Today we celebrate the ministry of the whole people of God.
That may seem a strange way of putting today’s theme.
You may say you thought today was about celebrating the ministry of women…..
And yes, we do. We certainly do celebrate the ministry of women. We celebrate the role played by women in preaching and leading worship as we commemorate both the 25th anniversary this year of the ordination of women and the 50th anniversary of the first women lay readers.
But I want to say the REAL celebration is about the ministry of the WHOLE of the Church, the Body of Christ.
To deny the potential ministry of women – to deny the potential of HALF of the human race – was to deny the full potential fruitfulness of the Body of Christ.
Let me explain…
Christ, fully human and fully divine, came to redeem the whole of humanity through HIS humanity, giving us the church as his Body to enable life in its fullness. That is the essence of it: As we pray in the Christmastide collect: ‘Christ came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity’. The church, as the Body of Christ, is the means by which we start to share in the divine life.
So how as a church we operate as the Body of Christ (what we permit and what we do not) is crucial.
To deny the fullness of Christian vocation to half the human race is to limit the full humanity of Christ in the Church. When only half the human race are permitted to play their full part, the Body of Christ is impaired.
So this is not just about women – though it is about women – it is about all of us. The fullness of life the Christ came to bring is achieved in the Church through the fullest possible participation of ALL the people of God.
In the past we have not just denied women the fullness of participation in the life of the Church.
We have also denied to all of us the full expression of Christ’s humanity in the church.
Now there may be good theological reasons for that denial.
But be very careful that we are clear they are theological reasons not merely cultural reasons.
As we look back over Christian history I am afraid humans have been adept at finding theological reasons to bolster their cultural assumptions.
The centuries of Christian justification of slavery for instance.
The cultural assumptions about denying women authority in the church were justified theologically. Women in Church of England were, for instance, not permitted to be members of the new PCCs when they were introduced in 1897.
For the first 100 years of Reader ministry half the human race was excluded. Introduced in the Church of England in 1867, it was only in 1967 that women were permitted to train as readers. Perhaps, as we celebrate the last 50 years, we should mourn the waste of the previous 100.
We’ve got beyond that surely? Or have we? Do we still use scripture (and the tradition of the church) to bolster our cultural attitudes?
Take 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says he doesn’t “permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” A modern American Baptist, relying on a literal application of the text, says quite categorically ‘if the elders allow a woman to preach, they permit what God forbids’.
Is Paul God? Or is Paul talking in the context of his time? You will be familiar with these arguments about how scripture is read.
This southern Baptist is using scripture to bolster his cultural pre-conceptions just as southern Christians used to use scripture to bolster their view of the God-given nature of slavery.
Easy to spot the errors of others. For ourselves, how should we ‘ear the word and understand it, that we might bear fruit 100 fold’, not just seek validation for our own cultural preconceptions from scripture?
As for the ordination of women, The Church of England accepts – and I believe – that people can in good conscience on theological grounds hold that women should not be ordained priest or bishop. Such an objection need not be a matter of culture and we are called in charity to worship and work together.
Yet, in my own case, when I had the first intuition that God might be calling me to priesthood I was opposed to women’s ordination. Confusion as you might expect. It’s a longer story that we’ve time for but it took me about 18 months to understand, in prayer, that my objection was about me seeking to exclude myself from Christ’s apostolate, not anything God-given about a male apostolate.
That was right for me – what God wanted of me doesn’t imply that everyone else who opposes women’s ordination is wrong. BUT my case does show, I think, that cultural conditioning can run very deep in our sub-conscious.
We have to be VERY VERY careful that the reason any sector of the human race
be it disabled people or people of colour,
be it gay people or women
we have to be very careful whenever any marginalised group are denied a role in the church is only for good theological reason, and not for cultural (or practical) reasons.
Jesus, in his earthly ministry was beyond the culture of his time. It is clear he drew on the discipleship of women and men, choosing, in his resurrection, to place women as the first witnesses.
Can we truly follow the carpenter of Nazareth in his radical ways?
The risen Christ transcends all our puny ways. The Body of Christ, the church, must do the same. St Paul is clear: in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ [Gal 3:23]
And, when that is done, the participation of the whole people of God reflects the fullness of life in Christ.
For when women’s vocation to serve is culturally constricted, the fullness of the body of Christ in the church is denied
When the capacity of people of non-British ethnicity is denied, the fullness of the body of Christ in the church is denied
When the disabled are marginalised, the fullness of the body of Christ in the church is denied.
We are called all to be one in Christ Jesus.
So today we celebrate the role of women AND the role of men – we celebrate that our church now reflects the fullness of the humanity of Christ in his Body the Church.
And I personally give thanks for those who did, doggedly, promote a counter-cultural, Christ-centred understanding of the nature of humanity in Christ to enable women to share their wisdom in the Spirit and to respond to God’s call to ordination as priest. In a way, the likes of me stand on the shoulders of giants and I give thanks for those giants’ shoulders today.
But it’s not me – or women generally who benefit.
We ALL benefit when the whole of the Body of Christ reflects the fullness of Christ in his humanity and in his divinity. The humanity and the divinity which is the GLORY of the God we worship. And to him be the glory, now and always. Amen