Sunday, 2 September 2012

Reflections on Mark 7

I was asked to preach today at Shotley St.John, in Northumberland, on the subject of women bishops and where we are now. The gospel reading was just so apposite....

Jesus said to his accusers, the religious elite of his day, 'Isaiah prophesied rightly about you, "in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine". You abandon the commandment of God, and hold fast to human doctrine'.

This is an accusation any of us who engage in trying to get the church to change its mind about things are very familiar with. I am tediously familiar with being told that I am simply trying to get the church to do what the world says is right. That I am working for secular concepts of justice and equality rather than obeying the Bible. That the church shouldn't follow modern trends as they are just human precepts rather than true doctrine. That, in other words, by believing that women can be called by God to ordained ministry I am guilty of abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human values.

Such criticisms are made of any attempts to change the way the church does things, or what it believes. Historically, exactly the same sorts of things were said about allowing the remarriage of divorcees; allowing contraception; and so on. Whatever the particular issue at hand, such criticisms of religious change assume that things we have done for a long time are more likely to be right than new things. They assume that change equals corruption. And they are based on an assumption that the religious establishment - the Church, or Temple tradition - is more Godly than the secular world and must not be contaminated by it.

But what Jesus says here, of course, is almost precisely the opposite. In todays gospel reading, Human tradition and human precepts means religious traditions, religious rules, cultic ideals. Building on the long tradition of Old Testament prophets, Jesus directly opposes the idea that long established religious traditions and practices are necessarily good things, or what God wants.

The prophets repeatedly emphasised that God wants real change of hearts and minds, rather than correct worship. This real change would be demonstrated in lives lived according to the principles of justice, equality and mercy. The prophets are passionate about justice being a - perhaps the  - fundamental teaching. Even if women's ordination were simply about justice - and I think it is about far more than that - we could never say that that was opposed to the teaching of the Bible.

Jesus himself is of course the best example of dramatic change occurring within a religious tradition. The gospels show him repeatedly coming up against the religious establishment of his day, challenging their most cherished beliefs, practices and places. We get so used to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys that it is easy to forget how offended we would be by someone doing similar things today, in our churches. I imagine the outrage caused in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral by Pussy Riots punk prayer against President Putin was probably quite similar to the outrage Jesus would have caused over turning the money changers tables in the Temple.

One of the many interesting things about this passage is the principle that Jesus uses to critique the Pharisees' values. Twice, he refers them to God's commandments. 'you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition; you have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!'

In modern religious argument, the whole Bible is sometimes meant when people talk about Gods commandments. But here, Jesus is very specifically referring to the 10 commandments. His particular point is that the Pharisees have developed a tradition of giving to the temple at the expense of looking after their elderly parents. They are breaking the commandment to honour your father and mother, in order to feel good about their own religiosity. Applying Jesus' technique more generally would suggest that a key question to ask of any tradition is whether it contradicts any of the 10 commandments.

And I would suggest that a tradition of male - only clergy, and of privileging men above women more generally, does exactly that.

The 10 commandments don't say anything explicitly about gender. That in itself is interesting. Except in the commandment not to covet your neighbours wife - where coveting their husband is not mentioned - all the commandments are quite remarkably gender-neutral. We are to honour our father and mother - no gender hierarchy is even hinted at there. All are to rest on the sabbath day, including our sons and daughters, and both male and female servants or slaves.

But perhaps the most relevant commandment is that forbidding the making of idols. Nothing shall be made into an idol for ourselves, we are told very firmly indeed. Yet I would argue that much, if not all, of the opposition to women as clergy and as bishops rests upon an unacknowledged idolisation of maleness. Historically, maleness has been given God-like status. God has been consistently imagined as being male, and by extension, men have been assumed to be more God-like than women. One writer put it very succinctly several decades ago when she came up with the phrase 'If God is male, the male is God'.

And the male ideal that is seen as being most God-like has generally been a particular kind of male - adult, not a child; strong and healthy, not weak or disabled or ill; heterosexual, not castrated, and at various points in history either celibate (showing strong mastery over his bodily urges), or married with children (demonstrating fertility and maturity). Not only have women traditionally been seen as further from God than such men, but men have been judged and graded in holiness against this particular ideal. As we are inspired by the Paralympics, it is worth reflecting on this - are Paralympics less godlike than 'unimpaired' human beings? Of course not. Yet for millennia, religious tradition would have said, Of course.

About 10 years ago I knew a young man in his early twenties, a friend of a friend, going through the process of selection to become a Roman Catholic priest. One month, he noticed a lump in a testicle, and luckily went to see his GP. Testicular cancer was quickly diagnosed, and the testicle swiftly removed. Fortunately, further tests showed that it had been caught in good time and had not spread. A week or so later, he had his next appointment with his mentor, and told him all this. As you can imagine, for a young man to face a diagnosis of cancer, and loose a testicle, within the space of a few weeks had been a pretty significant experience, and he wanted to talk it through. But his mentor, on hearing the story, had only one question - 'did they remove one testicle, or both? Because if you've been castrated you can't be ordained in the Catholic church.'

When we talk about women's ordination, and the consecration of women as bishops, people express all sorts of hopes and fears. Some hope that women will change everything, others that they will change nothing. But one thing that I think will be very significant is the simple symbolism of having both men and women sharing in all our ministries, symbolising very strongly that we believe that God made all humanity, male and female, in God's own image. Regardless of all the many gifts that women will bring to the House of Bishops, one of the most important things will be to challenge, simply by their presence, this idolisation of a particular type of adult maleness as more God like than other gender identity.

1 comment:

  1. While Elohim and YHWH are equated as being the one God, however, God is not Baal. There is one reason for that. Baal is male, while YHWH/Elohim is gender-neutral.