Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Mail on Easter Sunday 2014

RENEWED HOPE FOR EQUALITY IN THE CHURCH AT EASTER
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Easter Sunday is a time of hope and renewal - the resurrection of Christ, reminding us that we have a chance to renew our perspectives and review our intentions for the year ahead.
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For some people Easter represents a clean slate, a chance to start again. But this doesn’t mean we can ignore what we have done in the past. Renewal must be more courageous than that. For the church, it asks us to face our Christian past, seeing where we have lost our central teachings and put our spiritual heritage at risk, sometimes leaving congregations detached and bereft.
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Over the past year the church has taken steps towards resolving the issue of equality within the church with Archbishop Welby bringing in David Porter, who has years of experience working on peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. He and his team were invited to mediate difficult and often painful conversations in Synod. His belief being that if we truly see the conflict on both sides, we can find a third way forward.
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Through these efforts, people on each side of the debate have begun to listen to each other in a new way. Some saying that they feel heard in a new way or that they see the potential for moving forward, trusting they would have an acceptable place as what would be then be a new legal minority against women Bishops. These talks are inspirational and play an important role in moving forward, but they are not all there is to be done. But we cannot afford to become complacent or when synod votes again this July, we could revert to another standoff: a battle between two immutable sides without the third wiser perspective that builds a new community.
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The truth is that we need more women at higher levels in the church, not only because the spiritual teaching of equality in the eyes of God is a vital core of our faith, but also because of the experience they will bring from growing through oppression. We also need to review the very way we lead. We need to ask ourselves how we have got into difficulties with all manner of issues such as finance, famine, and violence. Without this, we may find it hard to breathe fresh air into a spiritual family that too many people no longer see as relevant to them, or their lives.
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Equality has been at the centre of our faith from the beginning. Mary was told that she had a rightful place sitting with the disciples being taught by Jesus, Mary Magdalene was the first to be asked to tell the disciples the news that he had resurrected and many women clearly worked alongside the men as a team such as Martha who ran to Jesus for help even after her brother had died.
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From these examples, men and women should have been working together in every part of church life from the beginning, serving by example and through equal vocations. In the early church we find women like Priscilla who was a teacher with her husband Aquila and St Paul and some believe is the anonymous author of the book of Hebrews, and Phoebe who Paul calls a deacon and his emissary to the church in Rome.
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However by the first Century AD the church followed wider society in developing a structure that gave men power. We see fewer reports about the work women did. And very soon, there are fewer of them in notable roles within the church.
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Christians were persecuted from 64 AD, and some have argued the during that time some Christians tried to be seen to conform to male-dominated social mores of the time to protect themselves. Certainly , when Constantine took the cross onto his flag in 312, Christianity decided that conforming to a patriarchal system was worth the potential of spreading the news further. Whatever the full reason which will inevitably have much detail if we ever find it, the general truth is that equality of vocation between men and women faded quickly over the first hundred years and lost its place in the core of the church, where it belonged.
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Sadly, we now have to look back with shame at the generations of women who lived and died as practising Christians while being told from the pulpit that as the inheritors of Eve, they were responsible for all sin in the world. And that if they were to leave their place in the home they are in face being destructive to society as a whole.
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In this light, our admiration can only grow for the women who despite these odds managed to contribute through the ages. Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Christina Rossetti and many others who provided teachings and inspiration for us to cherish and build on.
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In truth it is heart breaking to remember what happened in this country during the Reformation when women were literally bridled, consisting of an iron plate pressed down on the tongue, for daring to speak publicly about their faith. And it is deeply sad that women have lived and died with an unfulfilled vocation to serve as priests. Any trace of this must be addressed for the spiritual good of all.
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The truth is we don’t know what full equality feels like yet across the country in places such as the business world, medical profession, government or police. We have made progress, and men and women are working hard to build equality, but we are still working on it and have only small experiences and our faith that it is right to guide us. When we do experience it fully, our sense of community could radically change and the church should be leading the way in this rather than being one of the last to revise its laws.
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But to get through the conflict, both those in favour of women Bishops and those against must beware the battle, because all too often when we find ourselves in conflict on issues such as this, we lose sight of the bigger picture, become militant and are no longer open to a new third way forward.
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For the Easter message to be possible, we must be willing to have courageous conversations and learn together as equals before God in a changing world. We must believe that Christ is alive and reigns with us as we evolve. And that the peace conversations that have been brought in by Archbishop Welby cannot be a one off, but need to continue and spread for new communities to be built.
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Too many people have thrown out their cultural, and spiritual heritage, because of the pain of what history shows us has been done in the name of religion. Many will therefore be living with the sense that something is missing from their lives, but feel unable to reclaim it, because they see those in power - or elements of organised religion - as having corrupted the spirit.
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But the Easter message is clear. Nothing can corrupt the Spirit. If religion is corrupt, it is not aligned with truth, it has fallen into man- made institutional politics. An iron plate in my mouth in the name of religion does not mean that the core spiritual heritage of that tradition stands for that. It means it is buried and needs to be found again. If we let ourselves lose our heritage because of those who have been misguided, then we let them win.
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Easter Sunday is a time of hope and renewal -The message is clear. Even in the darkest of our mistakes, we can find hope if we have the courage to look at them face on and search for a bigger picture, one that realigns us with our core integrity and invites us to learn from each other.
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For the church, the renewal must be men and women working together, equally created and loved by God, equal in our vocations, our leadership and our community. With this renewal, we can reclaim and pass on our extraordinary spiritual heritage, bestowing it on the people it is for and step forward as a renewed community, into the Easter light.