(Proverbs 25, 6-7; Hebrews 13, 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14, 1 & 7-14)

Have any of you ever had to organise a wedding reception? It’s an absolute minefield!

How much do you spend? Where do you hold it? Do you have a formal meal for the older relatives and a disco for all the young friends, or try to combine the two and please neither.  Who do you invite? Can you remember who invited you to their wedding reception, and must you invite all of them back? Who stands in the receiving line to greet the guests? And, most tricky of all, who sits with the bride and groom on the top table?

I expect most of us can remember family arguments over weddings! And things have got much more complicated with the rise in divorce and remarriage, so that you have step-parents and half-brothers and sisters to include too. I know of several couples recently who decided the whole thing was simply too difficult to manage, and went off to get married quietly abroad to avoid the problems.

Even in today’s relaxed society, formal meals are a crucial part of social life. Who is invited and where you sit is important for defining status. But in the past, they had even greater importance. Formal meals were where you might gain the ear of someone important, and the impression you made might be crucial for your future influence and prosperity.

And in the Gospels, written at a time when hunger was so widespread, and large meals were held only on very special occasions, such meals symbolised  the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world; and a wedding banquet was a sign of the eschatological banquet that would mark the welcome of the chosen ones into God’s presence at the end of time.

So, although the meal that Jesus was attending was a Sabbath meal, when he spoke about it he talked about a wedding feast – an indication that he was talking about life in the Kingdom of God, not just everyday social etiquette.

He starts out by giving a piece of practical advice  that might have come from any book of ‘How to get on in society’ anywhere and at any time: don’t push yourself to the front; wait to be noticed by those in charge. You can see we find the same advice in the Book of Proverbs, and I’ve read it is found also in the writings other rabbis.

This practical wisdom advises the practice of humility; but it is not real humility. At its lowest level it is the practice of well-bread politeness – but you only hold back in the knowledge that it gets you places; you only take the lowest place in the hope that your host will very publicly invite you onto the top table, and so reinforce your prestige. This is the reverse of what God wants.

Another sort of humility involves self- hatred and self-abasement. “I am a miserable worm, the bottom of the moral food chain, hardly worthy of being here at all. Thank you for noticing me”. This is not what God wants either. The great commandment tells us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves; so you can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself first. Of course we need to be realistic about our good points and our bad ones – otherwise, as the psychologists warn us, we will tend to project our ‘dark side’ onto others and persecute them for what we cannot accept in ourselves. But God found us worthy of love, to the extent that he sent Jesus to save us; so there is nothing wrong with loving ourselves.

So, how can we find a way of being genuinely humble.

Many years ago, when I was a finalist in the Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ award, a clergy friend wrote to congratulate me, but also to warn me against getting too big-headed! He told me about a Catholic saint who used to practice humility by licking the floorboards clean with his tongue! I never tried it – and  I am sceptical about how good such ‘spiritual exercises in mortification’ are  in making people really humble in their interaction with other human beings.

Real humility comes from inside, from an acknowledgement that what we are and what we have comes ultimately from God. In the context of the wedding feast it comes from admitting that we are at the feast by the gracious invitation of God alone. We don’t earn that invitation and we have no right to it, nor to a particular place at the table; and what is more, the sick, the disabled, the sinful and the unworthy have as much right to be there as us clean and respectable folk.

So, in everyday life, to invite such people to share with us is true humility, because they can never reciprocate. There is absolutely nothing in it for us.

Luke tells us constantly that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like; those whom the world despises will be the first into the Kingdom and will have first place in the queue for the top table. That’s made very clear if you read the Magnificat, a version of which we will sing at the end of this service.

Our reading from Hebrews tell us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever –  so as the Body of Christ, that is what our church should seek to be like too. But in practise that is a very difficult thing to do.

Some of the older ones among you may remember a Peter Sellers film of 1963 called ‘Heavens Above’. In it, Sellers plays an idealistic prison chaplain called John Smallwood, who after a confusion with another clergyman of the same name, is appointed to to a prestigious wealthy parish. When he invites the outcasts of his society – gypsies and criminals – to share his vicarage, sets up a free food supply that ruins local shops, and persuades a local factory owner to sell off her business, so that most of the townspeople become unemployed, the economy of the town collapses, and finally he is moved off to a parish overseas as a damage limitation exercise.

There was a more modern fictional example of the difficulty of putting this vision of the heavenly banquet into practice in the last episode of ‘Rev’ which you may have watched on TV recently. In this, the vicar, called Adam Smallbone (note both characters have’ small’ in their name – to indicate humility?) receives a really bad online review of his church and sermon from a ‘mystery worshipper’. The Ship of Fools website, which does publish such reviews, put a spoof review of this fictional church online. As well as criticising the sermon, it noted how unattractive the church would be to most worshippers, because there were tramps in the churchyard, some of the men in the congregation were unshaven and there was another tramp asleep in the back pew, snoring loudly.  Adam was profoundly depressed by this review, but perhaps in relation to our gospel reading today, this service sounded more like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet than you might think.

How to keep our churches open and welcoming to everyone, even those on the margins of respectable society, is an issue that all congregations have to return to again and again, as they seek to be Christ’s body on earth. There are no easy answers. The Hebrews reading gives some clues. It urges us to welcome the strangers into our fellowship, and tells us that in the past, people doing so have ‘entertained angels without knowing it’. Angels are the messengers of God, so this indicatess that we will find insight into what God is like and what God wants of us among the poor, the outcast and  the dispossessed. But if we don’t ever really meet them, and simply dispense charity from afar, we will have little chance of hearing the message that these ‘angels’ are bringing us.

Jesus also told us, in Matthew’s Gospel, that whatever we do for ‘the least of these my brothers and sister, you do for me’. That reminds us that (to paraphrase Bishop David Stancliffe) fellowship with others is not ours to give or withhold; it is God’s. We are in communion with others, even if they make us feel uncomfortable, even if we disagree with their views, because God invites us, as he invites everyone from the Pope and the poorest of the poor in Sudan, to the same heavenly table.

Hebrews tells us that if we do invite such people to share in our table, then our lives and our worship have a chance of being ‘a sacrifice of praise to God’.  Our faith tells us that whenever we entertain the outcast, we may entertain not only angels, but Our Lord himself.  Jesus is not likely to be an easy guest to invite to your wedding reception. He is likely to criticise your arrangements, challenge your values and bring in all sorts of uninvited guests with him.

But if you want to be at his feast, even at the lowest table, then guess who’s coming to your dinner?

Isaiah 58, 9b-14; Luke 13, 10-17.

I wonder how you picture God?

At home I have a collection of images of the divine from some of the Eastern religions. There are Hindu gods, with their many arms to show their powers and characters, some of them, like Ganesha and Hanuman, with animal heads. Then there are the different images of Buddhas, serene and detached from the world; and bodhisattvas – almost buddhas – like Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, who looks like a Chinese Virgin Mary.

I’ve got fewer images from the Christian tradition – because most images come from the Catholic tradition and I don’t find many of them them spiritually inspiring – but I do have icons and photos on my wall which portray Jesus, Mary and the Trinity in different ways. One of the things I have asked people to do during Confirmation preparation is to draw their idea of God – and that brings interesting responses. You tend to get a few elderly men with beards, sandals and long white robes; but one 14 year old girl drew a picture of the world cradled in loving hands – which I thought showed some spiritual maturity.

In two of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, you have a prohibition on making images or drawing pictures of God, and some strands of Christianity have also observed this at different times. So in this ‘western’ religions’ you tend to get pictures of God drawn with words. Christianity in particular has gone in for defining God by creeds and statements. But another way of giving a picture of God is through stories.

In our Gospel reading today, Luke gives us two opposing pictures of God. On the one hand, Jesus shows a God who relates to humanity through grace, compassion and inclusion. He sees the woman’s need and responds to it, even though she hasn’t asked for help. He calls her from the edge of the synagogue (which symbolises her exclusion from active society as a result of her ailment) and places her in the centre. He lays hands on her – breaking all the taboos in the Old Testament Holiness Code on interaction between male and female – and tells her to stand up straight and hold her head high. He heals her, restoring not just her health but her place in society. He calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’ emphasising her dignity and her equality with the men around her.

On the other hand, the leader of the synagogue demonstrated his belief in a God who relates to humanity through law, fear and exclusion. His only concern was with the rules, especially the complicated oral law which specified what a faithful Jew could or could not do on the Sabbath. To break those risked angering God. His spiritual blindness meant that he could not rejoice in the good done by Jesus, and ended up calling something good evil, simply because he judged it was done at the wrong time. He was so keen to obey the letter of the law, that he failed to observe the spirit of the law. According to Deuteronomy, the purpose of the Sabbath law was to celebrate release from oppression and slavery – yet he could not rejoice in the release of the woman from oppression by the evil of sickness. His misjudgement about the purpose of the Sabbath was compounded by his own hypocrisy: he would work if it was necessary to feed or rescue one of his animals, but he would not rejoice over the freeing of a fellow human being from illness and exclusion into fullness of life.Jesus judged, probably accurately that he would look after his animals because they made up part of his own personal wealth, so he was doing precisely what the prophet Isaiah condemns in our OT reading.

Pointers to both the God of law and the God of grace can be found in the Jewish tradition. Particularly after the exile in Babylon, strict adherence to the Law and separation and exclusion were seen as the way of preserving Jewish identity and loyalty to God. But there was also another strand, which portrayed God as the God of all nations, who wanted social justice and inclusion – the strand found in our Old Testament lesson from Third Isaiah.

For Christians, Jesus is the icon of God, the one who shows us what God is like. Luke’s stories tell us that is the God who wants to heal people and include the outcast, the God of grace, that Jesus shows us; and that the proper response to that revelation is to praise God and rejoice (as the people in the synagogue did) not carp and condemn (as the leader of the synagogue did).

But this insight is one the Christian community has had to learn again and again, especially as the Church turned from a movement into an institution. Institutions tend  to be much more comfortable serving a God of law, with clear rules that define what and who is acceptable, and what is not. Some rules are necessary for community life – but the tendency is to go beyond what is necessary and try to keep the community pure and obedient by fear of breaking ever more complicated rules – a process which tends to exclude people, rather than include them, and oppress them rather than liberate.

So, St Paul had to argue that we are justified by our faith, not by our works, by the grace of God, not by keeping the Law; and the writer of the letter to the Colossians  argued against teachings that said the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and food laws were as important as loving all members of the community. But the restrictive rules crept back into the life of the Christian community nevertheless. To counter what it regarded as heresy, the church authorities drew up creeds, and demanded adherence to them as a condition of membership, expelling those who could not accept these pictures of God. The old restrictions on the participation of women returned, with the implication that they were somehow more sinful or unclean than men. Even the multitude of laws about what could be done on the Sabbath (now Sunday rather than Saturday) came back, so that it became  a time of oppression not liberation. The Puritans forbade music, dance, sport, anything that might make the Sabbath a day of joy. The gloomy Victorian Sunday was maintained with the same hypocrisy seen in our Gospel reading,resulting in situation where rich people could avoid work on the Sabbath day, but the poor could not.

One result of this trend is that, while Jesus is seen as an attractive figure by many, a true icon of the God of grace and compassion, Christianity itself is rejected as reflecting only a God who excludes and punishes. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ!”  And recently the American writer of vampire novels, Anne Rice, announced on Facebook, that she could no longer be a Catholic Christian (though she would continue to follow Christ) since “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. I can no longer be part of what organised religion does.”

Now one can argue that Anne Rice’s experience was of the Roman Catholic Church, or the American situation, and therefore not applicable to us; and we could also argue about whether it is possible to be a Christian on your own, or whether being part of the community, a member of the Body of Christ, is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus. But her statement has prompted a lot of comment and discussion in the media, and many people, including those from inside different Christian denominations have admitted to sharing her anxiety that the institutional church doesn’t reflect the God of Grace that Jesus came to show us. That has serious implications for our mission, and our attempts to commend our faith to an increasingly indifferent and unbelieving society.

It presents a particular challenge to the Anglican Communion at the moment, as it seeks to resolve differences between member churches over the inclusion of women, and people in same sex partnerships in the ordained ministry and in full membership of the Christian community; and to the Church of England as it moves to debate whether to sign up to the Anglican Covenant, which has been proposed as a way of resolving those differences. To those in favour, the Covenant would set clear boundaries to Anglican belief and allow the Communion to exclude those churches who don’t agree. To those who oppose, it will turn the Anglican Communion from an open association of independent churches, where members are free to disagree with each other, but are committed to dialogue, to a centralised confessional church, where individual churches will be able to block any new developments which don’t fit with their idea of what Anglicanism teaches. They fear this will destroy the traditional openness and comprehensiveness of the Anglican Communion.  The issue of the Anglican Covenant is another matter which the members elected to General Synod this autumn will have to address on our behalf.

So our readings today face us with a challenge, not just about how we mark a particular day, but also how we picture God and how that picture influences the way we serve God in the Church and the world. What sort of God do we want to worship and praise today?  One who keeps some of his sons and daughters bent over and burdened, or one who wants them all to stand up straight and hold their heads high? One whose community is exclusive or inclusive? A God of rules or a God of love? Luke asks us, “What sort of God did Jesus show us –  a God of law or a God of grace?”

The way the wind blows

August 15, 2010

(Hebrews 11.29 – 12.2; Luke 12, 49 – 56)

My mother’s Kentish ancestors were all fishermen or farmers (ag.labs. as they appeared in the censuses) so as a family we inherited a good deal of ‘weather lore’ from them. Some of it was fairly well-known: “Red at night, shepherds’ delight; red in the morning, shepherds’ warning”. Other saying were less commonplace: “If the cows are lying down, then it will rain” and “Mares’ tails and mackerel sky” (cloud formations) mean wind & rain is coming.

Like the peasants in first century Galilee, my ancestors lived close to nature. Being able to read these signs and forecast the weather was important to them. Failure to do so could mean loss of livelihood, and sometimes even loss of life. Forecasting weather conditions was something they took seriously.

That’s not the case for us. Very few people in our society now work in agriculture or fishing. The weather very rarely affects our ability to make a living, or threatens our lives. We rely on so called ‘scientific forecasting’ to predict the weather,  but only so that we know whether it’s a good idea to plan a barbecue or whether we need to take an umbrella when we walk. I usually consult three different online weather forecasts if I want to know what the weather’s going to be like on a certain day – and often, they’re all wrong. Weather forecasting in this country is so unreliable that it’s become something of a national joke! It’s not something we take seriously.

Much more important to us in the sort of society we live in now is the ability to forecast the way financial markets and political systems and social systems are going to behave. We have a great many ‘experts’ who give advice to institutions and governments about that – though sometimes it seems to be as inexact a science as weather forecasting!

And it has always been important, in our own society and in previous ones, to be able to read people, to understand what is happening in the social and religious world. Yet, we often don’t seem to make much effort to do that. This is what Jesus was criticising his hearers for in our gospel reading today. He called them ‘hypocrites’, which seems strange to us. But in its original meaning it meant a play actor – so what he was saying was, “You take reading the weather seriously, but you don’t take your faith seriously – you’re just playing at it, instead of using the wisdom you have to understand what is going on.”

This passage from Luke’s gospel is a very difficult one for any Christian congregation to accept. We are much happier with the passages that proclaim Jesus as the Prince of Peace and have him praying that all his followers may be one, than we are with him saying he comes to bring fire on the earth, and divisions within families rather than peace.

The people who heard Jesus had ideas about what the coming of the Messiah would bring, based on their scriptures and tradition. Inevitably their ideas were based on only part of the scriptures, the ones that promised peace and prosperity to God’s chosen people; and being human, they probably hoped that the time of peace and prosperity would arrive soon, and without much effort on their own part.

In some ways, Jesus was what they expected – but in other ways he wasn’t. He came to bring peace – but also judgement; reconciliation – but also division. His followers were to undergo baptism – but also the cross. The call to discipleship needed to transcend all other loyalties, even the very important loyalties to family and nation. Inevitably, relationships were going to fracture along the divide between the old age and the new.

In these sayings, Jesus is reflecting passages from the book of Micah which predict just such family division at the End Times. Anyone who followed the progress of Jesus’ ministry could have seen how his words and his actions divided faithful Jews and split families. Some thought he was a true prophet – others regarded him as a charlatan and blasphemer; others were just afraid that his words and actions could been seen as a challenge to the Roman occupiers and their allies among the priestly caste, and bring repression and reprisals down on people who just wanted a quiet life.

The Early Church had exactly the same experience. The Christian mission divided synagogues, and caused civil unrest in Roman cities with a significant Jewish population, leading to fears that the Jews’ special privileges might be withdrawn. Then the Christian community itself became divided over the terms on which Gentile converts should be admitted to full membership.

So this passage reflects both the experience of Jesus and his disciples, and of the Early Church, and tells us that, like them,  we should not expect faith to be an easy ride. The passage from Hebrews reinforces that. The full passage lists the experiences of the faithful of Israel from the creation through to the martyrs of the Maccabean period, and it’s a gory story! Hebrews tells its hearers to expect no different.

And so it has been throughout the Church’s history, as faithful Christians have struggled to work out how to live the life of the Kingdom in the midst of civil society. Do you co-operate or oppose civil governments? Do you live quietly and practise your faith, or do you make a fuss about what is wrong, and risk martyrdom? Do you serve in the forces of the state or remain pacifist? How should a Christian  state treat those who don’t share the dominant faith? How much influence should Christians have over the shape of civil law?

And what of us? How do we read the signs of the times, and what do they tell us about which way the wind is blowing for our faith?   The Bible tells us about the past, and sets before us models of how to cope, but we need to lift our eyes from the Bible and look around us to read the signs of our time. Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, was reported as saying we should do theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Perhaps we should add to that nowadays, we have to do theology sitting in front of the television and connected to the internet as well.

Because one of the ‘signs for the times’ we have to take account of is the revolution in communications with the advent of television and the internet, which has had a far greater impact than either the invention of printing or the radio and phone. We are now living in not in a local community or a national one, but in a global one. We can have instant communication with people of different backgrounds, who we would probably never have got to know before this revolution. For instance, while the General Synod debate on women bishops was being broadcast at the beginning of last month, I was listening to a live feed of the debates while having conversations with people from all over the country from different sides of the debate on Twitter. I wouldn’t have been able to hear the debate once, let alone exchange opinions with so different many people.

This revolution also means that churches have to be much more aware of the impact their words and actions might have on public perception of their faith. The media are hungry for news, and will naturally tend to publicise disasters and disagreements more than signs of unity and community service. Much publicised  items, like the instances of child abuse by clergy, and the C of E priest on the South Coast who performed hundreds of  ‘sham’ marriages do the image of the Church a lot of damage. So, as part of our work of building the kingdom, we have to work at our PR skills, and on ways to gain favourable publicity for the good work we do. Equally, we have to learn to be honest when things go wrong, and to apologise where necessary; and explain that disagreements within faith communities are not a new thing, and need not, if we follow Christ’s pattern, lead to acrimonious splits. Today’s reading from Luke is not a justification for using force to deal with division in the church – on the contrary, it tells us that to deal with it we have to follow Christ’s path of sacrificial love.

Better education, access to libraries and cheaper books and the internet have all led to better educated congregations – which is a challenge to those of us who lead worship and preach! The days when the preacher stood ‘six foot above contradiction’ are long gone. But the standards people have come to expect from television and computers mean we constantly need to think about new ways of nurturing people in the faith, and providing opportunities for them to learn and grow and worship, using picture and film and activity as well as words.

But, alongside that, we have to cope with widespread lack of knowledge about the Bible and Christian history in the secular world. Christianity is still taught in religious education in schools, but alongside other faiths, and as church membership has dropped, so people no longer have the background of Sunday School and home to support it. A good many people would not now have the faintest idea who the writer of Hebrews was referring to in his list of heroes and martyrs of the faith. The more obscure biblical names may be coming back into fashion – but apart from Noah’s Ark  and the Christmas story, most Bible stories are unknown. This is a challenge to our mission strategies and to our nurture of new Christians.

We also live in times when people have much more choice in religion. They are aware of the major world religions in a way they were not 50 years ago, and conversions to other major faiths are much more common. People within the Christian community are also much less bound by family tradition, and may change denomination more than once during their lives, as their needs change and their pattern of faith develops.

This means that there are now friendships, family connections  and common opinions across denominations in a way that there weren’t previously, so that ecumenism works on a personal level as well as an institutional one. Congregations may have a mixed heritage, with people from many denominations sharing in worship and learning and  you may find yourself agreeing with people in other denominations on issues such as interpretation of the bible, music in worship, mission strategies, the role of women in church leadership and human sexuality, and disagreeing with other members, and maybe the leaders in your own denomination. This particular ‘sign of the times’ has great significance for the way churches will work and develop in the future, I believe.

Religious belief and practice was once treated with respect in the community at large. Now there is widespread indifference and ignorance; but another significant ‘sign of the times’ is the rise of more widespread and vocal criticism of organised religion, and opposition to its role in education and the caring professions. This opposition is fed by  news of the actions of extremists from different faiths, and propagates half truths  about the beliefs of adherents of the major faiths. Major challenges come from these quarters especially on the commitment of faith communities to race, gender and sexual equality, which are becoming core values of the secular state, and on faith’s relation to scientific knowledge and new techniques arising from this knowledge.  The need for confident lay Christians, well-educated in their faith, and also educated in science and ethics, ready and able to defend their belief in a reasonable manner has never been greater.

All these ‘signs of the times’ can become rather discouraging and depressing. So it is good that, after rehearsing the trials and tribulations of former times, Hebrews ends with a message of encouragement. However difficult things are, it assures us, we are not alone. In everything we do, we are surrounded by and encouraged forward by the communion of saints, who have run the race before us and know how it feels. More than that, our faith gives us strength to overcome our human limitations and to follow our pioneer and Saviour, Jesus, who came through the worst times, and was raised to be with God in glory for ever. He read the signs of his times, accepted the cross and overcame it; his Spirit allows us too read the signs of our time, and live faithfully through them, so that, no matter which way the wind blows, we can be assured of heavenly joy at the finish.

Luke 12.13-21

Our reading today  from the Gospel of Luke is about money. That’s not surprising. Eleven out of 39 parables in the New Testament concern money; one in every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke mentions money. One website I consulted said that Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject, except the Kingdom of Heaven!

So I should be preaching on money this morning. But I’m not going to! Instead, I’m going take my cue from the  collect and preach on something that Jesus is recorded as saying nothing about in the Gospels – the role of women in the ordained ministry.

At the beginning of this month, General Synod (the ruling body of the Church of England) voted to pass through the revision stage a Measure which would allow women to become bishops in the Church. This Measure will now be passed down to diocesan synods to debate. If 50% of the dioceses approve, the Measure will then come back to be debated again in General Synod, and if it then passes with at least a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of Synod – bishops, clergy and laity – it will go to Parliament and become law.

Contrary to some reports in the media, there is provision in the Measure for those who cannot accept women as priests or bishops. Each diocese will have to draw up a scheme to make alternative provision for those who don’t find the ministry of their diocesan bishop acceptable (either because she is unacceptable because of her gender, or he is unacceptable because he ordains women or was ordained by a woman).

This is an issue which (if you believe the media) is going to split the Church of England. Groups in the church are threatening to leave and join other churches (notably the Roman Catholic Church), to withhold parish share from the dioceses, and to disobey their bishops and archbishops.

The group of people who will have the final say on this are our representatives on General Synod – and we will be re-electing those in September, through our Deanery Synod representatives. Our Diocesan Synod members will also have to vote on it before it goes back to General Synod, and there may be discussions in Deanery Synods and PCC’s – so it is important that all of us know what the arguments are, for and against, when the time comes for us to give guidance to those representatives on how we would like them to vote on our behalf.

We should actually know the arguments very well, since the Church of England has been publishing reports on women’s ministry since 1917 – nearly a century! The order of deaconesses was reintroduced into the Church in 1861 and a report in 1920  said this order was the only order for women with biblical approval. Reports in 1935 and 1966 debated whether deaconesses were in Holy Orders or not – some said they were, some not.  In 1975 General Synod voted “that there were no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood” but failed to take the next step of asking for the barriers to their ordination to be removed. A measure to do this in 1978 was passed by the Houses of Bishops and Laity – but failed in the House of Clergy.  Finally in 1984 there was a positive vote in all three houses for women to be allowed to become priests. However it took until November 1992 for the legislation to be passed. In the meantime, in 1986, women were allowed to become deacons – that is to be clergy, wear ‘dog collars’ and be called “the Reverend”. This was less contentious than admission to the priesthood, since deacons cannot preside at communion – one of the points of opposition.

Before the first women were priested, an Act of Synod was passed in 1993, which allowed those parishes which were opposed to opt out of having women priests presiding, or as incumbents in their parishes (Resolutions A & B) , and to ask for ‘Alternative Episcopal Oversight’ (Resolution C) from a bishop who opposed women priests – and three ‘Episcopal Visitors’ or ‘Flying Bishops’ were created to cater for them. There was also provision for financial compensation for those who felt they had to leave the ministry of the C of E over the issue. (This cost £27.5 million between 1994 & 2004)

The opponents of women’s ordination fall into two main groups. One group opposes because of what they believe about the nature of priesthood. These tend to come from the ‘Catholic’ end of the spectrum. These see the priest as an ‘icon’ of Christ and God when they stand at the altar and consecrate the bread and wine. An icon is more than an image or a symbol, and becomes in some way the presence of what they represent.  To quote “The priest presides at the altar and says what Christ said, does what Christ did; there is a very profound sense in which, at that moment and in that ministry, he is Christ.”

This group argues that maleness is an essential part of being an ‘icon’ of Christ because Jesus was male, and had to be male in order to represent God. Not because God is male, (that is a heretical statement)  but because the essential character of God  as creative and initiative are characteristics of the human male, who takes the initiative in creation in the world. If you argue that Jesus was also a first century Jew and we don’t insist that only first century Jewish males can be priests, this group says that being Jewish, and born in the first century were ‘accidents’ of Christ’s humanity, whereas maleness is of the substance and therefore essential.

This fact is reinforced, they argue, by the fact that Jesus chose only males as his disciples, and that they chose only males as their successors down through the centuries.

There are several arguments against this reasoning. Can you argue that certain attributes of God demonstrated in the act of consecration and blessing (like initiative and creativity and giving) are ‘male’ attributes rather than being found in the whole human race? The French philosopher Voltaire commented with some irony on this assertion: “God created a man in his own image; and the man returned the compliment!” Are these so called ‘male’ attributes the ones which are being exercised in the priestly ministry?  Can you argue that being Jewish and living in the first century are ‘accidents’,  that is, not essential to God’s plan of salvation, whereas maleness was essential? Many of the New Testament writers appear to think quite the opposite, that being a descendant of Abraham and David  was very much part of the plan!

Jesus chose 12 men as his disciples or apostles (although the gospels don’t all agree on their names!). Did he choose these as as ‘priests’  – or as a symbol of a New Israel? They were sent out to preach, and heal and drive out demons, not to preside at communion! The word ‘priest’ is not used of any one individual in the New Testament except Jesus. The connection between the apostles and the orders of bishops and priests was made much later in the church’s history,  to establish the “apostolic succession” – guaranteeing the validity of the priesthood by arguing there was an unbroken sequence of men laying hands on other men right back  to the disciples. But, historically, this theory is on very shaky ground!

This group also has objections on the grounds that they cannot be sure that they receive the grace of the sacraments if the ‘priest’ is not validly ordained, and that while other churches, such as the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox do not accept the ordination of women, we cannot have this ‘sacramental assurance’. This is why they want to be able to choose bishops to minister to them who have not ordained women and have said they will never do so. But, of course, other churches with whom we are in communion and with whom we are having talks about re-union, like other Anglican provinces, and the Methodists and URC, do have women exercising priestly and episcopal roles, so we are at the moment out of step with them.

All four gospels show that Jesus taught women and instructed them to take his words to others. Acts and the Epistles show that Paul regarded many women as his “co-workers”, who led churches. Is this not apostolic ministry? When Jesus said at the Last Supper “Do this in remembrance of me” was he speaking only to the men present – or, as the church has always taught, to all believers throughout time?

The second group of opponents of women’s ordination argue on the basis that the Scriptures teach ‘male headship’. They tend to come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum. This group of opponents argue that God has decreed that human society should be ordered with men having authority  or ‘headship’ over women (just as God is the head of Jesus, and Jesus is the head of the Church). This is based on passages in the letters to the Ephesians, chapter 5 and Corinthians chapter 11.

Furthermore, they quote from two other epistles (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 3) passages which say that women are not to speak in church or to teach men.

There are several arguments about whether these particular scriptures should be taken as definitive instructions for the ordering of church and social life for every generation, or whether they should be seen as particular solutions for particular problems which the churches were struggling with at the time.  Paul, in particular said different things about the roles women were to play in church and different times. For instance, in the same letter in which he says women are not to speak in church meetings, he gives instructions for them to cover their heads when they preach, pray or prophesy in church. Which is the definitive ruling? And in Galatians 3 he proclaims that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or freeman, male or female; you are all one in Christ”.

And are priesthood and episcopy about authority – or are they principally about serving others, as our readings for the Feast of St James last week suggested.

When we read contradictory statements in the Bible we all have to decide which statements are definitive for our faith, and which are not.  For me, the example of Christ is the most important piece of evidence to help us make those decisions, and whenever he was asked about women departing from their ‘traditional’ roles (as we heard two weeks ago in the story of Martha and Mary) he tended to reply “Leave them alone -they are doing nothing wrong”. Alongside this we also need to consider the evolving and constantly changing tradition of the church, and to use our own reason and conscience.

The fact that the Church of England has allowed women to preach as deaconesses since 1935 and Readers since 1968 shows that it long ago decided that the prohibition on women teaching and preaching is not a command from God that is valid for all time. Neither does it now support an ordering of society in which men always have authority over women – the modern marriage service now sees family life as a mutual partnership.

The ordination of women as priests, and the moves over the last few years to allow them also to be ordained as bishops  can also be seen as part of the development of tradition to meet the needs of a new age. The majority of the Church of England has decided that this is in accordance with Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Some still disagree, and provision is being made for them, as it was for those opposed to having women in the priesthood, under the process of ‘reception’ by which the unity of the church is maintained and both sides in an argument are accepted as full and loyal members while a development comes to be accepted or rejected by the universal church.

This is why it is important for us all to understand the arguments on all sides and to pray for those with whom we disagree as well as for those with whom we agree, because, as Paul reminds us, “We are one in Christ”.