Book review: The gender agenda

gender agendaI continue to regularly read books on the role of women in church leadership, seeking to weigh the various arguments as carefully as I know how. The latest is The Gender Agenda by Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry.

The book takes the format of a series of exchanged emails between Lis and Clare as they debate this issue. Both women minister in the Church of England and teach and preach. Lis is convinced that all roles are open to both men & women whereas Clare is convinced that there is a role of authority in both the home and the church that should be held only by men.

The email format makes the book very readable, keeps the tone light even when they’re discussing detailed theology and allows for the personality of the two women to be expressed. This makes the book very helpful as the arguments go back and forth to be able to measure the merit of each. I think in this case it works even better than say the Counterpoints series which is an essay followed by rebuttals.

For most of the book it felt like Lis was the one trying hard to persuade the more conservative Clare, while Clare sought to defend her position, which is the way of things. The newer revision assaults the position of the ages seeking to overturn and establish itself in its stead. But Clare is made of stern stuff and meets every challenge as well as posing a few of her own. The tone throughout is a model for how to debate tough subjects with those who hold the opposite view.

As for the content, a few observations. Firstly, both women minister in the Church of England and there’s no question that their ecclesiology shapes their view of what ministry is. There are all sorts of ministries that can only be done by a priest or an ordained deacon which in a different ecclesiology are no obstacle at all. Neither particularly addressed this issue and how under a different ecclesiology the issues change. However, whatever the church, the key texts remain the same key texts for everyone.

The biggest difference was over Genesis and it was clear that all other texts linked backed to their understanding of what God is trying to say in the first three chapters of Genesis. There is a huge danger of reading what we already believe into the texts and failing to see the other side can possibly see what they do. Anyway Clare has headship as a part of God’s good creation and Lis sees it as a result of the fall and something that needs undoing. Despite all the many, many things they agreed upon that gulf was too wide.

I often hear egalitarians wonder why anyone would need headship and submission in a marriage, why can’t these confounded complementarians just act adult, talk reasonably and then agree together on a solution. Clare, however, gave an excellent example from her own marriage of the sort of issue for which submission and headship may be needed (loc 1782) and we’re not talking about disagreeing on where to go on holiday. Clare is a paedo-baptist and her husband is not. You cannot christen half a child, to do one thing with one child and a different thing with the other seems wildly inconsistent. It’s an issue that is as passionately held as the issue of women in leadership. Clare submitted. For whatever reason this example wasn’t responded to by Lis other than to say in her own marriage there was no issue where they had to defer.

I got the definite impression that for Clare to change her position would be significant but not disastrous but for Lis to change her position would be a major identity crisis, which highlights the painful nature of the debate. For many, many women this is about their identity. Great care should be taken.

In the end of course, neither side is persuaded or compelled by what the other finds compelling and persuasive but that is no surprise nor does it detract from an excellent little book.

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