The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
By W. Resume
Scripture citations are to the King James Version, unless noted otherwise.
Preceding instalments offered an overview of woman’s role in the social life of Britain through various phases: pre-Industrial Revolution through to the suffrage movement of the late 1800s, and on to the First World War in 1914; the interim between the end of that conflict and the beginning of the Second World War in 1939; then the dramatic rise of an increasingly strident feminist movement from the start of the Nuclear Age to the present. We now study her role relative to the spiritual life of the nation.
ON NOVEMBER 20, 2012 the motion to allow women priests to be consecrated as bishops in the established Church of England was defeated by a small, loose coalition of liberal and conservative members of the Lay Synod, throwing the denomination into confusion. Social progressives and leading politicians declared the outcome as backwards and insulting to the notion of female emancipation. [fn]
Women were first inducted into the Anglican priesthood in 1994. At the time it was widely expected that the transforming changes then under way in society would lead also to a reform of the episcopate. The prospect seemed agreeable to most senior and lesser clergy and, increasingly, to the laity. The more liberal United States Episcopal Church – part of the Anglican Communion – has already taken this step: Katherine Jefferts Schori was installed as presiding bishop and primate of that denomination of over two million in June 2006.
The centuries-long relegation of the woman to a secondary rank in society was not unique to Britain. Although Protestant Christianity had helped to raise the status of the woman, especially in the home, her role in Society was in part determined by the predominating influence of socio-religious doctrine fashioned from biblical tenets, long regarded as foundational to the law and culture of the land. An example of this was the legal observance of the Sunday-Sabbath which, among other things, prohibited retail shops to trade on that day or prohibited the playing of professional football.
In its idealized form, this male perception of the female – ignorant and authoritarian as it might appear to the modern mind – assumed that the ‘weaker vessel’ was incapable of profound thought and vigorous action, and should be nurtured, guided and protected – whether she welcomed this paternal attention or not. No wonder, then, that early twentieth-century gentlemen were shocked to discover their wives and daughters sneaking off to clandestine meetings at which other women agitated for the right to vote; or to encounter them marching through the city streets, banners held aloft, chanting for equality, heckled all along the route by chauvinistic, jeering, swearing male citizens.
The standard theological opinion that woman was properly subject to man in the Church was generally reflected in the way she was treated in Society. The fundamental error in this view is in failing to differentiate between the religious sphere and the secular – between male-female interactions in the congregation and male-female interactions in the workplace.
As already noted, over the past century or so the status of woman in the social context has undergone radical adjustment and equalization. The right of females to vote in political elections, hold property, open sole bank accounts, or to receive the same wages as a man for similar work – all these are now understood as matters of social justice and taken for granted. Many feminists argue there is still a long way to go.
Although the female’s status has been revised upwards to rough parity with the male in society at large, she has not – with some exceptions – been fully inducted into the highest levels of Church ministry. For many women – and supportive men – this represents one of the last major obstacles to be overcome.
ALTHOUGH WOMEN WERE for centuries denied the right to a vote on the political front, many did enjoy electoral privileges within some religious groups. This was the case with the Bible Students movement of the late-nineteenth century. Female members of the congregations (‘ecclesias’) enjoyed equal voting rights with their male colleagues in electing (or dismissing) church officers. Though disallowed from the office of pastor or elder they were eligible to stand for the position of deacon, an important supporting role, one in which they were allowed to teach other women in their homes.
Long before political agitation for equal rights, women composed the majority of Sunday School teachers. In the Quaker movement, women had ‘equal access’ to the Word of God and the privilege of preaching it. During the nineteenth century, a number of religious institutions were headed or otherwise powerfully influenced by women, either alone or in conjunction with their husbands. Some examples:
Ellen Gould White, co-founder with her husband, James, of the Seventh-Day Adventists; Mary (Morse) Baker Eddy, originator of the Church of Christ, Scientist; she also began the highly successful news magazine, The Christian Science Monitor; Helena Petrovna Blavatsky founder of the Theosophical Society, a religious-philosophical system; Emma Hale Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, the man who started The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (‘Mormons’); Maria Frances Russell, whose husband, Charles Taze Russell, began the original Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (distinct from the organization now incorporated under a similar name). Maria was for some years Associate Editor of the Society’s journal, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, resigning that office to become a contributing author to its columns, with her own byline;
Edith-Picton Turberville, an advocate for the full entry of women into ministry in the Church of England, was the first woman to preach in an Anglican church, in Lincolnshire, after the First World War; and Hannah Whitall Smith, a prominent evangelical in the United States; with her husband, Robert, she immigrated into England and helped to found the Keswick Convention, an annual assembly for Christians, held in the Lake District. Smith was also active in the suffrage and temperance movements and author of the popular volume, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.
ACCORDING TO THE Scriptures, the relationship of male to female in Christian marriage is a picture of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Within a worship setting the male represents Christ the Head and the female represents the Church as His Body. But in an ideal secular society women and men should function more like equal partners, as intended by their Maker: ‘The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ (Genesis 2: 18).
Adam and Eve, his companion, stand in for humanity. Their subsequent fall from heavenly grace skewed their relationship, resulting in the historic strife between the sexes, as foreshadowed in Genesis 3: 16 (NIV-UK):
Like an immutable law of nature, the subjugation of the female and domination by the male has operated throughout all cultures and religions, not merely in the Christian West – though it required the efforts of educated and resourceful women of constitutionally-free countries to set the relief in motion. In this development one can trace a work of heavenly grace ameliorating the curse which has afflicted the entire race – a re-balancing of the relationship between the sexes, in advance of the coming Kingdom of God on earth, with its gradual restoration of all the human rights and privileges lost in Eden.
Summing up, to understand the roles of both woman and man, it is essential to distinguish between their relation to each other in Society and their relation to each other in the Church. Subsequent instalments will investigate the Scriptures that bear on the question, Does a woman belong in the pulpit?
To be continued
All URLs were retrieved successfully as of 10 May, 2013
[fn] Women bishops: For the background, pro and con, see the following sites:
‘Women in the episcopate: a new way forward’ (opens a PDF document)
‘A speech that sealed the vote’
Copyright May 2013 ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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