Thursday 11 November 2010

Equalities and discrimination 101

I am puzzled when Christian people speak of equality as some godless imposition on a Church whose duty is to preserve tradition by contending for, well, inequality. Have they not read the New Testament? Jesus taught we are all sisters and brothers, and we have one father, and should “call no man father.” He opened up and subverted attitudes to women and children in his society in a way that still reverberates today. His early disciples held all property in common, refused to stigmatise disabled people or women, and developed a glorious vision of a body in which every part was equally valued, whether held in greater or lesser customary honour. This body was to think of itself as the firstfruits of the whole human race.

This radically open society, the Church, looked forward to a day when Christ would be all in all, above every rule, authority, principality and power of the present age. The apostles were severally and corporately agents of this process, and were to structure their life around service not status. These are not isolated soundbites, but major themes of our Scriptures that we may not have fully grasped and inculturated in our context, but we are charged with nevertheless.

Therefore we need to recognise that the struggle against wrongful discrimination is a moral struggle, recognised as such by most people around us of all faiths and none, and if the Church has fallen behind the values of the Kingdom in this regard, shame on us. Our task is not to remodel kingdom values to suit our cultural prejudices, but to embody them in our lives. We contend against inequality because we believe in the Incarnation.

Is all discrimination wrongful? Well, choosing particular people can be justified. A football team agrees freely only to have members of one gender because without such an agreement they could not play football against other similar football teams. A sickle cell anaemia self-help group can choose only to enrol people with sickle cell anaemia. A religious order can agree to be gendered because of a voluntary commitment to celibacy, and if people disagree they can leave at any time. A political party only signs up people who are willing to agree with its founding principles. All these are private commitments, freely undertaken.

But even they have limits. If a football team tries to exclude players on racial grounds, society intervenes and says that fairness and openness cannot be served by that degree of discrimination, so their freedom must be limited for the good of all.

The other core awareness is that discriminatory is as discriminatory does. If I refuse to serve people of a particular racial group people in my Café, it is no defence to say
  • I gave them fair warning, they could start their own café,
  • that I did not intend to discriminate or consider that I have
  • that I’ve never served such people in 2,000 years,
  • that God told me to do it,
  • that some of my best friends are x and agree with my policy,
  • there are other parts of the world where such discrimination would be acceptable
  • I say my behaviour is not discriminatory, so it’s not.
None of these defences stack up because however reasonable they may sound to the people concerned, they compromise the fundamental possibility of equality.

In many of our parishes we govern schools in which these principles are implemented throughout with ease and grace. The reason is that our leaders, many of them inspired by Christian commitment of one sort or another, have turned what was originally an eccentricity of the enlightened into a social norm.

How sad if the Church that is supposed to be the corporate expression of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, whose words undermined all injustice and inequality, then and now, has to be dragged along as an afterthought, kicking and screaming. So we sometimes see the last first, and the first last — another gospel principle that implies fundamental equality for all God’s children, and the necessity of social as well as spiritual transformation in the Kingdom...


Unknown said...

But exactly what do you mean? ;-)

Si Hollett said...

"His early disciples held all property in common" - It's worth pointing out though that various teachings about theft (and Acts 5, where it's the lying, not the holding stuff back for themselves that is the problem) that private property is a biblical idea too, as well as sharing.

There's Biblical doctrines of equality, and non-Biblical doctrines of equality. Biblical equality in Mankind comes from all men (and women) being fallen creatures in the image of God. Biblical equality in the church comes from status as being "in Christ", not what someone does in the church, or how they are seen outside the church.

Hands, feet, eyes, livers, kidneys - all are equally part of the body and are all equally important roles. To be jealous of another part of the body, because of their role is to deny equality of roles. To consider certain people as less/more important than others because of what role they have in the church is to deny equality coming from status in Christ.

To me, the "justice" and "equality" argument, for this issue we seem to be skirting around, is unloving and denies equality (as shown in 1Corinthians 12 and 13). I find that a view that a certain group people are less than others unless they can do a certain role in the church is as condescending to that certain group as those who hold it feel some of their opponents' views are.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Si, what would you say was a Biblical doctrine of equality?

Anonymous said...

VG here.

Thank you for such an unequivocal post, +Alan.

Si, body parts don't have "roles", which are social constructs. Trying to live by the Spirit as if role-playing was sufficient would be like trying to run one's own liver functions through conscious effort alone. (Thank you, Lewis Thomas, for that imagery.)

I know change is hard. Growing up and out is hard. But we need to trust the Creator in his creativity with us and our roles: clay lives only when it's flexible, and once fired or dried will break in due course. He knows what he's doing.

Ed Tomlinson said...

I agree with this but do not agree with women's ordination which (I think) you are pointing at...

Answer me this. Could a man be a mother? Could a woman be a husband? Could a man be a nun? Could a woman be a monk?

Clearly the religious life is much the same in both convent and monastery but each gender brings their own particular charism.

Is gender interchangeable and merely about what hangs between the legs? Or is gender deeper and more beautiful? Were we created the same and equal or equal but different?

I passionately believe God made man and woman to be different yet equal and that we should rejoice in our different functions and callings that unite to build the kingdom. Mother Teresa was no less wonderful for not being the Pope.

We have become obsessed with understanding equality as a move for power rather than an equal call to service. Yet if you accept the different but equal approach then the need for elevated women's ministry becomes clear (to combat the sexism of the past) but the Ordained ministry is not the correct forum being, as monasticism, a role and function that requires masculinity not feminity

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm sorry to put it as crudely, but your binary alternatives strike me as entirely false. Mother Teresa wasn't called to be Pope, and I've heard precisely the same argument as you are using deployed by a white South African in the 70's that Blacks weren't made to go to university or do white collar jobs, but to be complementary.

The fact is I don't know any male mothers, but I know a large number of called, dedicated and effective female priests.

I entirely support gender complementarity, but why does this require what in any other context would be gender discrimination — and if you're in any doubt that misogyny was the basis for the exclusion of women from ordained ministry in the eleventh century, just read the literature of the time, about which people are strangely silent.

Fact is, if God didn't want female priests. I'm sure he would stop calling, authoritsing and blessing them so obviously and abundantly as he does. The more time passes, the more obvious this becomes.

It's up to him, really.

Rosalind said...

Ed - why do you think that women who feel called to ordained, priestly ministry see this as power (in my experience they don't); and why is priestly ministry an "elevated ministry"?

In any case, it is the church that discerns the priestly charism - and experience over the past 16 years does affirm that women ordained priest are bringing blessings to those to whom they are able to serve. Ordained ministry, as I am sure you know, is more than a "role and a function". The complementarity which you argue for is happening within the ordained ministry as well as within the whole body of the church.

Acetate Monkey said...

I understand the point about seeking 'equality' in all jobs potentially being about valuing some jobs more than others (and therefore actually being a manifestation of inequality of view). Having met enough gifted women who have been stopped using that gift due to their gender (not just I hasten to add in the CoE), I'm not sure if that is easily misused as a power game. How many men are seen as wanting to be priests/bishops because they value the job more than creche leader?

I know there is the whole complementary-gender argument, but these dscussions seem to revolve around biological gender as the binary category. I'm no neurobiologist, but my understanding was that we are more coming round to the concept of a spectrum of sexuality, and indeed for some a spectrum of biological gender. Remember the hoo-haa about Caster Semanya last year? What about 'women' who are arbitrarily assigned that status by a surgeon due to new-born hermaphroditism. Or people with one biological gender and one different genetic gender? Or those that feel unable to commit to either gender?

We don't like 'dirty' boundaries and mixing categories (See Mary Douglas' work). I understand the reaction against women doing 'mens' roles as a reaction to a perceived contamination, something inate (but over-rideable). Coming back to the apartite analogy, there were families split by the SA govt because some siblings looked more white than their brothers/sisters/parents.The system couldn't cope with the idea of a mid-shade white/black child so choices were made. Crude categorisation makes this choice and the painful fallout inevitable. Once it's seen as man's attempt to order a seemingly chaotic world, maybe we can drop the need to pidgeonhole and as a bunch of equal humans then appoint based on calling and gift? That would mean being as comfortable about 'women' bishops as 'male' creche leaders.

Si Hollett said...

+Alan, I would define Biblical Equality as I did so above that "Biblical equality in Mankind comes from all men (and women) being fallen creatures in the image of God." and that "Biblical equality in the church comes from status as being "in Christ", not what someone does in the church, or how they are seen outside the church."

The first is self-evident (or was in 1776!), the second comes clearly out of many texts, but I think 1Cor 12:12-20 is the most clear one on equality in the church and it not coming from what we do in the church, but our status in Christ (and also how it's wrong to feel less or more than someone else because of respective roles in the church and chapter 13 goes on to point out that that is opposite of love). There's others that are good as well - Ephesians 2 establishing what we all were and who we, in Christ, all are now and how the church is united across ethnic boundaries and so on. But none of it comes out of what we do - it's all what God has done. Equality and status coming out of what we do or don't do is a denial of the gospel - which is why a lack of Biblical equality and the existence of a clerical class superior to the laity should be a big issue and were for Jesus and the apostles. That women in church leadership positions, in general, is a huge issue, and that the clergy/laity divide isn't reflects very poorly on the church.

I can't see how appeals to the state and modern legislation, or appeals to the culture and secular equality ideology, matter here at all - what matters is what God has said about equality and what God has said about who can lead the church, who can teach (related, but not the same thing), etc. Sure much equality stuff in the Protestant world was initially based on the Bible, but we've imported stuff from other places - non-Biblical views of equality into our society's doctrine of equality.

Si Hollett said...

+Alan - read my second paragraph of that first post - I define Biblical equality in the world and in the church. You come out with a lot of, to some extent, in your post, but then you also import a lot of sub-/non-Biblical doctrines of equality into it that are based on what we do.

To think of some roles as better/worse than others and some persons better/worse than others because of what they do is a denial of biblical equality, and worse still, the gospel. Anything that assumes that ordained ministry is better than other kinds should be stamped out in the church. The idea that equality and/or status comes out of what someone does is a denial of the gospel of grace.

The only issue in the women in church leadership issue is what God's word says on equality and who should lead the church. Appeals to tradition (on both sides - you made an appeal that was "these monsters the past did it, thus we shouldn't") and experience are side shows (calls can be misinterpreted - not helped by the idea that teaching and pastoral gifts only matter if they are exercised by church leadership; gifts can be misused; blessing those who rebel against him is something that God does a lot - that's the gospel! Thus feel of call, gifts and blessing don't really say much). Likewise appeals to culture, in the form of society's doctrines of equality (and ditto for appeals to the state and legislation) don't matter - what matters is what God says.

This all said, I do find it very sad that women in church leadership, which, if argued for well, is very much a side issue (if argued for poorly can be a gospel-denying thing, hence it's the horrific idea that equality is based on what we do that I've attacked here) is the one that's causing all the bother, not the much more primary denials of the gospel by those who elevate certain Christians (the main one in the CofE being the clergy/laity idea), the strands that deny the physical resurrection (isn't it something like a third of ordained leaders in the CofE that deny it), etc.

Erika Baker said...

I'm struck about how often you use the term "deny". There are people who "deny" the gospel grace, "deny" the resurrection, "deny" biblical equality...

How about some people simply "interpret" these terms differently instead of finding themselves in outright opposition to them?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Si, I am rather confused, if I'm honest, about your distinction between biblical and non bilical equality. As far as I can see there's just equality or not. None of the Bible texts that state justice to be a virtue imply it is only a virtue if it is aspired to from a correctly Biblical motive. It's a virtue because it refects an attribute of God — the Lord is righteous and loves righteousness. Amos' plumb line is a plumb line, not only a Biblical plumb line.

I have seen well over 120 ordinands in my time in Bucks of both genders. I have never met anyone who offered out of a desire to do what the other gender did, and if we did our DDO would weed them out very early in the process. They all experienced exactly the same process of calling by God, more or less authentically, and gender has absolutely nothing to do with their capacity to obey their calling compared to the basic Christian virtues of discipleship, discernment and obedience, which is absolutely identical, I find, in people of either gender.

And when they are ordained, God blesses them, or not, in exactly the same way as other ministers. Who am I to tell God he can't do what he chooses to do, obviously and freely does?

The Holy Spirit calls, equips and blesses, not me. He manifestly does to female clergy, on occasion, in exactly the same way as male. it's up to him... If he stopped calling people I'd stop ordaining them.

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