1. The Religious Roots of Gender Violence
Violence Against Women|
in Contemporary World Religion:
Roots And Cures
Daniel C. Maguire
Professor of Moral Theology & Ethics, Marquette University, and President, The Religious Consultation On Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics
Note: The following is quoted (with permission) from Violence Against Women in Contemporary World Religion: Roots And Cures, Daniel C. Maguire and Sa'Diyya Shaikh (Editors), Pilgrim Press, 2007, 248 pages.
Excerpts from Chapter 4, "A Tafsir of Praxis: Gender, Marital Violence, and Resistance in a South African Muslim Community," by Sa'diyya Shaikh, pages 66-67:
O ye who believe stand out firmly for justice,
as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, ... (Q 4:135)
Indeed Allah commands ('adl) justice and (ithan) the actualization
of goodness, the realization of beauty. (Q 16:90)
"For many Muslims in the contemporary world, these Qur'anic verses resonate Islam's deepest spiritual and ethical imperatives for justice. For those who believe justice, God-consciousness, and the perfection of character to be foundational objectives of an Islamic life, the quest for gender equality remains an abiding concern. Muslism committed to gender egalitarism are troubled by the rampant patriarchy in their communities and in dominant readings of their religious legacy. Qur'anic verses that instead privilege mutuality in male-female relationships provide a corrective that sustains many of us. Verses reflecting such an ethos include the following:
And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends (awliya) one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and Allah's messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise." (Q 9:71)
"Another verse that focuses particularly on marital relations reads:
And among Allah's signs is this: that Allah created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and Allah has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect." (Q 30:21)
"The notions that believing men and women provide frienship and mutual protection for one another, that they actually undertake moral agency in the world, that human beings strive to live in a state of tranquility with their spouses, that marital relationships are to be approached as the embodiment of divine love and mercy, collectively reflect the Islamic ideal of gemnder relations to many such committed Muslims."
Editor's Note: Tragicomical as this may seem to us today, there are still women who lament not having been born male. Such is the power of the patriarchal mindset, so it would be wise to examine the impact of traditionally patriarchal religious practices and modes of thinking. The symptoms may vary from one tradition to another but, directly or indirectly, religious patriarchy harms men as much as it harms women. Recent examples include the incredible cases of child abuse in several Christian churches and the bellicose fundamentalism that persists in some religious cultures. Violence begets violence, and gender-related violence (physical and/or psychological, secular and/or religious) is arguably the most pervasive form of violence in the world. What goes around comes around. In both religion and society, when 50% of the population dominates the other 50%, 100% of the population is bound to suffer in one way or another. The renewal of the entire community of creation requires the talents and collaboration of all men and women, heterosexual or homosexual, in all dimensions of human life and across the full range of the gender continuum.
For further study and reflection on religious gender-related violence:
Colloquium On Violence & Religion (COV&R), Official website for exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard‘s Mimetic Theory.
Violence Against Women: Philosophical and Religious Foundations of Gender Morality, James W. Prescott, New Perspectives, 1995.
Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, James Alison, Crossroad, 2001.
Religion, globalization and violence against women, Rose Uchem, Conversations for a Better World, 2009.
A Cry for Dignity: Religion, Violence, and the Struggle of Dalit Women in India, Mary Grey, Equinox, 2010.
The Masculinity Conspiracy, Joseph Gelfer, CreateSpace, 14 August 2011.
The Forgiving Victim, James Alison, The Raven Foundation, forthcoming July 2012.
2. Heterosexuals and Homosexuals in Religion
Patriarchy preceded all the major religions that exist today, and biased them all from the beginning in favor of heterosexual male hegemony and domination (Cf. Genesis 3:16). This section is a synopsis about the universality of the deeply ingrained prejudice - undoubtedly based on male-only images of God - that must be overcome if organized religion is not to become an obstacle to integral human development.
Two Wings of a Bird: The Equality of Women and Men, Bahá'í International Community, 1999.
- Religious Tolerance, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 1995-2011.
This web site offers an excellent synopsis (with passage quotations, annotated citations, and links to other web sites) about the status of women in the Bible and in early Christianity. It is structured as follows:
- During Old Testament times, when the roles of women were severely restricted
- Hebrew scripture passages treating women as generally inferior to men
- Hebrew scripture passages treating women as property of men
- Hebrew scripture passages describing women in other negative terms
- Hebrew scripture passages describing women as equal to men (very few)
- Hebrew scripture passages describing women as leaders (but not as religious leaders)
- During Jesus' public ministry to the people of Israel, when the roles of women were severely restricted in accordance with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) traditions and practices
- Changing roles of women after the execution and resurrection of Jesus (circa 30 CE)
- Regressive statements by Christian religious authorities (all male) after the 2nd century CE
By following these lists of biblical and post-biblical statements, the reader is able to verify the descriptive versus prescriptive passages about women, and the significant discontinuities that must be researched, as pointed out in Section 1.
- The emerging field of women and gender studies now includes issues of men, masculinities, and spirituality. See, for example:
- Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women, Deborah Blum, Penguin, 1998.
- Does Masculinity Thwart Being Religious?, Edward H. Thompson Jr. and Kathryn R. Remmes, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, September 2002.
- Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace, Judith L. Hand, Questpath Publishing, 2003.
- Biological Differences Between Men and Women With Respect to Social Stability and Aggression, Judith L. Hand, 2006.
- Young Men, Religion and Attitudes Towards Homosexuality, Yasemin Besen and Gilbert Zicklin, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, Novermber 2007.
- Guide to Graduate Work in Women's / Gender Studies, Joan Korenman and NWSA, 2009.
- Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy, Joseph Gelfer, Equinox Publishing, 2009.
- The Patriarch's Nuts: Concerning the Testicular Logic of Biblical Hebrew, Roland Boer, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, June 2011.
- The Other Side of the Gender Equation: Gender Issues for Men in the Europe and Eurasia Region, Susan D. Somach, KDID Social Transitions, July 2011.
It is important for gender studies to be balanced and include the study of both men and women, heterosexual and homosexual. Gender studies, if properly integrated along the gender continuum, can provide crucial insights to help foster gender equality and gender balance.
- What "America's Pope" thinks of gay marriage, priestly celibacy, and women priests, CBS Sixty Minutes Overtime, 21 August 2011.
On the ordination of women:
Archbishop Dolan: "Jesus gave women positions of responsibility. The only ones at the foot of the cross except for St. John? Women. The people that discovered his resurrection? Women. The people that were with him on his journeys? Women. People say, 'This guy was kind of a pioneer in women's rights.' So, if he were going to intend them for the priesthood, he woulda done it. And he didn't."
Mother Pelican's Response: The good archbishop is offering a specious argument based on a literalist interpretation of gospel texts taken out of context. There are many things Jesus did 2000 years ago that he wouldn't do today. Would he, in the globalized society of the 21st century, select twelve Jewish men to represent the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel? Likewise, there are many things Jesus didn't do 2000 years ago that he would do today (such as including women among the apostles, since the credibility of women as witnesses now has as much credibility as that of men) and he warned his disciples about thinking that they already knew everything he might do in the future (John 16:12-13).
The Bahá'í religion is a shining exception to the phallic syndrome that prevails in many religious institutions: "The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is essential to human progress and the transformation of society. Inequality retards not only the advancement of women but the progress of civilization itself. The persistent denial of equality to one-half of the world's population is an affront to human dignity. It promotes destructive attitudes and habits in men and women that pass from the family to the work place, to political life, and, ultimately, to international relations. On no grounds, moral, biological, or traditional, can inequality be justified. The moral and psychological climate necessary to enable our nation to establish social justice and to contribute to global peace will be created only when women attain full partnership with men in all fields of endeavor." It is noteworthy that the Bahá'ís do not have clergy, so it may have been easier for them to avoid the trap of a male-only hierarchy.
Was Jesus gay? Probably, Paul Oestreicher, The Guardian, 20 April 2012.
"Heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual: Jesus could have been any of these. There can be no certainty which. The homosexual option simply seems the most likely. The intimate relationship with the beloved disciple points in that direction. It would be so interpreted in any person today. Although there is no rabbinic tradition of celibacy, Jesus could well have chosen to refrain from sexual activity, whether he was gay or not. Many Christians will wish to assume it, but I see no theological need to. The physical expression of faithful love is godly. To suggest otherwise is to buy into a kind of puritanism that has long tainted the churches."
In brief, since their inception most religions have absorbed the patriarchal mindset of male hegemony, and awareness that this isa prejudice to be overcome - rather than a sacred tradition to be conserved and transmitted - is a new phenomenon. Perhaps the impending economic and ecological crises, and the unavoidable need for all humans to collaborate in transitioning to a world of solidarity and sustainability, will induce a religious renewal and help to overcome pseudo-dogmatic resistance to change.
3. Women and Religious Gender Roles in Judaism
Wikipedia article on Women in Judaism:
The role of women in Judaism is determined by the Hebrew Bible, the Oral Law (the corpus of rabbinic literature), by custom, and by non-religious cultural factors. Although the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature mention various female role models, religious law treats women differently in various circumstances.
Relatively few women are mentioned in the Bible by name and role, suggesting that they were rarely in the forefront of public life. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, including the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Miriam the prophetess, Deborah the Judge, Huldah the prophetess, Abigail who married David, and Esther. In the Biblical account these women did not meet with opposition for the relatively public presence they had.
According to Jewish tradition, a covenant was formed between the Israelites and the God of Abraham at Mount Sinai. The Torah relates that both Israelite men and Israelite women were present at Sinai, however, the covenant was worded in such a way that it bound men to act upon its requirements and to ensure that the members of their household (wives, children, and slaves) met these requirements as well. In this sense, the covenant bound women as well, though indirectly.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
The Wikipedia article includes a very comprehensive bibliography and a directory of links to Jewish religious sources. With regard to current trends on the role of women in Judaism, the following articles are very instructive:
Disturbing recent news on religious violence against women:
If this is the situation today, imagine how it was 2000 years ago!
4. Women and Religious Gender Roles in Christianity
Wikipedia article on Gender Roles in Christianity:
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
Courtesy of He Qi Gallery
(click HERE to view large image)
Gender roles in Christianity vary considerably today as they have during the last two millennia. This is especially true with regards to marriage and ministry.
Christianity traditionally has given men the position of authority in marriage, society and government. This position places women in submissive roles, and usually excludes women from church leadership, especially from formal positions requiring any form of ordination. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and many conservative Protestant denominations assert today that only men can be ordained—as clergy and as deacons.
Many progressive Christians disagree with the traditional "male authority" and "female submission" paradigm. They take a Christian egalitarian or Christian feminist view, holding that the overarching message of Christianity provides positional equality for women in marriage and in ministry. Accordingly, some Protestant churches now ordain women to positions of ecclesiastical leadership.
Despite these emerging theological differences, the majority of Christians regard women with dignity and respect as having been created alongside men in the Image of God. The Bible is seen by many as elevating and honoring women, especially as compared with certain other religions or societies. Women have filled prominent roles in the Church historically, and continue to do so today in spite of significant limitations imposed by ordination restrictions.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
5. Women and Religious Gender Roles in Islam
Wikipedia article on Women in Islam:
The study of women in Islam investigates the role of women within the religion of Islam. The complex relationship between women and Islam is defined by both Islamic texts and the history and culture of the Muslim world. The Qur'an makes it clear that men and women are equal, however the Qu'ran states in 4:34, "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband's absence what Allah orders them to guard." Although the Quran does say this, the superiority of men is interpreted in terms of strength by the context - men maintain women. This verse however refers to a relationship between a husband and wife, not in society as a whole.
Sharia (Islamic law) provides for complementarianism, differences between women's and men's roles, rights, and obligations. However neither the Quran nor Hadith mention women have to cook or clean. The majority of Muslim countries give women varying degrees of rights with regards to marriage, divorce, civil rights, legal status, dress code, and education based on different interpretations. Scholars and other commentators vary as to whether they are just and whether they are a correct interpretation of religious imperatives.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
Some additional references:
The Women of Islam, Lisa Beyer, Time Magazine, 25 November 2001.
Mauritanian Islamic leaders ban genital mutilation, Mohamed Abdel Wedoud, Magharebia, 15 January 2010.
Women in Islam, Catherine of Siena Virtual College, 2010.
Gender Equity in Islam (Foundations of Spiritual and Human Equity), Jamal Badawi, Islam Online, 29 March 2011.
Gender Equity in Islam (The Economic Aspect), Jamal Badawi, Islam Online, 30 March 2011.
Gender Equity in Islam (The Social Aspect), Jamal Badawi, Islam Online, 4 April 2011.
Gender Equity in Islam (The Legal/Political Aspect), Jamal Badawi, Islam Online, 7 April 2011.
Gender Segregation and Inequality inside Israel and Palestine, International Middle East Media Center, 30 November 2011.
International conference calls for gender equality in Muslim societies, Today's Zaman, Istanbul, 23 December 2011.
Within, Without: Dialogical Perspectives on Feminism and Islam, Sara Ashencaen Crabtree and Fatima Husain, Religion & Gender, February 2012.
Muslim Women in India Seek Gender Equality in Marriage, Nilanjana Roy, New York Times, 24 April 2012.
Islamic Feminism: Method and Strategy, Lanny Octavia, Qantara, 28 June 2012.
6. Women and Religious Gender Roles in Buddhism
Wikipedia article on Women in Buddhism:
"Women in Buddhism is a topic that can be approached from varied perspectives including those of theology, history, anthropology and feminism. Topical interests include the theological status of women, the treatment of women in Buddhist societies at home and in public, the history of women in Buddhism, and a comparison of the experiences of women across different forms of Buddhism. As in other religions, the experiences of Buddhist women have varied considerably.
"The founder of the religion, Gautama Buddha, permitted women to join his monastic community and fully participate in it, although there were certain provisos or garudhammas. As Susan Murcott has commented: "The nun's sangha was a radical experiment for its time" [Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Parallax Press. page 4.] Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu says of the First Buddhist council: "Perhaps Mahakassappa and the bhikkhus of that time were jealous of the bhikkhunis being more popular and doing more teaching and social work than the bhikkhus. Their anti-women prejudice became institutionalized at that time with the eight garudhammas, the eight weighty restrictions. We must discontinue that prejudice. There is no anti-women prejudice in Jainism and they survived in India; whereas Buddhism had prejudice and did not survive in India" [see The First Council and Suppression of the Bhikkhuni Order]. Although it must be said that this is factually incorrect, because there are jain sects like the Digambara sect, which believes that women are capable of spiritual progress, but must be reborn male, in order to attain final spiritual liberation. It is also highly doubtful that the garudhammas were motivated by Mahakaasapa's being jealous, as he is said to be an enlightened one and one of the principle disciples of the Buddha. Furthermore there's no support within canon, to suggest that the bhikkunis were more popular, taught more or that they did more social work than Bhikkhus.
"The various schools and traditions within Buddhism hold different views as to the possibilities of women's spiritual attainments. Feminist scholars have also noted than even when a woman's potential for spiritual attainment is acknowledged, records of such achievements may not be kept - or may be obscured by gender-neutral language or mis-translation of original sources by Western scholars. According to Bernard Faure, "Like most clerical discourses, Buddhism is indeed relentlessly misogynist, but as far as misogynist discourses go, it is one of the most flexible and open to multiplicity and contradiction."
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
Some additional references:
The Place of Women in Buddhism, Swarna de Silva, Enabling Support Foundation, 1994.
A Grand Declaration of Gender Equality, Writings on Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International, 1996.
Full Ordination of Women in Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, 2007.
An Argument Against Gender Discrimination Within The Buddhist Sangha, Anthony Burns,
International Buddhist College, Thailand, 2007.
Buddhism and Women, BhudaNet (with links to other resources), 2008.
The Position of Women in Buddhism , L.S. Dewaraja, Buddhist Pub Soc, Sri Lanka, 2011.
Ordination of Women in Buddhism, Wikipedia, 2011.
Buddhism Gender and Sexuality, Patheos, 2011.
7. Women and Religious Gender Roles in Hinduism
Wikipedia article on Women in Hinduism:
The role of women in Hinduism is often disputed, and positions range from equal status with men to restrictive. Hinduism is based on numerous texts, some of which date back to 2000 BCE or earlier. They are varied in authority, authenticity, content and theme, with the most authoritative being the Vedas. The position of women in Hinduism is widely dependent on the specific text and the context. Positive references are made to the ideal woman in texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while some texts such as the Manu Smriti advocate a restriction of women's rights. In modern times the Hindu wife has traditionally been regarded as someone who must at all costs remain chaste or pure. This is in contrast with the very different traditions that have prevailed at earlier times in 'Hindu' kingdoms, which included highly respected professional courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali), sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the basavis, the Tantric kulikas). Some European scholars observed in the nineteenth century Hindu women were "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women, although what exactly they meant by that is open to dispute. In any case, as male foreigners they would have been denied access to the secret and sacred spaces that women often inhabited. Mahabharata and Manusmriti asserts that gods are delighted only when women are worshiped or honoured, otherwise all spiritual actions become futile.
There is a wide variety of viewpoints within the different schools and sects of Hinduism concerning the exact nature and gender (where applicable) of the Supreme person or being; there are even sects that are skeptical about the existence of such a being. Shaktism, for example, focuses worship on the goddess Devi as the supreme embodiment of power, or Shakti (feminine strength; a female form of God). Vaishnavism and Shaivism both worship Lakshmi with Vishnu and Parvati with Shiva respectively as beings on an equal level of magnitude (the male and female aspects of God). In some instances such as with Gaudiya Vaishnavism, specific emphasis is placed on the worship of God's female aspect (Radharani) even above that of her paramour Krishna. Thus it could be said that Hinduism considers God to have both male and female aspects, as the original source of both.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
Some additional references:
Landmark Step to Gender Equality, Bina Agarwal, The Hindu, 2005.
Women in Hinduism, Hindu Wisdom, 2008.
Gender equality is passé, let us usher in gender partnership, V. N. Mukundarajan, The Hindu, 2010.
Shaming numbers, Editorial, The Hindu, September 2011.
8. The Resilience of Patriarchy in Religious Institutions
This section examines the vexing resilience of patriarchal structures in most of the world religions:
Sharia Law - Source: Author Unknown
Papal Apology - Source: Kirk Anderson
RECENT NEWS & PUBLICATIONS
African theologian questions church’s exclusion of women, Joshua J. McElwee, NCR, 8 June 2012.
Meeting with doctrinal office opportunity for dialogue, says LCWR head, Carol Glatz, CNS, 12 June 2012.
Redefining Radical: Catholic Nuns Vs. the Vatican , Mark Engler, Yes! Magazine, 14 June 2012.
Levada talks LCWR, criticism in the States, John L. Allen Jr, NCR, 15 June 2012.
Nuns' leader decries church environment of fear, Nicole Winfield, AP, 18 June 2012.
Woman theologian stands up to Vatican, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 21 June 2012.
Leaving the church is a luxury the world cannot afford, Jamie Manson, NCR, 27 June 2012.
Women bishops: Jesus was happy with female apostles. What is the CofE's problem?, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Guardian Observer, 7 July 2012.
Mission, Unity and Women Bishops, Savi Hensman, Ekklesia, 13 July 2012.
Missing the Mark: What the CDF Gets Wrong about the LCWR, Sister Y, Commonweal, 18 July 2012.
VATICAN INQUISITION OF AMERICAN NUNS
The following are links to the official documentation provided by the Vatican and the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops about the current investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR):
Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Vatican CDF, released 18 April 2012.
Statement of Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, Vatican CDF, released 18 April 2018.
Vatican Names Archbishop Sartain To Lead Renewal Of LCWR, USCCB, 18 April 2012.
LCWR INITIAL RESPONSE
Washington DC, 1 June 2012
Statement of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious Regarding CDF Report
"The national board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) held a special meeting in Washington, DC from May 29-31 to review, and plan a response to, the report issued to LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"The board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared. Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.
"The board determined that the conference will take the following steps:
- On June 12 the LCWR president and executive director will return to Rome to meet with CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada and the apostolic delegate Archbishop Peter Sartain to raise and discuss the board’s concerns.
- Following the discussions in Rome, the conference will gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response to the CDF report.
"The board recognizes this matter has deeply touched Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world as evidenced by the thousands of messages of support as well as the dozens of prayer vigils held in numerous parts of the country. It believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world. As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity."
EDITOR'S PERSONAL COMMENT
Contact: Annmarie Sanders, IHM – LCWR Director of Communications (email@example.com)
The LCWR statement is a respectful but properly firm response to the inquisitorial Vatican assessment. The sisters will not be intimidated. Good for them!
The Vatican may be trying to use the nuns, the pedophilia crisis, the "religious freedom" issue, and any other conceivable pretext to distract attention from the most explosive issue, and one that is clear cut: the continued refusal to ordain women to the priesthood, a practice that is both theologically baseless and socially harmful. Doing something wrong for 2000 years is no justification to keep doing it; but church authorities apparently do not want to admit that the sacramental practices and "doctrine" of the Roman Catholic church, at least with regard to the sacrament of holy orders, remain contaminated with sexism.
This is not surprising in view of the fact that all the major world religions share the same patriarchal mindset. But specifically from the perspective of Roman Catholic sacramental doctrine, isn't it time to recognize that a celibate woman is a better icon of Christ than a married man? Much good can come out of this tragicomic display of religious patriarchy. Let us pray that both the bishops and the faithful can recognize the difference between clear-cut and long-settled issues, such as the right to life and the fully inclusive humanity God assumed at the incarnation, and other issues of human sexuality such as contraception and same-sex marriage, in which much homework remains to be done.
In other words, the Vatican and the bishops seem to be saying that no further doctrinal development is needed in matters of human sexuality. Something tells me that they are in for a rude awakening.
Luis T. Gutiérrez - Editor, Mother Pelican Journal, 1 June 2012
9. Women Bishops - Article by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Women bishops: Jesus was happy with female apostles
Guardian Observer, 7 July 2012
Reprinted with Permission
The Anglican church is embroiled in another debate over the role of women in its hierarchy. If the general synod refuses to back female bishops, it will be taking the wrong lessons from history.
For those arguing at the general synod about women bishops, it is probably too late to include much theology in their deliberations, but one prominent strand in the debates has been a theological jargon phrase, calculated as always to baffle outsiders to churchy stuff: the "apostolic succession". This is the idea that bishops stand in a continuous line of church leaders right back to the apostles chosen by Jesus.
Very often those who oppose opening up the episcopate to another 50% of the human race treat "apostolic succession" as a knockdown argument on their side. All Jesus's 12 apostles were men, they point out helpfully, therefore all bishops should be men, always, everywhere.
There's a problem with this argument. Strictly speaking, the 12 apostles were not the 12 apostles: they were the 12, who happened to be apostles. Their chief purpose was to be 12, not apostles – because they were a sign that Jesus was instituting a New Israel with its 12 tribes, as the world drew to its end.
I don't think that the promoters of an all-male episcopate would wish to say that 21st-century bishops should spend their time proclaiming the imminent end of the world. Apostle simply means messenger and there was and is quite a lot else to say about Jesus than announcing the end of the world. There were other apostles who were not in the 12, some of them chosen directly by Jesus, some not. In the latter category was a man who nevertheless spent a lot of time emphasising that he was an apostle of Jesus, and indeed went on to make something of a splash in Christian history: Paul of Tarsus.
In fact, the story of leadership in the early church is quite complicated and it's clear from what scanty evidence survives that not all the first Christian churches were led by bishops, even when they had apostles hanging around. It's also certain that not all apostles were men. Paul is our best witness here, all the more so because his own attitude to women in the church seems confused: once in his first letter ("Epistle") to the Corinthians he orders women absolutely to keep silence in worship; elsewhere in the same epistle, he allows them to pray or prophesy with their heads covered.
The contradiction is one good reason for supposing that this apparent single epistle has been stitched together from at least two different texts. Yet once we've got past that puzzle, there are some other fascinating straws in the wind in the surviving fragments of Paul's writings.
Nearly all the people whom Paul mentions in his writings are just names to us, with a fact or two attached, but the names and facts are significant. Amid the large number of folk whom Paul lists as sending greetings in his Epistle to the Romans are Phoebe, the deacon (administrative officer or assistant) in the Church of Cenchreae (a port near Corinth); Prisca, a "fellow-worker"; and Tryphaena and Tryphosa, "workers in the Lord" – descriptions which Paul also applies to men in the same passage.
Biblical translators and therefore historians have also tended to view Phoebe's status as that of a "deaconess"; yet this is probably reading back from the third and fourth centuries, when female deacons were restricted to roles necessarily reserved for women, such as looking after scantily clad females in services of baptism. There is no good reason to suppose that first- and second-century Christians made such a distinction.
Most striking, Paul's greeting list in his letter to the Romans includes Junia, a female "apostle", so described alongside another "apostle" with a male name. That obviously feminine ending "a" to Junia's name was considered such an appalling anomaly by many later readers of Romans that when biblical manuscripts were copied and recopied over the centuries the name Junia was frequently changed to a masculine form, or was simply regarded without any justification as a man's name.
Nevertheless, early biblical commentators were given a strong rhetorical lead by the great fourth-century preaching bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, who was honourably prepared to acknowledge the surprising femininity of Junia. Then after 1,200 years there was a sudden contrary turn in the writings of Giles of Rome, in the 13th-century western church; now Junia was a man and biblical commentators didn't correct that until the 20th century.
Devotees of the immortal transvestite comedy Some Like It Hot will recall the millionaire Osgood's cheerful riposte to Jack Lemmon's exasperated final revelation that he is of the male gender: "Well, nobody's perfect."
None of this is surprising, since in the last few decades archaeologists have discovered a number of references on gravestones or other inscriptions which show that around Paul's time there was active female leadership in the councils of Jewish synagogues. Jewish women were sitting alongside Jewish men as "elders", in appropriately gendered variants on a Greek word presbuteros, which Christians soon borrowed and applied to a newly created priesthood. This was the era in which Christian churches were still very close to the synagogues and inevitably there was going to be overlap.
The great distorting factor in Christian history which transcends denominational and many other ecclesiastical divisions is that most history has been written by men. And the truth is that men are for the most part not very interested in women, except in certain very specific ways – most of which have been officially out of bounds, because of the general tendency of past Christian historians to be not just men, but celibate clergymen.
There is another wild card to take into account in history: the way that something which once seemed so important to everyone can suddenly seem of no significance at all – and then all the worries are rapidly forgotten, as if they had never been. Let me point you to one of the most long-lasting examples: the Christian ban on menstruating women from participation in the sacraments or even from approaching the altar.
This prohibition, which seems so bizarre now, is first to be encountered in the writings of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria at the beginning of the third century. An honourable exception – one of very few – to this unexamined consensus was Pope Gregory the Great, writing soon after launching his mission to England under the monk Augustine in 597. Alas, the pope's open-mindedness was probably conditioned by his evident irritation with the Christians already in Britain before Augustine arrived; they not only predated but resisted Augustine's authority. These native Christians were rigorous about menstruating women and it was their independent-mindedness that provoked the pope's liberal ruling. The consensus began to fade in the 16th-century Reformation, at least among those Protestant churches whose worship was less centred on the sacraments than was the case in the Catholic church, but the prejudice survived half-expressed in the more ceremonially minded parts of Lutheranism and Anglicanism until the 1950s and it could still be encountered in 1970 in a regulation of the Catholic church excluding women lectors from the sanctuary during their menstrual periods. Now western Christendom at least has forgotten an issue on which church leaders were near-unanimously agreed, almost without discussion, for 1,700 years. Any lessons to be drawn from that?
Christian history shows a consistent pattern from Paul to the present. In times of trial and conflict, or of rapid innovation in theology, men fall away from their accustomed leadership roles, partly because they are more likely than women to be victims of punitive violence from other men. In their place, female leadership re-emerges as a survival strategy for the church. The time for men to take over again is when life has returned to more tranquil patterns, the church conforms once more to the expectations of society around it and the historical record is adjusted to match those expectations.
It would be good to break this cycle in the 21st century and simply accept once more that women can be Christian leaders just as much as men. There is one brutally pragmatic consideration: given how dysfunctional the bench of English bishops has collectively shown itself to be over the last year or two, one way of remedying the problem would be to have fewer men and more women amid the ranks of mitres.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford