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02 May 2014

What does it mean for men and women to be equal?

Rev Clare HendryRev Clare Hendry: is a former lecturer at Oak Hill Theological College. She is now on the staff of Grace Church, an Anglican church in Muswell Hill, London, and occasionally lectures in pastoral theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. She co-authored Gender Agenda with Lis Goddard and has contributed to Awesome Voices: God Working through Ordained Women Today. She is married and has two children.

"Equal doesn’t mean the same"

I just asked my 21-year-old daughter this question. That led not to a crisp, quotable sentence, but a long discussion on what is meant by equality, which ranged from her saying men and women aren’t equal because they are different to strongly advocating that they should have equal rights. I guess there are as many different answers as the number of people asked. What do we mean by equal? 

Google ‘equality’ and you are overwhelmed with different terms and different aspects of equality – social equality, gender equality, equality before law. There’s even a village in Illinois named Equality. Ok, well let’s look up a definition: “The state of being equal, correspondence in quantity, degree value, rank or ability” and finally “uniform character” – not too helpful. Synonyms didn’t help either. 

Your worldview will affect how you answer this question. Writing from a Christian perspective my reference point must always start with God. It is clear that before God, men and women are equal in worth and significance. Come back with me to Genesis chapters 1-3, to creation, where we see Adam and Eve created in the image of God. 

God created both men and women in His image and so together they represent God. In Genesis 1:27–28 man and woman together make up the human species – there is a sense of equality and worth. In Genesis 2:18–25 that equality is again reflected. 

Now so far I guess most people are with me but I want to argue that equality does not mean ‘sameness’. Men and women are equal in worth and significance but they are different in other ways. Few would argue that men and women are exactly the same but might still argue that everything else is equal and they should be able to, for instance, do the same jobs, including being a bishop. But, there is a sense in which it could be said that women and men are not ‘equal’ – if that means same in every way – but different. We can see that in different names being used for them and the different ways they were created. Furthermore I think there is a distinction right from creation that is reflected in the different roles that men and women are called to.

There is a sense of being complementary to each other, which is why I am all in favour of mixed gender teams in ministry. Adam’s headship was established before the Fall not as a result of the Fall. The order of the creation of Adam and Eve has significance. These distinctions are reflected in later passages in scripture which I discuss with Lis Goddard in the book Gender Agenda

This debate on equality and roles is not just confined to the Christian world. I happened to catch, two weeks running, the One to One programme on Radio 4 featuring Emma Barnett, women’s editor of the Daily Telegraph. Emma struggles, as an orthodox Jew but ardent feminist, with the idea of women rabbis. It was fascinating to hear her explore these two aspects of her life as she talked with a Jewish woman barrister and woman rabbi. 

At one point in the programme she said: “Women aren’t treated unequally in Judaism, they just have different roles to men.” It’s interesting to hear some of the debates that we are having within Christianity also taking place within Judaism. 

After spending time studying the Bible I chose to be a permanent deacon in the Church of England because of my understanding of the different roles men and women have been called to in the Church. I have loved the variety that my calling to ministry has given me. I have never felt less valued or somehow inferior because I have a different role from some of my male colleagues, but rejoice in bringing, as a woman, something distinctive and valuable to ministry. 

So what makes men and women equal? It is not about what they can or can’t do, it is not about rights, but it is about image – men and women being created in the image of God to reflect His glory.

Jenny BakerJenny Baker: is development manager for Church Urban Fund. Her book Equals – enjoying gender equality in all areas of life – is published by SPCK. jennybaker.org.uk

"Equality is about everyone being able to flourish"

Equality is the belief that all people have the same value, regardless of any other defining characteristics. A community that values equality will work to eliminate discrimination and barriers to opportunities so that everyone can reach their full potential. Equality is about treating people fairly without prejudice or assumptions. It’s about everyone being able to flourish. 

Our beliefs about equality matter because they impact our behaviour. The Victorians believed that women were intellectually inferior to men, and so they banned them from studying at university and voting in elections. They had a point. There’s no point educating someone if they can’t learn or trusting them with important decisions if they can’t make good judgements. The trouble is the Victorians were wrong. They had a strong belief in essential differences between men and women and so from the 1890s onwards there was sustained empirical research to discover what those differences were and where they came from. Early studies showed that actually the mental capacities of men and women were more or less equal – a fact that has been consistently upheld in subsequent studies. Very quickly at the time and ever since, everyone accepted that men and women are equally intelligent. To stop women learning or voting is therefore a huge injustice. 

But clearly men and women are not identical in every way, and so it’s important, if we want to know how men and women should be equal in the Church, to explore exactly how we can be said to be equal to each other. The Bible talks about us being equally made in the image of God and therefore being of equal value (Genesis 1:27). 

Our experience in the world shows us that men and women are equal in potential and in the functions or roles they fulfil. Women are competent and effective politicians, artists, businesswomen and entrepreneurs, achieving, innovating and leading in every area of life. However when it comes to the Church, there are a few who would argue that they shouldn’t be. Some people read some of Paul and think he banned women from teaching and leading. In fact he called women his co-workers (Romans 16) and acknowledged Junia as an outstanding female apostle (Romans 16:7). He encouraged women to learn (1 Timothy 2:11) and to pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5). He taught that authority within marriage is mutual and reciprocal (1 Corinthians 7:4), and that husbands and wives should love and submit to each other (Ephesians 5:2, 21). When you marry Paul’s words with his practice, you can see that he regarded women and men as having equal roles to play within the Church. To stop women using their gifts in any sphere of life is therefore a huge injustice. 

So when men and women are treated as fully equal in the Church, opportunities and responsibilities are shared out according to people’s gifts and abilities, not their sex. God’s declaration in Genesis that “it is not good for the man to be alone” is taken seriously and where women are missing, for example as leaders and preachers, steps are taken to ensure they have opportunities to grow and learn so they can take their rightful place as partners with men in the kingdom. Similarly where men are in the minority, for example as children’s workers and in the pews, creative efforts are made to remove the barriers that keep them away and to welcome them in. 

When women and men are treated as fully equal, relationships are based on mutuality and respect, not power and control. People serve each other in love and prefer each other to themselves, forgoing entitlement and privilege. When men and women are treated as fully equal, the Church is enriched by contributions from a vast array of different people rather than being a narrow space where only a few gifts are celebrated. And ultimately it becomes a life-giving place that more authentically reflects the true nature of God who made both men and women in His image.

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