Women - equal but different?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
22 Oct 2007

Men should have the greatest responsibility in the church and home, while women are ‘equal but different’, according to the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen. In an interview on ABC radio on 14 October 2007 with Monica Attard, he explained why he was opposed to women bishops. He is one of the leading opponents of the traditional Anglican system in which mainly autonomous provinces cover different parts of the world.

Instead he champions the right of senior clergy to take charge of or create parishes and dioceses in other countries if they think that local leaders are too ‘liberal’. So his opinions meet with a lot of interest, and not only in Australia.

He argued that his view ‘reflects the Bible's way of putting it’. Yet this interview reveals how much a particular ideology shapes his reading of the Bible.

The Archbishop sees those in favour of women bishops as unhelpfully swayed by modern culture. ‘On the side of those who are in favour of this development, they would say that it's a huge development. It's true that it breaks tradition of 2,000 years. Yet nonetheless, it must be done because of the equality of the sexes and as a matter of justice. They would say, furthermore, that any arguments against it from the Bible are not true.’

Jensen believes that his position, in contrast, reflects eternal God-given truth: ‘I agree with the importance of justice, naturally, and I agree too with the equality of sexes but I have a different way of putting it. I see, in the opposite case, a certain degree of agreement with the independence and the individuality of our modern society. I'm standing for what you may call community. I'm standing for the relationship as the sexes as being equal but different. I'm standing for another set of values and that's what makes me, believing as I do about the Bible, against this development.’

In ‘the sort of family I believe in, you'd come to a father and a mother who are entirely equal in God's sight and entirely equal in the sight of the law but are also different and have different responsibilities within the family’. The church, Peter Jensen argued, should be similarly arranged: ‘I see the Church as a family, first and foremost. And in the New Testament the local church, which is a gathering of people in the same geographic area, the local church is described more in family terms than it would ever be described in terms of a company, for example, and therefore reflects family life. We call each other brother and sister, for example. In some traditions the priest is called father. It's those relationships which are of interest to me and those relationships, I think, which ought to be reflected in the ministry of the Church.’

However things have supposedly gone downhill: ‘one of the tragedies of the modern family is the way in which fathers have been sidelined and fatherhood itself has become an empty shell. There doesn't seem to be a job for fathers to do anymore.’ Many are unwilling to marry in today’s world because of ‘an unwillingness, particularly of men – and why should they, in the modern world? – commit to women and families. A father begins life first of all as a husband who has committed himself, for the long-term of his life, to a particular and unique woman, and to the family that, if God wills, they will bring into the world. Now that father then takes responsibility for the good of the home. Both sides have responsibility for that, but the father has particular responsibilities.’

Many women support his view, he explained, including members of an organisation named ‘Equal but Different’, for the same reasons as him: ‘They read the Bible. They see in the Bible a picture of family and Church which, as you've said, is classic and which they see as better for humankind. And they're perfectly happy. In fact, some of the chief opponents of this development are, of course, women.’

However – even if the profound unhappiness of many other women and some men in patriarchal settings is disregarded, and the squandering of God-given talent – the Bible may be read in a very different way.

The concept of ‘equal but different’ is a curious one. In the days of racial segregation in South Africa and the USA, for instance, it was widely claimed that black and white people were ‘separate but equal’. Yet this masked a profound imbalance in power and privilege which allowed injustice to flourish. Justice is not some modern fad, but an extremely important concept in the Bible. As Isaiah points out at length, ‘the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice’, and according to the prophet Micah, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’

Indeed, some of the contributors to the Bible challenge principles put forward by others which might be considered unjust. In Exodus, for instance, God is described as ‘a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me’. Yet according to Ezekiel, even if someone has a father who is ‘violent, a shedder of blood’, an idolator and violator of others’ rights who ‘oppresses the poor and needy’, if he himself acts in accord with God’s will he will win God’s favour. ‘A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own’ (Ezekiel 18).

The importance of masculine dominance, benevolently and responsibly practiced, is emphasised by Peter Jensen; he even seemed to question whether being a husband and father is worthwhile if it simply consists of living with people one loves on an equal basis, each contributing what he or she can to the welfare of others within and outside the household. His question about men: ‘why should they, in the modern world… commit to women and families’ is certainly revealing. He claims this is a biblical pattern.

There are indeed some books of the Bible which appear not to question the norm of male domination so deeply rooted in the societies of that time, though even in these there is an emphasis on caring for the widow and fatherless. Even in the Old Testament, however, there are wide variations: one might wonder if the husband of Deborah (Judges 4-5) felt ‘sidelined’!

The portrayal in the Gospels of Jesus is even more startling. Neither a husband or father himself, he proclaims that he has ‘come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother’ (Matthew 10.35), and urges his followers, ‘Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven’ (Matthew 23.9). He encourages Mary to sit at his feet as a disciple instead of doing the housework (Luke 10.38-42), tells his status-conscious male friends that unless they become like little children they will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18.1-4) and himself kneels to wash his followers’ feet (John 13.3-14), as if he were a woman or child. He is certainly no champion of patriarchal values. Perhaps Jesus’ words and actions as portrayed in the Bible seem so odd to some of his worshippers today – especially those nostalgic for the world of their childhood in which women’s and men’s status was far more clearly defined than now – that they simply cannot believe what they read, and must radically reinterpret it to tone down the impact.

Contrary to the Archbishop’s assumption, those who argue for a more inclusive church may not always simply be echoing the dominant views of society today, but may be reflecting their experience of a God of surprises, encountered in the Bible and worship, nature and art, friend and stranger.

Everyone to some extent brings their own prior expectations and cultural influences to bear on their understanding of the Bible. However, if we seek to be open to the experiences and insights of others, as well as to what we may learn through prayer and the attempt to live out our faith, we may find ourselves reading familiar words in a different way. If, however, an approach to Christianity is taken in which the Bible is used to justify injustice, even if cloaked in the rhetoric of ‘equal but different’, much that is valuable in it may be overlooked.

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is author of ‘Re-writing history’, a research paper on the row within global Anglicanism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/rewriting_history

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