We had an interesting discussion at church on Sunday, seated round our kitchen table, sparked off by Colossians 3:18-4:1. One of the women related how, on the child minding course she is studying, she received lower marks for not agreeing to the idea that boys and girls are the same and by this they mean no different at all. In order, it is thought, to have true equality you cannot say there are differences. It’s a peculiarly Swedish approach.
The instinctive reaction around the table, from men and women from three different cultures across two continents was that this just simply isn’t true. Even as we set aside traditional concepts of gender roles there was a conviction that difference does not imply lesser value. Seated around our table were multiple cultures Afro-Caribbean British, Scottish, English, Swedish & Chinese – each culture different from the others in sometimes subtle ways and in other more obvious ways. There was no attempt to put these cultures into a hierarchy – different but equal was the consensus.
My culture (White English) has a long history of oppression and colonialism (alongside other more virtuous traits) and there were others whose history was on the side of the oppressed – yet despite the injustices we were working toward discovering how the gospel changes our approach so that a more beautiful unity is created by an appreciation of our diversity and not a creation of a bland uniformity.
With gender today, because of the often oppressive actions of male towards female, we struggle with the idea of equal but different. Yet not every area of modern life would welcome a complete levelling of the field – take sport for example. It is perhaps the one area of life, outside of child-birth, that the physical differences between men and women are most evident – where equal but different is the right approach.
In the London 2012 Olympics of Jamaica won the gold in 10.75 seconds; it was the fastest time ever run in Britain by a woman. It was, is, a remarkable achievement. Yet had Fraser-Pryce run against the men it would have been, perhaps naturally, a different story. She wouldn’t have finished last, she would have just beaten Asafa Powell who pulled up with a hamstring injury but more accurately she wouldn’t have even made the final with that time.
Nor would she have made the semi-final. Instead she would have finished last or second to last in all seven of the round one heats.
Equal and the same would have obliterated all women sprinters and every single female track and field athlete in every single event. Same goes for every sport that relies on strength, speed, stamina. No medals for Jess Ennis, Becky Adlington or Victoria Pendleton or Katherine Grainger.
Yet equal but different means we get to watch these women compete and triumph and our celebration of their victory is not lessened by the fact that they competed against women. We can see the skill, the strength, the brilliance of these women.
There are some sports where men and women do compete against each other because the sport allows for it – show jumping (the skill is with the rider and the strength with the horse). I’ve no idea whether it would make any difference in sailing or shooting or archery for example but if women have sufficient fitness to compete at the highest levels they should – unlike Sterling Moss.
What, if any, relevance does this have for the church where, let’s face it physical fitness is not one of the requirements for eldership? Is this an argument for no female elders? No.
What I’m trying to say and to demonstrate is that ‘equal but different’ exists and sometimes it can be good and sometimes we celebrate it, rise up on our feet and shout our loudest for it. I want to cheer on these remarkable, amazing women and there are women in church who, in different ways are just as remarkable, amazing and strong and sometimes it’s the difference not the sameness that allows me to see it for what it is.