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.
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!