By Rev. Mindi
I was going to write a whole post about how we as progressive Christians can reclaim Thanksgiving as a spiritual practice of giving thanks and giving back from what God has given us on a daily basis, to acknowledge and honor the fact that the tame little story we learned in elementary school about the Pilgrims and Indians is based on a white myth that we Euro-Americans keep retelling to the next generation because the truth about genocide is too uncomfortable for us to bear… but that might wait for another day. Or maybe from this one brief paragraph you’ll garner enough insight for yourself (and read this great article on the Huffington Post asking the question Do Native Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?)
But then this happened. The Church of England, by a margin of 6 votes, was unable to allow female bishops for the first time. By six votes.
And suddenly I’m thinking back over almost 400 years of not only the struggles for religious freedom, but also the freedom of call, and the freedom to speak. I think of not only the Separatists in England that later became known as the Puritans and Pilgrims, but of the very few (less than ten) who left the Separatists in Holland to return to England after being influenced by the Anabaptists and began meeting as the first Baptists in England, meeting in secret. I think of Roger Williams in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, banished back to England but fled to what is now Rhode Island, who not only had radical beliefs about baptism and the separation of church and state, but also believed that the Native Americans already knew God and that he was not called to convert them but to become friends with them. And I think of the women who began to preach almost 400 years ago in small New England churches along with the women who were burned at the stake in Salem. This tension of the freedom of the Spirit and the need to control to the point of death go hand in hand over our last four hundred years.
We’ve come so far and yet we take steps backward every step forward. We continue to forget our history and even disguise our stories in overreaching myths. My Southern Baptist sisters, from the same roots of religious freedom and the separation of church and state that was established along with the First Baptist Church in Providence, RI, still face expulsion for ordination, along with the congregations that call them. And now my Anglican sisters, who have only been able to be ordained for twenty years, are faced with the stained-glass ceiling because of a few who might be uncomfortable, for those who claimed this was a cultural issue and not a biblical issue.
But this is a Biblical issue. It is a Biblical issue when we ignore our history and repeat the mistakes of the past—didn’t the prophets teach us this when the people ignored the poor and the widows and the orphans and left the way of their God? Isn’t it a Biblical issue when we ignore the basic human rights of others and treat entire cultures as not worthy of survival, as the ancient Israelites faced and as Native Americans have experienced, and how many groups around the world continue to experience, while Christians have stood by or mainly been silent (as happening in Gaza and Israel)? And isn’t it a Biblical issue when we silence voices speaking out against injustice, and deny rights and responsibilities to individuals based on our DNA such as race, gender, and sexual orientation? Didn’t the Syrophonecian woman challenge Jesus herself to be heard? Didn’t Priscilla and Phoebe serve in equal roles as Paul? And didn’t Paul himself say there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)?
It is a travesty that women cannot be bishops in the Church of England just because it makes some people uncomfortable. It is outrageous that this is said in the name of tradition. It is unthinkable that this is not seen as a Biblical issue but a cultural one, and that the very people who do not want the Church of England to give in to the culture of today use their own culture of tradition as their excuse.
The world around us has had women in leadership in just about every position. While the U.S. still waits to have its first female president, many other nation-states including the United Kingdom have moved forward. The U.S. had a record number of women elected to Congress this year. And yet, for some reason in these people’s minds, while God would allow a woman to rule a country (as the Queen in the United Kingdom, who is also technically the head of the Church of England, ironically), while women can do just about anything today, they cannot lead in a church.
There is nothing Biblical in that argument. Instead, it is giving in to a very old culture and tradition that states the way things have been is the way they should be. White men rule the world, so therefore white men should continue. Our version of Christianity is the right way to believe, so others must convert. Our culture is superior, so others must become Westernized. And so we continue to perpetuate the myth that we continue to teach to elementary school children: our version of history is the right one because it’s neat and orderly and makes us look good. In the church, we perpetuate that myth as well: because we’ve always had male bishops and male church leaders, it’s the right one because it’s neat and orderly.
To truly be counter-cultural, to truly be revolutionary, to truly be Biblical and living into God’s ways, we have to learn from our past mistakes and know that God is continuing to lead us forward. The way of the world is to stick with the culture and traditions of the past; the Biblical way, and the way of God, is to continue to seek God’s insight in our own lives, to come to new and greater conclusions of God’s inclusive love, as Paul did in his letter to the Galatians, as Jesus did when he was challenged by the Syrophonecian woman, as the prophets did long ago when they challenged the status quo.
Happy Thanksgiving! Eat, drink, and be merry. Give thanks to God who has given this beautiful earth as our dwelling place. But let us stop perpetuating myths, and let us give thanks to those who have challenged, who have spoken out on behalf of the marginalized, and who continue to lead us forward. Remember and mourn with our Native American brothers and sisters, with our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, and with our Anglican brothers and sisters. Let us give thanks to God, who always gives us another chance to learn from our mistakes, and to grow in our understanding of God’s great love.
Oh, and P.S. To hear some great stories of women who are challenging authority and leadership culture in the church, check out this book by Jennifer Harris Dault, released yesterday: The Modern Magnificat: Women Responding to the Call of God. My call story is included in this collection.