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Published Date: September 5, 2013

Published Date: September 5, 2013

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Featured Articles

Something is Shifting in the Heavenlies

Spring Harvest is the largest Christian festival in Europe, composed of four six-day conferences around Easter each year, and serving something over 20,000 guests in all. I have spoken at Spring Harvest—including, as it happens, on the theme of biblical equality—for several years now. The last two years, I’ve been invited to serve on the leadership team. The final night of the conference, I joined other leaders to pray for the event.

At this meeting, I got to chatting with the woman who had been our main Bible teacher through the week, Ness Wilson. Our daughters have become fast friends, so we have gotten to know each other. I won’t say that Ness is the best Bible teacher in Britain, but I will say that I have been around a bit, and I have never heard anyone better. This got me thinking about what was going on around the site; we had three evening celebrations (worship services each with a preacher), and all three preachers were women.

In the main venue, the preacher was Jessie Joe Jacobs, a woman whose own remarkable transformation by the power of the gospel led her to found a charity working with young women with seemingly no future and no hope in one of our deprived urban areas. Jessie spoke powerfully to us about justice and mercy out of a depth of real-world ministry.

In another service, the preacher was Fran Beckett, a seasoned and mature Christian leader who brings deep wisdom, profound spirituality, and much humor to every room she is in. I did not hear Fran’s message, but I have heard Fran speak before, and she is a gifted and powerful preacher, who combines stories from a life given to serving gospel causes with a profound grasp of Biblical truth.

Meanwhile, Miriam Swaffield preached at the young adults’ venue. Miriam is young, but already more visibly gifted as a preacher and communicator than almost anyone I have ever met. Again, I did not hear Miriam, but I heard reports of the way young women and men were moved powerfully in droves to respond to her message, to commit, or recommit, themselves to the cause of Christ in their communities.

I was moved—it was the final night of the biggest Christian festival in Europe; our main Bible teacher had been a woman, and every preacher on stage that night was a woman. And none of this was tokenism. We had many extraordinarily gifted speakers on site, but I would not have swapped one of these women out for anyone else who was around. They were there because, through the gracious gifting of the Holy Spirit, they deserved to be there.

Sadly, Spring Harvest is not normal in the European church, or in the UK church. Its leaders, most notably Wendy Beech-Ward, now with Compassion UK, have worked hard to identify, train up, and release gifted female leaders. I know women who are invited to preach to thousands on the main stage of Spring Harvest—because they are gifted enough to do that—but who struggle to be allowed to preach in their home congregations.

Spring Harvest may not be normal, but it is a snapshot of what life looks like when we get it right. On that night, all the preachers were women. Perhaps (I did not notice, and I have not checked) on another night all the preachers were male (if you need three preachers, and gifting is exactly equally distributed, then one night in eight all three will be male, and one night in eight all three will be female). For me, the joy was to be in a place where people were being released to serve on the basis of their gifting, not their gender.

I confess to having been on a journey regarding this issue. I was converted to the cause of Christ, from a nonreligious family background, at the age of eighteen, through the ministry of the university Christian Union in Cambridge. That is now twenty-five years ago, and I cannot recall ever having doubted that God calls women as well as men to every role within church leadership. The congregation and the denomination I joined (the Baptist Union of Great Britain) affirmed this as well, having ordained its first female minister in the 1920s.

For a young, somewhat naive, man, it didn’t seem to be an issue. My denomination affirmed women in ministry, and had done so for generations. It was other people who had problems (I recall watching live TV coverage of the Church of England’s debate over women clergy in 1992, knowing that my fiancée’s landlady was training for priesthood in the Church of England), but we had sorted it out generations ago. Except I was wrong. We had not sorted it out generations ago. Others knew this, of course, some first-hand, such as the women struggling to find a call to a pastoral ministry. To my shame I did not hear their pain at the time.

But later, when I came to teach on liberation and feminist theology, I began to read about patterns of oppression. For liberation theologians it was easy: poor people are economically and politically disadvantaged, period. For the feminist theologians the argument had to be more sophisticated. After all, equality legislation is in place in most Western democracies, most have had a female head of state or prime minister, and most have very successful women in every area of public life. But still, in every Western country, women are under-represented in political structures, paid on average less than men, and so on. How do we explain this persistent and stubborn structural inequality, a generation or more after laws supposedly guaranteeing equality were put in place?

I discovered a great many theological arguments and answers given by various people, some of whom I agree with and some of whom I don’t. The point for me, however, was that this analysis—coupled with other events and conversations—opened my eyes to the persistent injustices in my own denominational heritage. We had sorted the rules out, but we’d neglected to sort the hearts and minds out, so injustices persisted in a thousand different ways.

I began to see what I could do to change things. I asked the awkward questions when I saw all-male lists of speakers at conferences, I read up on some of the arguments and began to sketch responses on my blog, I tried to find ways of recovering the stories of women who had served faithfully and effectively in the past, I offered what encouragement I could to women serving or preparing to serve God in ordained ministry now. I don’t do much—certainly not enough—but I do what I can.

I tell my personal story not because I think it is in any way inspirational (rather the opposite, as I was completely blind to the obvious injustices all around me for many years), but because I sense that the path I have walked, from acceptance to advocacy, has been common in British churches over the past couple of decades. None of our major Protestant denominations refuse ordination to women. The Church of England was the last to change, and did so in 1992. There are some small denominations and independent churches that changed later, and some still deny the ministry of women. But there has been a move increasingly mainstream in the last decade or so to insist that putting equal rules in place is not enough; we need to engage directly with people and local congregations, challenge hearts and minds, support those women who are experiencing discrimination, and put clearly and strongly—and graciously—the biblical case for equality as often and as clearly as we can.

The conversation has changed in the UK. A female, ordained friend of mine commented on Facebook recently, saying “something is shifting in the heavenlies,” in response to the news that the largest Baptist denomination in the UK, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, had just overwhelmingly (with a handful of abstentions and not one vote against) elected its first female general secretary, the Rev. Lynn Green. Advocacy is working here, and despite a hardening of the opinions of some, biblical equality is taking root.