In my life I’ve had some exceptional experiences. I’ve met royalty, been to film premiers, met a president to be, raised millions for a national charity, been to China at a time when a westerner was still an oddity, sat with people taking their last breaths and those taking their first. I’ve married people, buried people, forgiven people and blessed them.
The one exceptional experience I’ve never had was being excluded from something simply because of who I am: a man. When I offered myself to the church I never encountered:
You can’t be ordained because of who you are. Or you can be ordained but you can’t be a bishop, you can’t preach in this parish, you can’t celebrate the Eucharist in that parish and you can’t be a vicar throughout the church because to some, you aren’t supposed to exist.
I can imagine how I would feel if I was confronted by this attitude where there is no argument about competency but simply exclusion based on being an excludable category of human. It’s an argument is driven by fear. Fear that God might be angry and smite us and fear that if we let “them” in they will taint something special causing the world might spin off its axis.
Changing years of tradition and accepted practice is always painful and that pain tends to drive opposition harder than reason does. In the case of women’s ordained ministry, this has led to a fear, held by some, that if we allow women to be bishops then we introduce a taint into the apostolic succession and into anyone touched by that line of succession.
That might sound a harsh way to describe the fears of opponents of women in the bishopric but all the attempts in recent debates to placate and cater for those in opposition mimic quarantine protocols during plagues. You build up lots of insulation and distance between the healthy and the infected. You hope no one passes it on.
I won’t rehearse the arguments and counter arguments except to say that anyone who appeals to scripture will find it conflicted on women’s leadership, authority and ministry in the church. You’ll find prohibition and you’ll find women in leadership and apostolic roles. You’ll find cultural roles and ideas that we Christians have abandoned in every walk of life except the church. You’ll find ideas that were radical for their day and for ours.
The Apostle Paul was as capable as any of us in seeing his time as the time. But he was also able to look ahead to a different time when the rules might be different; where people would be free of slavery, oppression and diminished personhood. Such yearning rings clearly in foundational passages as Galatians 3:27-28:
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Paul is naming categories by which we judge the worth of others. Paul knows that categories are how we divide and exclude. For him, the only category that matters is the person clothed with Christ. Baptism is the sign and seal of our new personhood in a kingdom that judges human worth and inclusion in a radically different way than the kingdoms of this world.
Perhaps this is why God chose a woman to be the first witness to the resurrection and the first apostle of the risen Christ. “He is risen”, Mary tells the unbelieving male disciples who are cowering in fear. She teaches the men the truth that defines the new age. But to hear some tell the tale, apparently she wasn’t supposed to because it wasn’t her role. Really? God dropped the ball over who would deliver the words that changed all reality? Not likely.
The church fails in its vocation when it resorts to institutionalised categories to include and exclude rather than prayerfully scrutinising vocation on the basis of how God given those vocations may be. When “people like you” is the language of vocation, then we are all lost.
Those who inhabit the kingdom are flesh, blood and spirit rather than impersonal categories. The rules of the kingdom denies permission for us to declare other residents untouchable, incapable, unable and unworthy simply because of who they essentially are.
Jesus chose men and women to follow him on the basis of who responded to his good news in their flawed and unworthy ways. He was less concerned with who they were and more concerned that they “believed” and followed. What are we to do when the wrong people pick up their cross and follow him? Do we tell them they are not supposed to? Do we tell them to put it down before they get hurt?
In the end we make the church not out of categories but people who are called by God. We would do well at recognising what someone clothed by Christ looks like and rather than being proficient at ticking boxes that make us more comfortable.