Monday, 22 December 2008

Equality in the Church

This post stems from a piece by Dave Warnock (42) in which he considers the future of Methodism and a range of topics related to this. I responded on his blog to most of them but thought I would like to make a more in depth response to the question of equality. Detailed below is the comment Dave made in respect of equality.
5. Equality
We have some excellent theology that backs up our belief that all people can be called by God to any role within the Church and to make it impossible to discriminate on the basis of gender, race etc. However, we do need some significant steps to be made to in policies, procedures and monitoring to ensure that we do not allow discrimination anywhere through both prevention and monitoring.

1. What is equality?
I have heard many definitions of equality and I am not really sure that any of them hit the mark. I would hope that for most of us it is the recognition that each one of us is a unique person with individual needs, aspirations and hopes and that equality should take into account these things and not assume that we should all be treated the same. Equality is about more than dealing with people in the same manner because how you deal with me may not be appropriate for my wife. There is a view in some quarters that equality can only be equality if we treat everyone the same and you will appreciate that this is not my view from what I have already said here.
2. Equality in the church.
I have to ask myself does this exist. While I agree with Dave that there is theology in place that assists us with this issue the reality I think is far removed from this. As I have travelled through my church life I have tried very hard to observe what has gone on in each place and how equal we are under God. It should be said that certainly in the first chapel I attended I was still quite young but with the benefit of knowledge and hindsight I feel able to look back and make reasonably informed comment.
In my first experience of a Christian organisation it was very much a tight regime that was in place and would from what I know have been fairly standard practice in the Brethren church 40+ years ago. There was a definite separation of boys and girls in Sunday School with boys on one side of the building an girls on the other. Boys were taught by male teachers and girls by female and the female teachers all wore hats which of course was part of the thinking in this particular group at that time, as it was with other groups and supposedly based on the writings of Saint Paul. The ladies were not allowed to speak in church and as far as I can remember were not allowed to take any part. I have visited this church in the last year and find there have been some changes in that ladies are not all wearing hats or other headgear now but the men still seem to be firmly in charge.
My second church when I was in my mid twenties was a Methodist Central Hall which at the time had a large youth group of 70 or so members and other youth activities such as Boys Brigade, Brownies etc. The congregation at this church had people from other chapels in the town which had closed down but seemed to work together very well. At the time (early 1980’s) this was probably a very forward thinking church in many ways and I have to say within six months of going there I was a door steward and a member of the family committee and church council. This was followed by becoming secretary of the family committee and assistant youth leader as well as road manager to a gospel rock band that were based at this church.
We were probably more fortunate at this church than many as there was a wide mix of people on the various committees including a number of the younger people who were also for the most part church members. This was a good period and I think that in general terms I saw equality in action here with everyone’s views being taken into account most of the time and there not being the us and them that often seems to exist between younger and older groups in any walk of life. Meetings were run very much in accordance with the rule book (CPD) and in fact the minister always made a point of bringing the two black folders and placing them in full view before the meeting.
The equality seemed to end when the younger people challenged the way the bringing of gifts to the church anniversary was done and this I believe was the catalyst for the decline of the youth group at this church.
My next church was an Elim Pentecostal church where the church was run by the church session (all male) made up of the pastor and a number of elders and deacons. The ministry at this church was on a shared basis and one of the elders deacons would lead worship and the pastor would preach or vice versa. Again I had not been attending very long before I was involved with Sunday School and became a deacon which led to me leading and preaching. I suppose I would have to say that this church was similar to my first church in that ladies wore hats and did not speak in church unless it was to give a message in tongues or an interpretation. During my time at this church the pastor moved to another church and we had a new pastor come who was effectively a one man band – he did everything, he didn’t use the elders or deacons and at one church session meeting told us that we were in a theocracy not a democracy and that effectively his word was law.
We then moved to an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church which operated on similar lines to the Elim one except the wearing of hats seemed to have now become less of an issue and there was some involvement of ladies in leading prayers and reading but still no speaking or preaching activity. At this church as with the previous two I was asked in a very short time if I would preach and lead and we had a situation where the pastor, his son and I did the bulk of the leading and preaching.
My latest move was ten years ago when I moved to my current church and this is obviously a Methodist church which is to a great extent probably the place that I have seen more equality than any other that I have attended or been part of.
If I were to put the heading of this point as a question – Equality in the church? I think I would have to say that in my experience it is not or has not been very evident. Each of the churches has obviously been operating within the ‘norm’ for that church and while I recognise this I really do feel that the ladies in general have come out of all this very badly. I find it quite pleasing that there has been some movement in almost all of these denominations over the years but I think there is still quite a way to go to achieve anything like equality and certainly a way to go to achieve the priesthood of all believers.
More to come.
I am aware that this is a fairly lengthy post so I intend to end here with a view to returning to the topic in the next day or two and looking at the matter in more depth in respect of my experience of the Methodist Church. My intention is to consider a range of things including Conference, Synod, Committees, Local Preachers, Ministers (maybe) and how I see equality working or not as the case may be within these areas of the church.

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