Friday, 9 September 2011

Women's Ministry & Homosexuality - a response to Stephen Kuhrt.

Last month the Church of England Newspaper published an article by Stpehen Kuhrt, Chair of Fulcrum, on the difference between accepting women's leadership in the church, and accepting homosexual relationships.

Today they have published my response...

The connection between the debate over women's ministry and that of homosexuals has been a bone of contention among evangelicals for many years.  On the one hand, the Biblical texts on the role of women in the church have been re-examined and re-interpreted by 'open' conservatives, whilst on the other hand, a similar process has been resisted with much more energy when it comes to homosexuality.  In addition, there are those who have prophesied that the acceptance of women into ministry and headship would lead inexorably to the same pressures to reconsider the place of homosexuals in the church on a slippery slope away from Biblical truth.

At the heart of each issue is how we as evangelicals treat verses in Scripture which, at first sight appear to speak out clearly against change on either of these two issues.
In Stephen Kuhrt's recent article "Women's ministry and Homosexuality" he meets this issue head-on.  He tries to provide a rationale for conservatives like himself who want to follow the re-examination of Scripture in regard to women's ministry while continuing to resist any movement on homosexual relationships.  In doing so, he is attempting to defend that position from attacks from conservatives and liberals alike, while also trying to ensure that the 'slippery slope' argument does not hold back the full inclusion of women in the ministry of the church at every level.

And he is right in when he identifies significant differences between the two issues.   No-one has ever suggested that women in general are sinful if they seek a loving, faithful, self-giving relationship (except if that relationship is with another woman).  No conservative has suggested that women should seek to seek healing for their sexual identity or embrace abstinence in order to be acceptable to God and the church.  Women can be clearly identified in the Bible, and are present in almost all New Testament contexts, and Paul is clear in his radical theology that "In Christ there is no male of female".  Indeed it would be profoundly sad and inappropriate if there were people who would oppose the full inclusion of women in the church's ministry simply because they were opposed the inclusion of homosexuals.
But having said that, there are striking parallels in the process of discernment for both issues.

Both require us to re-examine Biblical texts which, when taken at face value exclude any change in traditional teaching.  In the case of women's ministry, the verses include clear statements excluding women from having authority over a man, and describing the idea of a women speaking in church as 'shameful'.  In the case of homosexuals the verses which exclude are well known to evangelicals, even if their meaning and context is less clear.
The process of re-examination which is needed in both cases is also similar.  Proponents of a new understanding on either issue call for the texts to be considered within their cultural context and purpose before being weighed against other passages of scripture which might point to the possibility of a more inclusive approach.

Both issues require an openness from us to be challenged on our own received cultural presuppositions and norms - what we think is 'normal' and 'obvious' because of the Christian culture we have been brought up in.
The difference, as Stephen Kuhrt points out is the lack of identifiably 'gay' people in the early church.  While a careful reading of Roman 16 reveals the possibility (or probability - depending on your point of view) of women in leadership, there are no such examples of openly 'gay' people.  But this absence in Scripture is not surprising, as it is similarly difficult to demonstrate a model of exclusive, partnered, faithful same-sex relationships in secular society at that time either. 

The same cannot be said of our society today. 
Homosexuality is identified by the vast majority of people as an orientation rather than a recreational choice.  There are plenty of examples of same-sex relationships today which exhibit the same characteristics of love, commitment and fidelity as marriage.  Indeed, there are partnered homosexual Christians in ministry and leadership in a wide variety of churches.

The joy and blessing which Stephen Kuhrt has found in welcoming women into ministry at his own church is wonderful to read about, and there are many who have experienced that same joy and blessing as they have begun to welcome LGB&T Christians into their churches in a more inclusive way.  Those of us who have experienced the blessing which LGB&T Christians can bring, know that full inclusion in the church - of women and of homosexuals - will further demonstrate the joy and blessing of faith in Jesus Christ.
The debates of women's ministry and homosexuality are different - but the issues which they call us to address have striking parallels, as are the potential blessings which full inclusion in the church will bring.

Rev Benny Hazlehurst
Secretary of Accepting Evangelicals

Published in the Church of England Newspaper - 9th September 2011


  1. I remember having heated discussions of exactly the same argument in the Mole Hole at Rydley Hall in the late 80s! (Whilst visiting a friend – two friends in fact, who were both at the college a year apart – I have never ventured down the road of ordination myself...). Thankfully, once I gravitated away from the extremes of the Anglican Church I found neither stance was a problem. The church I attended for many years in north London had a vicar (married with children) who was particularly forthright on both issues: gay clergy have been in the Church since Adam was a lad and we’ve a lot to thank them for; and the Church has been led by the Holy Spirit to ordain women to the priesthood – no need for further discussion!

    But I think the arguments will continue. In more Catholic parishes it can work the other way. A priest friend of mine at a recent PCC almost lost his temper with his flock because of the dogged refusal to allow female servers (let alone priests!) in the Sanctuary. As he noted ‘You’re happy to have gay men poncing around but won’t extend the same liberty to women...’. His passion on the subject was met with stony silence and a determination not to be moved on the issue...

    Saints Cassian, Benedict, Columba, Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross and many more from antiquity, to Thomas Merton and others in the 20th Century all caution against a common fault in the monastic life. That is an over application to virtuous or even mundane tasks – a more pedestrian example might be the sudden, dazzling cleanliness of bathrooms and kitchens in student’ lodgings about a week before an essay deadline or during exam revision, as the student finds ‘virtuous occupation’ in cleaning the long neglected toilet bowl rather than reading long neglected tomes! In the monastic life ‘over application’ in the day to day life of the community is seen as a possible attempt to escape from the real demands of the Life – they being a deepening repentance, conversion of life, relationship and dependence on God. Occupation can seem ‘virtuous’ but it is not necessarily what is the fundamental purpose in the life of a Religious. (If you ever spend a retreat at a religious house, you’ll probably notice that it is the same brother or sister who slopes into offices and meals later than everyone else – it is these who are usually so ‘virtuously’ employed they can’t keep the less onerous demands of the Customary.)

    I am convinced a goodly portion of much of the heated and never ending debates and arguments on homosexuality and women’s ministry are examples of similar ‘virtuous’ occupations – the real causality in all this ‘virtuous occupation’ (or hot air) is the work of the Church itself. Moreover from the outside the Church is just seen as contemptible because of it blatant self-interest. As noted on my own blog regarding the subject of the recent riots – there was a great deal of hot air from many Christian blogs and commentators (particularly on the Right) basically saying what was wrong with society; yet there were very few ‘practical’ solutions offered that involved churches themselves (see: Again, more ‘virtuous occupation’ (finger pointing and blame mongering) but is this really the work of the Church?

    Of course these debates will continue - I presume the hope is that in the end only one voice will endure. I only hope the owner of that voice remembers to turn the lights off and lock the door of the empty church when s/he is finished...

  2. Dear Peter
    Thank you for writing such a full comment on this post. I read it with interest.

    I suppose my sadness as an evangelical is that so many of my fellow evangelicals seem to tie themselves in knots (while alienating others who do not share their evangelical predispositions) trying to defend the indefensible.

    So my hope is that my contributions may do a something to loosen these knots so that the Spirit may flow a little more freely.

    You are right of course, that the world around us moves on, and there is the danger of finding oneself all alone. But then the one sheep in 100 who wandered off, found him/herself in the same situation, and I am glad that the good shepherd was there to bring him/her back.