time, even after I had embraced gender equality, when most of the voices I listened to — theologians, bloggers, etc. — were men. I don’t think I planned it that way. But years of believing that only men could talk authoritatively about the Bible had conditioned me to tune out female voices. Even after I had shed my support for patriarchy, its effect on me lingered.

There was a time when I could write about gays and the Bible without listening to a single LGBT voice. Oh, I might interact with a sound bite or a caricature of their views, but I wouldn’t stop long enough to hear how they read scripture or what their experiences in the church were like. I certainly wouldn’t stop long enough to allow them to become human to me.

There was a time when I served on a mostly white student leadership committee on a college campus that was 85% white, in a town that was 95% white. An incident where some locals drove their confederate flag-adorned pickup truck through campus, looking for minorities to intimidate, prompted us to finally address the challenges minority students faced on our campus and what could be done to help. Before long, it became obvious we didn’t have a clue, and we would remain oblivious until we started including and listening to and minority voices who could tell us about their experience.

Most of us gravitate toward those who sound like us, think like us, look like us. That’s why liberals watch MSNBC and conservatives watch Fox News. For those of us who, by virtue of being white and male, have enjoyed most of the power and privilege for longer than anyone can remember, this habit of tuning out other voices is more entrenched than we realize. That’s why we often end up sitting in conference halls talking to ourselves about everyone else and scratching our heads in befuddlement whenever someone complains about a “lack of diversity.”

Whether it’s CBMW assembling a group of mostly white married men to talk about singlehood, womanhood, and homosexuality, or a seemingly more progressive venue failing to include a respectable number of women on the main stage, we’re not always good at welcoming (much less engaging) other voices.

This isn’t necessarily about quotas, though Jenny Baker makes a good argument that quotas may sometimes be necessary to disrupt long-established patterns of exclusion. But how are we going to bring other voices to the table, unless we are intentional about it?

For me, this meant making a conscious choice to start listening to more female voices, to start reading more female bloggers. If I’m going to write about patriarchy, surely I ought to listen to those who’ve felt its impact the most. Surely I should listen before I presume the right to speak myself.

It’s also meant building bridges into the gay Christian community, listening to their stories, allowing their perspectives and experiences to inform mine. It’s meant not presuming I know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, at least not until I’ve walked alongside them for a bit.

And the thing is, this choice to start listening to other voices has enriched me in more ways than I could have anticipated. These amazing voices have sharpened me countless times, so that when I decide to say something about issues that affect them more than me, I might (hopefully) contribute something worthwhile to the conversation, rather than just pontificating for the sake of hearing my own voice.

I still have a long way to go in this journey. There are other voices who deserve to be heard. But they won’t be heard unless we are intentional about creating space for them.

Until then, we’ll be the ones who are missing out.

How do you make space to hear those whose voices are different from yours?

My daughter deserves better than 19%

Photo by Accretion Disc on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/befuddledsenses/3473942291)

Five to one.

That’s the ratio of male to female speakers at major Christian conferences in the US, according to an eye-opening analysis by Jonathan Merritt. Only 19% of speakers at these events are women.

As Jonathan writes, “Just when it appears we’ve crossed the rubicon on gender equality, we realize we haven’t.”

Indeed.

It all started with a Twitter exchange between Rachel Held Evans and organizers of The Nines conference. The male-to-female gap is even wider at The Nines: 25 to 1.

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A similar problem exists across the pond: fewer than 25% of main speakers at Christian conferences in the UK are women, according to one blogger’s tally.

Setting aside misgivings about the whole Christian conference culture in the first place — the idolization of celebrity pastors, the endless chasing after “the next big thing,” etc. — this is a problem.

And it’s not just conferences. Only 10% of senior pastors of Protestant churches are women — and most of them are in mainline denominations like mine. At my former seminary, an interdenominational school with Baptist roots, only a third of students are women (that in itself is likely an improvement from when I was there), and 89% of the faculty are male.

All of which makes it easy for conference organizers to throw up their hands and say, “Hey, it’s not our fault there aren’t more female leaders to invite.”

Well, yeah… if you buy into the mindset that says the only pastors worth listening to are those with the biggest churches and the biggest platforms. (Even at just 10% of the senior pastor population, there are still several thousand female pastors out there.)

Besides, to quote a thoughtful post from UK blogger Jenny Baker:

People who say ‘forget about gender, just pick the best person for the task’ show a stunning lack of awareness of firstly, male privilege, and secondly, how Christian conferences are put together. People tend to invite who they know, who they’ve heard recently, who has published a book, who their friends recommend/blog about/are reading, who has spoken at a similar event. If you want to change the status quo, you need to be aware of the imbalance and you need to be intentional about changing it.

In other words, everyone needs to own the problem. Everyone needs to be involved in changing it, rather than just pointing fingers or waging a “chicken-versus-egg” defense.

And when I say “everyone,” that means those of us who’ve already embraced gender equality, too. It’s easy to think we’ve “arrived” because of our support for women pastors, priests and bishops. But in my experience, this attitude can blind us to subtler, more entrenched forms of sexism in our midst and in ourselves. The “boys’ club” mentality that still exists in many of our churches and Christian organizations, even the “progressive” ones. The tokenism of appointing one or two female leaders while the overwhelming majority of leadership remains male. It’s one thing to articulate a vision of gender equality; it’s quite another to actually practice it.

This is not a problem “out there” somewhere. Gender inequality is something I have to own, too.

So when you hear someone raising a concern about gender inequality in our midst, listen. Don’t dismiss them as “shrill” or “divisive.” Don’t tell them to stop whining and definitely don’t tell them to “man up.” (You probably don’t need to compare them to Mark Driscoll either, as The Nines organizer Todd Rhoades did in his Twitter exchange with Rachel Held Evans. Which is just, um… really?)

The bottom line is, my daughter deserves better than 19%. She deserves better than a 10% chance at becoming a senior pastor or a 4% chance at becoming a Fortune 500 CEO someday, purely on the basis of her gender.

When Rachel Held Evans calls out gender inequality at Christian conferences (or anywhere else, for that matter), what may sound “shrill” or “divisive” to some — to me it sounds like someone demanding a better world for my daughter. And I like the sound of that.

Anyone can be a Jesus feminist… even me

Sarah Bessey’s new book Jesus Feminist (reviewed here) came out this week. So now it’s time for the synchroblog. Technically, I already wrote a post on “why I’m a Jesus feminist.” But like most people, there’s more to this story than can fit in a single post, so here goes…

I am a Jesus feminist because of people who believed that anyone can change, even me.

I can only claim this identity, which Sarah articulated so beautifully in her book, because there were people in my life who helped me envision a better way of being human together.

You see, I wasn’t always a Jesus feminist. I didn’t always view women and men equally.

I spent the first part of my adult life on the other end of the spectrum. (Jesus chauvinist?) I belonged to a church whose pastor taught that no woman, married or single, should work outside the home. I evaluated prospective seminaries partly on whether they held a “biblical” view of gender — meaning “no girls allowed” in the M.Div. program.

But there were people in my life who had tasted another way, and they didn’t write me off just because I hadn’t.

There were college friends like Jamie and Erin. Whenever our evangelical Christian school would invite a female pastor to speak in chapel, invariably we’d argue about feminism afterward at lunch — usually while the rest of our friends ate in uncomfortable silence. My arguments (including the ad hominem “I’ve never heard a woman give a decent sermon”) were dripping with condescension. I was too proud to admit it then, but Jamie and Erin were more than a match. They raised questions I couldn’t answer. They found the chinks in the armor of my chauvinistic worldview.

But more importantly, they accepted me. They didn’t stop being my friend. They showed me a better way of being human in how they treated me, even when I didn’t return the favor.

There were teachers — even at my complementarian seminary — who, without dismantling the whole system of patriarchy, subverted it anyway. Like the professor who asked, “If Paul really believed that women shouldn’t speak in church, why did he give ground rules for women to pray and prophesy — in the same letter, no less?” I had never thought of that before, maybe because I only read the proof texts that seemed to confirm my presuppositions.

There were others, too. Like the respected theologian who once lost his job at a well-known Bible school because he refused to denounce his wife’s egalitarian views. One day, I asked him why, and he patiently shared the story of his own journey from patriarchy to equality. It had cost him, but it was worth it.

That was the day I became a Jesus feminist. That was the day I embraced another vision for humanity.

—//—

I am a cynic at heart.

In Jesus Feminist, Sarah recalls her decision to bid farewell to the angry, self-righteous blogger persona:

Years ago, I practiced anger and cynicism, like a pianist practices scales over and over… I jumped, Pavlovian, to right every wrong and defend every truth, refute every inflammatory blog post, pontificate about every question… I called it critical thinking to hide my bitter and critical heart, and I wondered why I had no real joy in this ongoing search for truth.

She saw another way and she took it. Instead of being yet another online prophet of everything that’s wrong with the world, she chose to be a voice for what is good in our world and for what could be. She pivoted toward “hope and grace, toward freedom over fear, life over death.”

I’m still trying to make that shift. It’s easier for me to be the cynic. Maybe it’s a hangover from my fundamentalist past, a vestige of believing that things are only going to get worse until Jesus finally presses the “destruct” button.

But I know it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe, just maybe, God has something better for us here and now — which is another reason why I’m a Jesus feminist.

When I get angry with the world, when it feels like some people will never change, one thought keeps sneaking past my defenses:

You did.

And there it is. Hope. The invitation to help someone else envision a better way of being human, just as others did for me.

It happened for me. Why can’t it happen for someone else?

Today, I have a three year-old daughter. I don’t have time to be a cynic anymore. I don’t have time to listen to the voice that says this is the best we can do, that the march toward equality can only go so far, so fast.

Patriarchy isn’t God’s best plan for humanity, and it isn’t God’s best plan for my daughter.

At the end of the day, I’m a Jesus feminist because she deserves a better world. I’m a Jesus feminist because if I believe people can change, that they can discover a better way of being human together — just as others believed was possible for me — then maybe in my own small way I can help bring about a better, more equal world for my daughter.

That’s why I’m a Jesus feminist.

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Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

Photo by Mance on Flickr

“Who gives this woman?”

I never really thought about this question until recently. Until I had a daughter.

It’s taken for granted as a normal part of a “traditional” wedding. It was part of mine. And if you were married in a Christian church, chances are it was a part of yours, too.

But of course, no one asked who gave me away to be married. Only my wife.

Maybe for most people this question is an innocent affirmation of the special bond that often exists between dads and their daughters. (I certainly hope to have that kind of bond with Elizabeth for the rest of my life.)

But what does it say to the woman about to be married?

“Who gives this woman?” implies ownership.

It suggests that I own my daughter. That she’s my property. That she is mine to give.

The ceremonial response — traditionally, the father says, “I do” — implies that I’m the authorized spokesperson for my family. Sometimes it’s broadened to “her mother and I do.” But still it’s the father, the male, the paterfamilias, speaking on behalf of his family.

Am I reading too much into it? It’s worth noting that “who gives this woman?” didn’t find its way into our wedding ceremonies by accident. In a more patriarchal era, marriage involved a transfer of ownership. The bride went from being under her father’s authority to that of her new husband. She did not spend a moment outside the authority, control, or headship of a man.

And for some Christians, that’s still the case. You only have to read the stories of women who grew up around Christian patriarchy, fundamentalism, or the Quiverfull movement to realize this notion of marriage is alive and well in many corners of the church today. This kind of thinking has a cost: abuse, exploitation, loss of faith. All stemming from modern-day patriarchy.

OK, but thankfully not everyone accepts fundamentalism or patriarchy. In which case, is “who gives this woman?” a harmless vestige of a bygone era? I’m not so sure. Because words don’t just express a worldview; they help shape it.

If men continue to use language characterizing women as objects or possessions, is it any wonder that women are treated like objects or possessions? Is our failure to respect women as people made equally in God’s image really that big of a surprise?

All of which is why I’m not going to “give my daughter away,” assuming she decides to get married someday. Because the truth is, I don’t own her to begin with.

For this short season of life, my wife and I are entrusted with our daughter’s care, nurture, and protection. But she is her own person. She is not a possession. She is not and never will be the property of anyone else.

If she decides to get married, I will give whatever blessing she wants to her and the person she weds. I will pledge my love and support to both of them. I will beam with pride and give thanks for the bond we’ve enjoyed — and for the new one she is forging.

But she is not mine to give away. And I’m starting to think that coming to terms with this reality is one of the most important things I can do for her.

What do you think? How does the idea of “giving our daughters away” affect our view of women?

How my daughter is the new queen of “why”

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Today is International Women’s Day.

Coincidentally, this week my 2-year-old daughter discovered the many delights of asking “why?”

I know that before long, I’ll grow tired of hearing every statement, every request, every instruction met with this magical, three-letter word.

But I hope she never stops using it.

Today she might be asking why she’s not supposed to splash water all over the floor during bath time. Someday she might be asking why women in her country earn less doing the same job as a man. Or why girls in some parts of the world are less likely to go to school than boys.

Or why some churches still insist on keeping girls like her out of the pulpit, all for want of a certain chromosome.

Kids are wired with natural, boundless curiosity. They can’t help but ask “why” of seemingly everything and everyone.

But a child’s curiosity is a fragile thing, as studies have confirmed. It can either be nurtured or it can be crushed. And it can be crushed more easily than you think.

I don’t always have a good answer for Elizabeth’s why’s. (No, I don’t know why the dog wants to play with his rubber chicken and not his bone.) But I hope to always honor my daughter’s curiosity. Whether or not I have good answers, I want to show her with every response that I think she has good questions — and that I hope she never stops asking them.

Because a world where being female can still be cause for discrimination is a world that needs more questioners, not fewer. It needs more people asking “Why?” and “How can this be?” It needs more people who won’t take “Because that’s the way things are” for an answer.

As one of my best friends wrote on his blog today, “I want [my kids] to grow up to be dissidents and troublemakers, not good little consumers or passive subjects.”

Here’s to being the best troublemaker you can be, Elizabeth.

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.

Rejecting Junia

Over the past several years, my faith journey has taken me away from nondenominational, non-institutional expressions of the church. Since then, I’ve found myself belonging to the mother of all Christian institutions (well, apart from the Catholic Church): the Anglican Communion.

This journey might not have taken place if it weren’t for a wonderful little Church of England parish my wife and I belonged to when we were living in the UK in 2008. Being part of an active worshipping community that had been gathering in the same place since the 1300s has a way of putting my own faith journey into perspective. As I entered the sanctuary every Sunday, walking past tombstones of those who’d been dead for centuries, I was reminded: Christianity doesn’t begin or end with me. I am a tiny part of something so much bigger.

And so I’ve come to appreciate what the institutional church, for all its flaws, has to offer: a vital connection to our past. I think there is something significant, maybe even a bit mystical, in the idea of apostolic succession — in the fact that the bishop who presided over my confirmation is part of an unbroken chain going all the way back to the very first apostles.

Jesus gave those first apostles the authority to “bind and loose” — that is, to permit and forbid on behalf of the church — and I believe that authority is passed down through the church’s apostles, bishops, or leaders today.

Yet a deep connection to the past can either give you the courage to move forward, or it can hold you back. Which is why today, I have no energy to defend the institutional church. Not when my own mother church* tells half the human race, in effect, Your services aren’t required. The Church of England’s vote against women bishops was more than another nail in the coffin of its own irrelevance. It was a slap in the face to women who are tired of fighting for a seat at the table.

It was, I believe, a rejection of the very apostolic authority the institutional church depends on for legitimacy. How can you stand on the shoulders of the apostles when you implicitly reject one of their number? After all, Junia was a woman and an apostle (Romans 16:7). By rejecting women bishops, you are rejecting Junia, a vital part of our apostolic foundation.

This is about more than cultural relevance. It’s about more than making women feel welcome in the church (though that in itself is a worthy enough endeavor). By denying women their rightful place at the table — a place they had in the very beginning — we the institutional church are cutting our legs out from under us. We’re not just hurting women. We’re hurting all of us.

Apparently, God thought women were worth including among the apostles. Today, a minority in the Church of England seems to think otherwise. Sadly, that was enough to carry the day.

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*I’m grateful to be able to say that my own Anglican tribe, the Episcopal Church, welcomes women to serve at every level, even as presiding bishop.