A Woman and a Speaker?: Discriminating Discrimination

I have heard Psalm Two summarised in the following four points. Point One, sin is a problem. Point Two, God is angry. Point Three, judgement is coming, so (Point Four) put your trust in Jesus. The context was a Christian Union College Group Bible study, and the speaker seemed to be entirely serious. Entirely well-meaning, too—without any intention of distorting the word of God, and with every intention of setting forth the truth plainly.

Nevertheless it scarcely needs saying that her four points misrepresent both the Scriptures in general and Psalm Two in particular. The psalmists probably did not want to write four-point gospel summaries—if you wanted to write a four-point gospel summary, why would you bother writing a psalm? Nor does this particular summary reflect the Psalm Two psalmist’s depiction of, and engagement with, the character of heavenly and human power. You cannot jump, just like that, from ‘the kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers gather together against the Lord’ to ‘your friends and fellow students are all in dire need of salvation and must consequently be invited to the Friday Lunchtime Talk’.

Sin in the Psalms is a more complicated thing than Point One suggests. Reading just the first few, one finds a struggle between two kinds of struggle: on the one hand, there is the need to establish what goodness and justice actually are, and that God has these (‘you are not a God who takes pleasure in evil’ seems like a statement of the obvious to modern Christian ears, but might have been a necessary act of defiance to at the time); on the other hand, the problem of being no better than the rest of the world oneself (Psalm 2: ‘Then he (the Lord) rebukes them (the kings) in his anger, and terrifies them in his wrath’; Psalm 6: ‘O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath…’).

The point I wish to make is that the female speaker presenting this reading to ten people in a college living-room was no more and no less wrong than the male speaker who said roughly the same thing from the pulpit of a nearby church at a university-wide CU meeting a few months later. Anyone who, during the last week, has noticed a small media furor about the Bristol University Christian Union and their changing policies on women speakers, will see the relevance of this fact. Journalists, commenters, Student’s Union and Feminist Society representatives have all been implying or asserting that men and women are equally capable of teaching; it is less widely noted that men and women may be equally incapable; the equality is the same either way.

But I am not sure that the language of equality, diversity and discrimination adequately describes the Christian Union’s perplexities and problems. (I should rush to say that I can present no hard evidence for this doubt, which is simply based on personal impressions of Christians and Unions thereof from my own experience of being the former and in the latter.) Equality, diversity and discrimination would not be the right terms to use on discovering that a fascist dictatorship had a ban on female fascist dictators, and anyone who thinks I wish to compare Christian Unions to fascist dictatorships may take this as a warning against jumping to conclusions.

A policy of not inviting unmarried female speakers to certain events would in effect discriminate against would-be unmarried female speakers. Those supporting such a policy, however, probably do not think that women are less intelligent, or less capable of having intelligent and interesting ideas and explaining them lucidly; they would probably not call for a ban on female teachers in schools or universities. It is merely an assumption on the part of the Internet commenters and the Feminist Society representatives that intelligent, interesting, lucidly explained ideas are what such CU members expect from their preachers.

It seems to me just as likely that such CU members mainly expect their preachers to deliver Scriptural Truth untouched by the careless hand of human argument. They might use the phrase ‘to sit under the Word’ as a synonym for ‘to listen to a sermon’. They want God’s Word itself; they might feel that they accept no substitutes, and they probably possess an admirable seriousness and commitment to following that Word. By force of habit, however, and as a result of the kind of Christian culture that surrounds them, they may end up swallowing such half-baked renditions of the Bible as the four-point Psalm Two summary given above and take it for the full and satisfactory truth. The talk just has to sound sound, and be nice and orderly, and it will probably be accepted.

This sounds disgustingly cynical, and I have no way of knowing for sure whether any member of BUCU is like that. But if it were so, then the confusion over the women-speaker policy would be easy to understand. If the CU speaker is not simply a teacher but an authorised proclaimer of Scriptural truth, then one would want to be sure that he or she had in fact been authorised, and any apparent doubt thrown on anyone’s authority by the Bible would require serious consideration. Then, if one were used to reductive ways of reading the Bible, one would not have the tools required to think through and about such passages and the issues in question.

One might also be handicapped in one’s thinking about Christian unity, which is possibly the real problem for BUCU, not the particular question of female speakers. The CU President has been quoted as saying that “We all hold individual convictions on secondary issues… they are not what we centre around as a CU…” Again, I can’t prove anything about these phrases, but I can assert that my own CU used very similar language and that it was honestly meant but frequently unhelpful. Leaving, or trying to leave, substantial quantities of one’s personality and thoughts at the door (which was the traditional place to leave secondary issues), under a dim sense that they wouldn’t fit with the CU mission in general, is of no benefit.

UCCF, in their statement on the matter, observe that ‘the recent email exchange has revealed the internal processes of an undergraduate CU trying to think their way clear on a subject that Church denominations around the world have struggled with’. One might similarly say (in love, of course) that it’s never very surprising to find undergraduates in a state of some confusion. But in this particular case it seems possible that the semi-fixed expressions and set habits of Christian Union culture might themselves prevent the ‘thinking one’s way clear’ that UCCF describes.

Meanwhile, the ‘consternation’ that the Guardian reports as being widespread in Bristol University seems probably no more than the standard outrage which student newspapers will express towards the Christian Union given the slightest opportunity. ‘Consternation’ is a ridiculous word to use for the students’ sentiments towards a matter which affects them personally not at all. Matt Oliver, however, might fairly be consterned, or (to use a real word) concerned for the sake of his own private existence and his reputation, at finding his Presidential actions vilified in public. So I would like to add that, jargon and peculiar traditions notwithstanding, one meets with good and generous hearts and minds in every church, CUs not excluded (yes, yes, I know they aren’t churches, but they are the church), and it is not right for the current inheritors of generations’ worth of CU tradition to be lambasted in the media sometimes by people who know even less about what they’re talking about than I do. There is much worse discrimination to be dealt with elsewhere.

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2 Responses to A Woman and a Speaker?: Discriminating Discrimination

  1. H’mm… All that I can think of to say is that I know nothing relevant, except (St) Paul saying that he did not permit a woman to have authority over a man (which is probably the wording of the New International Version, and an interpretation of the Greek text) :

    Paul does not seem to put it more strongly than that, such as laying down an edict for all time, any more than when he wishes that all men could be as he, but, as they are not, then they should marry. Nonethless, the weight of practice and of teaching from the church fathers has come to bear on such scraps.

  2. chramm says:

    I think, the most enjoyable response to this issue. I must say I getting quite fed up with the ranting.

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