the gender agenda

Embed from Getty Images

So, yesterday was a big day for women in the UK. The Church of England General Synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of appointing women bishops (never mind that our BUGB ‘Archbishop’ (aka General Secretary) is the brilliant Lynn Green and we have had women in national and regional leadership for many years). And David Cameron has done a cabinet reshuffle that went something like this (with apologies to my magician friends).

**Prime Minister shows 4 playing cards – all kings**

**Prime Minister shuffles the cards (perhaps using some sneaky moves)**

**Prime Minister drops the kings**

**Prime Minister picks up the cards and reveals them to be 4 queens.**

**Prime Minister takes a bow.**

Now I have a problem here. You see I don’t think we should be rejoicing about the fact that the Church of England has agreed that it can appoint women bishops and I don’t think we should be rejoicing about the fact that the Prime Minister has reshuffled his cabinet and appointed more women. Before you brand me a bigot let me explain.

I don’t think we should be rejoicing because it should not be an issue. It should be a given that women have an equal role in society. It should not be unusual that women are appointed to leadership roles. It should not be headline news. It should be a given. A person’s gender should not matter at all. It should not be a factor in making decisions of the sort that were made yesterday.

And yet I also want to shout a loud ‘Woohoo!’ because these are two more steps in the right direction. These are two more public bricks being knocked out of the wall of prejudice and discrimination. These are two more examples of gender justice.

And, if I am confessing to the cage of confused hamsters that are spinning the wheels in my head at the moment, I also want to say that it does matter immensely. Because while gender should never be an issue and we should never discriminate on the basis of someone’s gender (or other factors either) at the same time a person’s gender is inherently part of who they are. I am a male human. It is part of what makes me me. I would not want to erase my masculine attributes or deny them because that would be to erase or deny part of my identity.

So when I say that “a person’s gender should not matter at all” at the same time I want to say that it matters completely. It is part of who we are. It is part of our identity. Reclaiming our gender identity and refusing to be conformed by stereotypes and prejudice is an essential part of being human and being a follower of Jesus.

And while the hamsters are still spinning those wheels let me try to make some sense of all of the above. I think it is possible to hold all of that in creative tension.

I think we can say wholeheartedly that gender should never make a difference by way of prejudice and discrimination. And we can say wholeheartedly that gender does make a difference as part of who we are. And we can say that until gender is not a cause for discrimination we must fight for gender justice and celebrate every step in the right direction.

When God looks at us he does not see our gender as an issue: he does not discriminate on the basis of gender. And when God looks at us he sees our gender and affirms us in it, celebrating who we are. And when God looks at us and simultaneously celebrates and ignores our gender he sets us the task of doing the same.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

thinking differently

How much discount can you get on your car insurance?
How much discount can you get on your car insurance?

I have just had an ‘invitation’ to renew my car insurance. It seems to be significantly higher this year and the email I received this morning explains that this is because insurers can no longer take a customer’s gender into account when preparing their car insurance. I’m not sure why that makes it more expensive, but I would like to know why.

The email continues…

If I take a ‘moment’ to provide some new information they will give me a more accurate price, tailored to me. There is a strong hint that doing so will save me money on the quote. Now I am intrigued. What information that they don’t already have can reduce the amount of money they want from me to insure my car?

I don’t think my hobbies will make a difference (unless they are driving in demolition derby events or rallying (they aren’t in case my insurer reads my blog!)). I can’t imagine that my height would be of interest to them unless I am too small to see over the steering wheel or reach the pedals. Would they want to know about the last film I watched (if it was one with a car chase in it I might be tempted to emulate it).

This is a blog in progress so I am now going to blog off for a moment (because the email said it would only take a moment), find out what other information they want, and will then report back to you.

[blogs off]

[lots of moments pass]

[blogs back on]

And after providing all of the information they asked about, all of which they already had, the quote changed by a massive £0.00! I am trying to remain philosophical about it. I will consult a few other insurers (and possibly some meerkats) to see if there is a better price available.

Where I thought all this was leading was in fact not where it ended up. I was wondering what alternative information to gender would make a difference for them. What else would they use to judge me? The answer is ‘nothing’. There is no difference.

I wonder what criteria you use to judge people. Oh, yes, I know we don’t judge people. We accept everyone equally.

But we do judge people: on the basis of their appearance (well-dressed or scruffy for example); or on the basis of the sound of their voice (posh or common?) We judge others on the basis of all sorts of criteria – usually comparing them to ourselves (not to meerkats). How are they different from us and how are they similar?

This is something we do almost instinctively. We evaluate other people. I guess anthropologists might say that it is an evolutionary instinct to assess whether someone is a potential threat, ally or even mate.

The issue is whether the difference makes any difference.

I think it should.

Yes, I really did say that differences should make a difference to us.

Hold on, put those stones down for a moment and hear me out!

I am not saying that there is any excuse for racism, sexism, ageism or any other heinous prejudice-based ‘ism’. Not at all.

But some differences are meant to make a difference.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus read those words from Isaiah 61 and said that they were written about him. But how are we going to proclaim good news to the poor if we do not first notice who is poor? How can we release prisoners if we don’t see that some people are in shackles? How do we help the blind to see if we ignore the lack of sight?

The difference that difference should make is that it motivates us to make a difference (positively) to the lives of those whose lives are less than they could be. Followers of Jesus are called to carry on his work: to be good news and bring it; to be freedom-bringers (campaigning against slavery in its modern forms, seeking to help people bound by debt, blessing those who are imprisoned spiritually…); to be sight-recoverers (helping people to see the truth about God, seeking to work against disability discrimination, using our newly insured cars to help people who haven’t got transport of their own…); and telling people that God’s on their side (‘the year of the Lord’s favour’).

God help us (literally) if we ever fail to notice differences like that and fail to act in the way that Jesus would.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

persecution?

I am working on a sermon on the Beatitudes (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5). As I am preparing I have noticed the breaking news that the European Court of human rights has ruled on the cases of 4 Christians who claimed that their human right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” had been infringed in different ways and that they had experienced religious discrimination. You can read about it on the BBC website here

With that breaking news in mind I re-read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

First of all, and without wishing to trivialise the experience of those who have lost their jobs and felt so strongly that they wanted to take these issues to the European Court of Human Rights, I don’t think that these people have experienced the sort of persecution that Jesus had in mind when he spoke the beatitudes. Yes they must have felt terrible, yes they have probably experienced stress, yes they have probably experienced economic hardship but Jesus spoke in an era in which people would pay with their life for standing up against the authorities (and he did). He spoke in an era that not long afterwards would be throwing Christians to the lions.

iStock_000008457626MediumThere are some who tell us that there is an anti-Christian conspiracy in this country, or that Christians are always being discriminated against, and I have heard the word ‘persecution’ used about this. I’m sorry, but no. The court decided that one of these four people had suffered discrimination but that is not the same as persecution. Persecution is what believers experience in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian, or illegal to become a Christian and where you may lose your livelihood, your reputation, your family and even your life. It is where you are in physical danger because you’re a follower of Jesus not where you are told you cannot wear a cross as a piece of jewellery.

In fact it is exactly the sort of thing I think we should be expecting to happen if we are living as countercultural followers of Jesus. Jesus did not promise his followers an easy life or that they would not encounter difficulties in trying to live out their life in a world that does not acknowledge him as Lord. Exactly the opposite is true. Picking up your cross daily and following him is not intended to be comfortable or easy.

The other thing that I struggle with is that Jesus’ countercultural response to persecution, even if what has happened to these 4 people could be regarded as persecution, is to rejoice and be glad not to go to court over it. It is to recognise that our inheritance is not in this world but it is “the kingdom of heaven”, the God dimension that invaded this world in the person of Jesus to reclaim it and us for the rightful owner.

I have mentioned before on this blog the wonderful old Christian lady I met in mainland China who had been a nurse in a mission hospital at the time of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Each week soldiers would come to the hospital and beat the nurses, demanding that they renounce their faith in Jesus. One week it got too much for her and she said that she no longer believed. Once the soldiers had left she bitterly regretted what she had done and when they returned the following week for her colleagues she went up to them and told them that she had lied. She still believed in Jesus and loved him and no matter what they did to her they would never be able to beat that out of her. After that they left them all alone, realising that there was nothing they could do that would change their allegiance to Jesus.

As she told us the story her eyes glistened, tears streamed down her cheeks (and ours) and yet she smiled because she said she had been counted worthy of persecution on behalf of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

The heart of the matter

I’ve been contemplating the recent decision by the Church of England General Synod. Personally, I was saddened and disappointed that they were unable to agree to have women as bishops. Part of me wants to throw my hands up in the air and sound exasperated.

But I keep seeing a man writing in dirt and asking those without discrimination to cast the first stone.

It is true that our denomination has ordained women for much longer than the Church of England, and we have women in National / Regional positions that are the closest equivalent we have to Bishops. But there are still far more men than women who are ordained Ministers in our denomination. And there are still churches that will not consider calling a woman to be their Minister, albeit on theological grounds (with which I disagree).

It’s interesting to see the reaction of the non church sector of society. The media has portrayed this as the Church* being out of touch with society, but I reckon that there is a bloke writing in the dirt of our culture asking those who are without discrimination to cast the first stone. The problem is that society is out of touch with God. Human beings have allowed (or deliberately introduced) discrimination to tarnish and taint all aspects of our lives. When we see differences of any sort between ourselves and others and allow them to influence us we are out of touch with God. He is the one who created human beings, male and female.

Our society is riven with discrimination. If you doubt me, look at the profile of the highest earners in our country. How many are women? How many are of non-white ethnic origin? How do the proportions relate to the actual proportions in the country as a whole?

How many Director Generals of the BBC have not been white men? How many editors and journalists are not white men? How come women earn less than men for the same jobs? What proportion of MPs and Lords at Parliament are not white men?

There may be “Yes, but…” answers to these questions, but they are indicative of the reality at the heart of our society, that human beings are selfish at heart and those who have power will not easily surrender it. In 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act became law. Yet while there has been progress, I do not think a change in the law can change society. Laws will be necessary, but they work best when they reflect society rather than trying to shape society.

So what can we do?

We need to recognise that while culture and society seem to have a life of their own, in fact they are the products of a collection of individual human beings. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Each of us needs to do some soul-searching and be honest with ourselves. We are all subject to selfish bias. We all look out for ourselves first and foremost, and I think we allow prejudice to self-justify that (consciously or sub-consciously).

The antidote is godly selflessness motivated by godly love. When we are able to see all people as those who are loved by God, all people as those for whom Jesus made the ultimate selfless sacrifice, it is more difficult to elevate ourselves at the cost of others, or to suppress or oppress others because we consider them to be less than us. God does not discriminate. He does not even reject those who reject him, rather he respects our free will so much that reluctantly he accepts the decision of those who don’t want anything to do with him: yet he will always welcome them with open arms if they change their mind.

And while we may be able to do some things about this ourselves, actually we need God’s Spirit within us to change us, to make us more godly, more selfless, more loving, more like Jesus. We need him to bear more fruit within us. And I’m afraid that until more people in our society acknowledge their need of him, we will not eradicate the evil of discrimination from our society.

But surely those who are followers of Jesus can set an example? It can start with me and you.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Once again the media have carelessly talked about ‘the church’ in their reporting, lumping all churches under the umbrella of the Church of England.