I returned from BU Council on Wednesday, feeling that this had been three days well spent. Recent Councils have been excellent in grappling with substantial issues in ways that restore your confidence in the principle of the gathered community discerning the mind of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I commented on this in relation to last November’s Council here.
These last three days have had a major focus on “Women in Leadership among the churches of the Baptist Union of Great Britain”. This wasn’t a debate about whether women can exercise ministerial leadership. That was established back in the 1920s and affirmed many times since. Nonetheless we were ably led by both women and men into an understanding of some of the attitudes women encounter when they explore a leadership calling, not least to pastoral ministry itself. And we engaged with a wise, theological understanding of Paul’s overarching ‘grand vision’ as exemplified by Galatians 3:28 as well as his need to attend to immediate realities occasioned, for instance, by hitherto uneducated women speaking up in worshipping communities.
As you would expect, there were a range of views expressed, though with the vast majority supportive of the
But it wasn’t theological pressure that brought this issue to Council but the continuing discrimination experienced by women exploring or undertaking leadership roles, especially as ministers. And so, fittingly, it was the pain of women’s experiences brought into the open by their story-telling that shaped the character of Council’s listening. Their stories at times made me ashamed to be a man knowing that men in our churches could be so offensive, so hurtful and at times so misogynistic.
And so Council, it seemed to me, was clearly of a mind to say enough is enough. Things must change. And that is a challenge to all of us, not least those of us in denominational leadership.
But then comes the question of how we handle those who dissent, some out of biblical conviction, others out of ignorance, some out of prejudice.
Whilst Baptists would never wish to stifle dissent, nor act punitively towards those who do so, there was a courageous recognition that whilst there is a place for conscientious dissent, this must never, ever occasion the kind of hurts that were recounted this week. Further, prejudice masquerading as dissent could no longer be tolerated.
And how is prejudice to be distinguished from principled dissent? Blind prejudice is when someone says to a woman in ministerial training that she shouldn’t expect a salary because her husband has a good job. Blind prejudice is when women have to tolerate comments about their shape, their weight or parts of their body. Blind prejudice is when a woman is told that ‘I hope you’ll never preach while menstruating’. And there were many other stories besides.
There was a tacit understanding that as a Baptist people we have made our position clear. Our forebears believed they had discerned the mind of Christ on this matter many years ago (at a time when women’s justice was hardly a popular cause). That conviction has been reaffirmed over the years and now again in March 2010. There should be no barriers to women exercising leadership in our churches.
It follows therefore that even those who dissent on grounds of biblical conviction have to understand that they do so over and against the conviction of the gathered community. Of course, there are examples in history where the majority have been wrong, and this mantra will be trotted out. But this is significantly deeper than ‘a mere majority vote.’ This is men and women from our Baptist family, over many generations, set apart for a purpose, devoting themselves to listening, praying and discerning, and together we have again and again arrived at the same position.
Enough really is enough therefore.
Those who dissent on biblical grounds must understand that this is not the position of the family of which they are a part.
And anyone exhibiting the kind of ‘blind prejudice’ illustrated above is behaving in a way that, let it be understood, is completely unacceptable among us.
No woman within our Baptist family, called and gifted for leadership, should have that calling stifled.