Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mary Magdalene (Part Three)

Part Three: Moving Beyond Prejudice

In my previous post, I wrote of how Mary Magdalene has become for many the saint for our times; the de facto saint of the #metoomovement.  Traditionally, of course, another Mary has been the role model for both men and women: the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In what is a startling reversal of fortunes, it is Mary Magdalene who is now in favour and the Blessed Virgin Mary who is seen as problematic.

For many, the Blessed Virgin Mary – or, at least, the traditional image of her – is regarded with suspicion.  She is seen as patriarchy’s archetypal female: sexually pure, passive, submissive, and obedient.  In disgust at this image, many have rejected the Blessed Virgin Mary and turned instead to Mary Magdalene.  In contrast, she is seen as sexually ambiguous, active, dangerous, and rebellious.

Quite what St Mary herself would make of this is another matter altogether.  Her sexual reputation is based, as I have said previously, on a papal misunderstanding and the preferred contemporary description of her as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, while complimentary and doubtless well-intentioned, goes way beyond how she is described in the Gospels.

Ironically, it is again a Pope – the present Pope no less – who in recent pronouncements has confirmed her in her new exalted status.  While what the Gospels actually say is that she was amongst the women who looked after Jesus and his male disciples (see Luke 8:1-3), which is not exactly what many are looking for in a female icon.

So what are we to do if we want both to be faithful to Scripture and Tradition and also to treat women equally as in the image of God?  Needless to say, I am not going to be able to answer this in a short sermon (not even in this extended version of it!).  And I would probably upset everyone and please no-one, whatever your views, if I was to elaborate on my own thoughts on the subject.  So let me limit myself to saying what I think we should all agree on, regardless of our own personal take on the subject.

1. Firstly, we need to be honest.  We really can’t go on pretending or claiming that we believe in gender equality and, for example, the ordination of women and then acting as if we don’t.  We need to make our minds up.  I suspect that there are those in the Church who deep down do not want to see too many women in positions of leadership, but who feel that they have to go along with the idea in theory.  But it’s really not good enough, and we must come clean about what we do or do not believe and act accordingly.

2.  Secondly, there needs to be mutual respect between men and women in the Church.  The Church has to acknowledge that it has failed to treat women with respect in the past and, in many cases, is failing to do so in the present.  Whatever we may believe about the roles of the sexes, there can be no justification for the abuse that women have suffered and are suffering both in and out of the Church.  Being in the image of God demands minimum standards of behavior regardless of what we think about the roles of men and women.

3.  Thirdly, we need to stop the name calling.  The incontrovertible fact that the Church has been guilty of abusing women and defending that abuse in the past does not mean that all in the past were abusers or even that they were wrong in their thinking.  Equally, just because some in the Church today still believe in different roles for men and women does not necessarily mean they are bad people or anti-women.  Respect is a two-way street.  As Christians, we should respect both those who believe that men and women should have exactly the same roles and those who don’t.

4.  Fourthly, the Church in thinking through its attitudes to gender and the roles of men and women needs to do better than simply conforming its thinking and behaviour to that of the world around it.  We are called to follow Christ not trends in society.  We are called to confess Jesus as Lord not to parrot the slogans of a godless society, no matter how popular they may be on social media.

5.  Fifthly, while the Church needs to be critical of itself and its past failings in its treatment of women, it also needs to be critical of the society in which it lives.  Much that passes at the moment as the championing of ‘freedom, liberty, and equality’ for women is nothing of the sort, but is just the Devil’s old trick of masquerading as an ‘angel of light’ to promote values, attitudes, and actions that are as destructive and abusive as those being criticized.

In my next and penultimate post in this series of posts, I will write of how St Mary can show us, both men and women, the way forward as we seek to be faithful to Christ.

Mary Magdalene (Part Two)

Part Two: How to Solve the Problem?

In the previous post, I began to describe what I have called the Church’s ‘women problem’.  I closed the post with these words:

‘The difficulty in trying to respond to the problem is knowing and agreeing on what should be the basis on which we come to an opinion.  How, as Christians, are we to determine what it means to be male or female in today’s world?

The Church, in the past, has sought to answer this question and questions like it by appealing to Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.  The difficulty for many is that both the Bible and Tradition are seen as irredeemably patriarchal and biased against women.  For those who wish to appeal to the Bible to support men and women being treated the same, with all roles equally open to all, the Bible, at the very least, has to be interpreted creatively.

There is nothing wrong with this in principle.  Interpreting the Bible for today is a challenge at the best of times, but it does mean that it leaves room for legitimate differences in interpretation and approach.

Church Tradition, however, leaves little room for differences in opinion.  Church Tradition is quite unambiguous in its attitude to the roles men and women, which is precisely the problem that feminists are seeking to address.  Feminists argue that that Church Tradition is this way because the Church in the past, like the society of which it has been a part, has been largely patriarchal and biased against women.  The Church, they argue, must free itself from the patriarchal culture that has blinded it to the truth of the Gospel, which reason and a commitment to justice can help us to see.

This sounds great in theory.  It is certainly a popular approach and one that creates the least problems in today’s world.  But before enthusiastically adopting this approach and privileging Reason above the Church’s Tradition and, as some believe, the Bible itself, it is worth reminding ourselves that feminism is itself a cultural phenomenon.  This does not necessarily mean it is wrong, but rather that Christians should be cautious of following any path just because it is popular.  It was, after all, popular opinion that got our Lord crucified.

Feminists in the Church will respond to this by arguing that what they are demanding is not for the Church to follow popular opinion or adopt the culture of the world, but justice and what is right.  This means treating all people equally and recognizing that men and women are both created in the image of God.

I personally would respond to this by saying that this is not in dispute.  What is in dispute is what this means in practice.  Does the fact that men and women are both equally in the image of God mean that they must have the same roles?  For feminists the answer to this is obvious and men and women must be allowed the same rights, roles, and opportunities.  For others, this is not something that automatically follows – or, at the least, it doesn’t follow logically.

So what, you may ask, has all this to do with St Mary Magdalene, who has prompted these posts?  Well, quite simply, St Mary has been adopted by many as the role model for those who are campaigning against what they see as bias against women and for men and women to be treated the same.  She is the person seen as best suited for the role of Patron Saint of the #metoomovement and all it represents.

Whether she fits this role will be the subject of the next post!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Mary Magdalene (Part One)

The next few posts will be an extended version of the sermon I preached for the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene.

Part One: The Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

July 22, just past, was the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene.  St Mary is one of the most famous women in the Bible, but who exactly was she?  She has been seen in many different ways since her first appearance in the Gospels: sinner, witness, saint, prostitute, and wife – to name but a few!

The most common image of her remains that of the ‘reformed prostitute’.  This image comes not from the Gospels, but from Pope Gregory 1.  Pope Gregory, in a sermon in 591, identified her with the unnamed ‘sinful woman’ in Luke 7 who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  This identification has no warrant from the Gospel itself.  It was quietly dropped by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969 and it is one that the Church no longer makes.  It is an identification, however, that has stuck in the popular imagination being repeated in art, books, and films.

While in the past the emphasis has been on Mary the prostitute, in recent years there have also been those who claim that she was Jesus’ ‘love interest’ and even his wife.  The Da Vinci Code popularized this view claiming that Jesus fathered a child by her.

On historical grounds, most scholars reject both the image of Mary as prostitute and as Jesus’ wife.  That, however, doesn’t stop people from continuing to believe in either or both images.

At the moment, however, she is enjoying a more exalted status being cast in the role of the ‘apostle to the apostles’.  This image of her has the support of no less a figure than Pope Francis.  St Mary has become the saint who appeals to those campaigning for the rights of women and fighting what they see as discrimination and male oppression.

The problem with all these images of St Mary is that they say very little about the real Mary.  They do, however, say a great deal about what can be described as the church’s ‘women problem’ (with apologies to women!).

The problem, quite simply, is this: historically much of the Church’s work has been done by women, a situation that is still true today.  Some of the Church’s most devoted and outstanding members have been women.  I have talked here of people like Saints Perpetua and Felicity and Saint Hildegard and there are many more women besides.  However, all positions of power and leadership in the Church have been occupied by, and restricted to, men.  In an age when it is believed that the same opportunities and roles should be equally open to women, this creates a real challenge to the Church.

Some Churches have sought to address the problem by ordaining women and allowing them to become pastors and preachers, priests and bishops.  This is the case, for example, in the Anglican Church.  It is not the case, however, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches to which the majority of the world’s Christians belong.

But, even in some of those Churches that ordain women and permit them to take on teaching and leadership roles, the problem has still not gone away.  Churches often claim to believe in gender equality while the majority of leadership roles in the Church are still predominantly taken by men.

I am simply at the moment describing the situation as it exists and not arguing either for or against women’s ordination and appointment to leadership roles in the Church.  What I would suggest, though, is that we can’t claim to believe in gender equality and the ordination of women and then act as though we don’t.  To do so gives the impression of inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

While some Churches agree to ordain women and to treat men and women the same and then don’t, many other Churches and Christians are seeking to tackle the problem by going further than simply opening up leadership roles to women.  They are also actively and consciously embracing the attitudes and approach of many in society at large who are campaigning and working for women’s rights.  For them, this means seeking to remove what is perceived as bias against women at every level of the Church and fighting any suggestion that men and women should have different roles in either society or the Church based on their biological sex.  To suggest otherwise, they argue, is to be guilty of the sin of supporting patriarchy.  Patriarchy being for many the cardinal sin in today’s world.

This way of thinking is having radical consequences in the Church and for the Church.  So, for example, the Episcopal Church in the United States is, at the moment, revising its Prayer Book with a view to removing all gender specific language not only when referring to the worshipper, but also when referring to God.  No longer will God be described in predominantly male terms.

This is very much the way the wind is blowing in many Churches.  It is, after all, very hard to argue that men and women should be treated the same in society, with the same rights and opportunities as men, and then to argue that they should be treated differently in the Church.  And it would be a very brave person today who would argue for different roles for men and women in society in general.

The difficulty in trying to respond to the problem is knowing and agreeing on what should be the basis on which we come to an opinion. How as Christians are we to determine what it means to be male or female in today’s world?

It is with this question that I will begin the next post, and no, I haven’t forgotten that I am meant to be writing about St Mary Magdalene!

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day

I had the privilege of recording the 'Thought for the Week'  on RTHK Radio 3 this morning.  Today is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day.  This is the written version with a link at the end to the audio version on the RTHK website.

Thought for the Week: July 1, 2018
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day

I remember very clearly where I was on the day of the ‘Handover’ – as it was described by everyone at the time, although I realize the problems with that word now to describe what was happening.  I was the minister of a Church in the North-east of Scotland, and I had been invited to the home of my Church Warden to watch it with him on TV.  Stanley – or Professor Wilkinson as he was more formally known – had worked as an architect in Hong Kong and had a real love for the City.  To me, then, it was just a place on the map.  Little did I realize that, in just three years, I would be moving to Hong Kong to live.

Apart from being good friends, Stanley and I both had in common, as Englishmen, that we were expats in Scotland.  We also both came from Liverpool.  Well, I have now been in Hong Kong for nearly 18 years, and although I see Hong Kong as my home, I am still regarded as an expat, which, I suppose, is fair enough.  After all, we British were happy enough with the appellation before the ‘Handover’, so we can’t complain that it has stuck after it.

There is, however, a far deeper truth to this description of me than people who use it realize.  For while Hong Kong is my earthly place of residence, for me, as a Christian, it is not, and never can be, my true home, any more than Scotland, Liverpool, or wherever, can be.  St Paul in a letter to a church in a city that was a Roman colony wrote: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’  (Philippians 3:20)

Christians should always value their earthly homes and work for the good of the places where they live, but we should never forget, whatever our human origins, background, and ethnicity that Christians are all ‘expats’.  Our beliefs, values, and attitudes are, or should be, not those of the earthly city, but of the City that is above – the City of God that is our true home.  The writer of the Letter to Diognetus, one of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, expresses it this way:

‘Christians are indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in (wherever it may be) ... And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens.’

Our mission in this world is to invite people to join us and become members of the City that is above.  The benefits of citizenship are great: forgiveness of all the wrong we have done, liberation from all those forces that oppress us, eternal life, and, above all, a relationship with God himself.  The demands of citizenship, however, are also great: including a willingness to give up our own desires and to follow law of Christ in the service of God.

Christians look to Jesus as their Lord and Emperor – as their President.  Their allegiance is to Jesus as the Ruler of the heavenly City to which they belong, even though for now they are forced to live as aliens in the cities of this world.  This situation, St Paul again writes, must continue until Jesus has put all his ‘enemies under his feet’ and then when that day comes he will hand all rule back to God (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).  Until that time, we wait patiently, living as citizens of the City of God as exiles in the cities of this world, longing and praying for the Day of the Ultimate Handover.