Every now and then the lectionary throws up a reading which, as my old headmistress used to put it, “gives you furiously to think”; this morning’s reading, 1 Tim 5:1-16 is one such. Maybe you have to be a feminist to think that all sounds a wee bit sexist, but then I turned to the (wonderful) Reflections for Daily Prayer 2019-2020, to find Fr Marcus Green commenting:
These verses can seem patriarchal and even plain sexist. However, it’s always easy to sit in judgment on another community in another place in another age, and I am sure that others in future will do it to us too.
There is wisdom, let us attend!
Fr Green reminds us that in Paul’s time attitudes were different, and what Paul was counselling was, by the standards of the day, pretty radical. He also (and his reflections really are super) gets us to pause in our own day by referring to the fact that our first religious duty is to our own family:
In a world where the elderly and the infirm are too often viewed as a burden, and where care is seen as the State’s responsibility (or a business if we can afford to pay) perhaps we might be slower to feel uneasy with anything Paul writes. His solutions may not fit our lifestyles, but behind them lie the simple understanding that every person is a person loved by God
Again, let us attend to such wisdom!
It is also a reminder that context matters.
That said, would we really, even in our day, take seriously the instruction to “refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry.” There’s no getting away from the fact that to most modern ears this comes through as thoroughly sexist, and patriarchal. Paul clearly had his problems either with the way some women in the church behaved, or, as some think, with women and sex, full stop. That would hardly make him unique in the history of mankind, my father, who was already an old man when I was born, once said to me that: ‘any man who says he understands women is fooling only himself’.
But, if we can, and should, take Paul’s comments here in context rather than as prescriptive, it raises interesting questions about why we should read some of his other comments about women as definitive? In the Roman tradition there’s a ready answer, which is that the Papacy has accepted that it is so. In my own Church we have long taken a more balanced view of tradition.
As someone who considers herself an Anglo-Catholic, I value tradition hugely. I have written here about the value of the eucharist and how, for me, as for all Catholics, Christ is present in the consecrated bread and wine; I simply have no need for over-precise definitions. Tradition is a crucial check on what could otherwise be a gadarene rush to be on trend. But if it is not held in check, then it can lead to ossification.
Married priests are but one example. No one denies that in the early church and for long afterwards, priests and even bishops could be married, and there is nothing in Scripture against it. Equally, no one can deny that the Church came to take the view that this was not desirable and forbade it. That my own church, like others, came back to the earlier view is also undeniable. Where trouble comes is if a church insists that its view is definitive, when history shows there is no definitive teaching here. There is a view in the Church of Rome that priestly celibacy is a discipline, but it is not one which applies to some of the Easterm Rite Churches or to the Ordinariate. In other words, even there, there is adaptation to circumstances.
In my own church, this acceptance that tradition needs to be balanced with reason and scripture has led some to feel, as they always will, that we have gone too far, too fast, whilst others, equally naturally, feel that we have moved at a snail’s pace and then, only under huge pressure. But here we see another way in which the Anglican Church is a via media – a middle way. We seek to bring to the reading of Scripture the insights of scholarship as well of tradition, and working together, to find how best to preach the gospel to a world which has never really wanted to hear it.