In praise of Dolly Parton and other great women…. and men

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Despite the rain, the mud and the ‘multitudes’ of people, there is something within me that says I would really like to go to Glastonbury. I loved watching the festival on the television with its breadth of musical tastes, soloists, bands, an increasingly eclectic mix of music. There is all the other stuff; the dance, art, clowning, puppetry and the general buzz of the event that isn’t easily captured or covered by the media.

Highlights of this year’s festival – Dolly Parton. I can’t quite believe that I am extolling the virtues of a country and western singer but she was fantastic, a great performer who wowed the crowd of all ages. When I was listening to the radio last week I heard her interviewed. She came over so naturally and broke into an unrehearsed, unaccompanied rendition of Jolene, to the obvious delight of her interviewer and the thousands who were listening to the programme. She was pitch-perfect and her interview was really warm, down to earth, intelligent and a pleasant change from the self-promoting, celebrity-seeking, sycophantic, shallow personalities that dominate so much of the media these days. She was asked if she was a feminist, to which she replied that she had been one of the first women to burn her bra but that it took the fire brigade four days to put the fire out! A fun loving yet deep woman and a woman of faith, which was both intriguing and very interesting.

I have been privileged and blessed throughout my life by knowing some great women (and not just those as well endowed as Dolly) but women whose lives have enriched my own immeasurably, (well at least beyond 38GG!).

From childhood to adolescence (which included a very brief encounter with the gorgeous Diana Rigg) through to adulthood and the ensuing years, women have played a really significant part in my life both within the family and amongst my closest friends. I was very close to my mother and the strong, healthy ‘attachment theory’ that she bequeathed me, has set me up incredibly well for the rest of my life. I have an amazing, wonderful, loving and supportive wife, two great daughters and two lovely daughters-in-law and two, (happy to have more!) fabulous and very funny granddaughters.

Last week I attended a summer school of theology, a two day event here in the North East. It was excellent as we looked at issues dominating and challenging Christians and the church in contemporary society; human sexuality, women in leadership and children in the church. I had looked forward to going to an event for which I was not responsible, nor was I one of the speakers. However, I was asked to sit on the panel for a plenary discussion following the session on women in leadership. It seemed churlish to turn down the invitation and it provided me an opportunity to renew my friendship with Kate Coleman who had been the key note speaker. It was lovely to see her and Cham again. Our paths crossed regularly a few years ago and in the ensuing period when Kate followed me as President of the Baptist Union. A remarkably gifted woman, theologian, Bible teacher, mentor – a great leader. A woman who brings depth, insight and passion to her leadership. Together with Cham, she has founded a leadership network which is making a significant contribution to the recognition, encouragement and resourcing of women and men in leadership. Kate is a visionary, an inspiration to many within this country and globally and Cham is the first and only Asian woman minister within the Baptist Union. The Union is very blessed in being led by Lynn Green, who was appointed General Secretary last year. I was asked the other day to commend another friend, Lina and there was hardly enough space on the form to extol her leadership gifts. Two weeks ago I was privileged to take part in the ordination of Linda, another great woman who I am thrilled to know, will be appointed in the autumn as one of the pastors at my first church, Portrack on Teesside. It’s been my privilege to meet and share, serve and be the beneficiary of some great women leaders within the church and I will continue to do everything that I can to encourage the recognition of women who are called as leaders in both the church and wider society.

During the panel discussion I was able to not only endorse my own affirmation of women’s leadership, both within the church and wider society, but also to challenge the bigotry, ignorance and prejudice that is sadly found in several quarters of the church. I remember asking some Sunday school teachers a few years ago what they were sharing with the children under their care. They replied that they were doing a series on leaders in the Bible, a thirteen week series, all the characters being men! Talk about selective handling of scripture.

The Bible is full of women in leadership, both in the Old and the New Testament. From Miriam, Huldah, Deborah, Ester, Sarah, Hannah to Priscilla, Junia, Tryphena, Phoebe, Lydia, to name but a few. It’s not the Equal Rights Commission or the Feminist Lobby that should govern our thinking or response to the issue of women in leadership. The Bible should inform and inspire our attitudes and actions in such matters. And what I find really nauseating is when people take two passages of scripture, like 1 Timothy 2: 12 and 1 Corinthians14:34 out of context and use those two verses to govern their understanding of the whole of the rest of scripture. They were particular cultural contexts in which Paul wrote those words to the church at Ephesus and to believers in Corinth. In no way was he saying that women should not be leaders. Likewise, we need to appreciate the amazing, radical, revolutionary way that Jesus relates and responds to women.

For a helpful Biblical exposé of these texts see: http://botherer.org/2012/11/21/why-the-argument-against-women-in-church-leadership-is-theological-rubbish

Any serious examination of the Gospels reveals how Jesus honoured, respected, related and shared with women, which was revolutionary. He subverted and violated the social mores of his day, breaking cultural, religious intellectual barriers and clearly called women to follow him, to lead and be instrumental in serving his purposes in the world.

The issue of hermeneutics – the science of interpretation, always comes into question when we discuss such matters and failing to recognise that we all view scripture through lenses of our own experience, culture, prejudices and inherited traditions only perpetuates misunderstanding and poor exegesis.

I find it fascinating to see how some translations of the Bible treat some of the Biblical texts not least the two allegedly controversial passages like those already quoted. That is, translations by men, whose own interests and the traditions they serve that would be highly undermined by a more accurate translation of the text.

Enough said. One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the Celtic Christian tradition is it’s honouring of women. There’s also that very pertinent influence of the desert monastic tradition which saw the inherent dangers in power and control. When you take such things out of the equation in conversations about leadership and talk more about servanthood and authority, then the issue isn’t about who has the power and who has control but who is called and gifted to lead. Women were recognised as partners, equals and in the Celtic period, many of them were recognised as great leaders both within the church, monastic communities and wider society.

We need more good women leaders, as well as some good man who can lead both the church and society. I believe that we have a real crisis of leadership in society and we desperately need to see a remodelling of leadership, founded on the inspiration of Christ and expressing the values of his kingdom.

Lest I fail to extol the virtues of a few good men who have been inspirational in my own life and work I want to play to name briefly to a few of them.

Firstly my father, gentle, peaceable, a man of love and compassion, with a willingness to serve and help anyone and everyone whom he could. To the teacher from my grammar school education who was fair, considerate and took an interest in my well-being and not just my academic achievements or failures! To our Bible college principal, who was like a ‘father in Christ’ to Shirley and I in the early years of our faith journey. His godly example, humility, compassion and heart for those outside of the faith, together with his example as a devoted husband and loving father was inspirational. I was in Wales the other week, speaking, preaching, meeting and discovering parts of that great country that I’ve never been to before and which on a subsequent blog I will write about. I found it a very special place, a place that resonated with the Celtic spirit within me and I experienced a warmth and welcome among the people who assembled in Carmarthen for the conference that I was speaking out at, to be among the most friendly and receptive delegates that I’ve shared with throughout my many years of ministry. Whilst there I recalled the friendship, mentoring and support I received whilst at Cardiff University and on a student placement, under the supervision of the Baptist College in Wales, prior to my ordination. a remarkable minister, TJ Russell-Jones, had a profound impact upon my thinking and attitudes as I prepared for my first pastorate, essentially church planting on council housing estate in urban Teeside. It was during my first church ministry that I worked with some great guys, one of whom eventually succeeded me as one of the pastors and whose retirement is next weekend. Someone whose life and ministry has been dedicated to the poor and the marginalised, whose heart for refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers reflects the compassion of Jesus to those who are often brutalised, victimised and misunderstood. It was at Portrack that I made friends with some great people, including a Jeff, who was later to become one of the Community’s leaders and now serves as the Chairman of our trustees.                                                                                                                                   I’ve known and appreciated the prophetic inspiration of people like John, one of the key founders of our Community, the creative genius of Andy, another founder and the immeasurable and deeply pleasurable and life-giving companionship that I have received from Trevor, who as ‘abbot’ has been a bedrock and guarding wisdom upon which my apostolic, leadership calling has been allowed and encouraged to flourish and grow. Without his presence and friendship I would not have developed as I believe I have become, as a wandering, creative monastic and missional leader and reflective theologian. People expressed concern or at least entertained questions about how we would be able to bring others into the leadership of the Community, given the deep and close bond that Trevor and I have enjoyed for many years but any fears have been dispelled with the emergence of another great leader in Pete, whose presence alongside us in the oversight of the Community is not only welcomed and enjoyed but has developed our own leadership. Together with innumerable gifts, complementing and yes, compensating, some of our weaknesses, he is hugely respected and valued. Along with his fantastic wife Catherine and other great women leaders within the leadership network of our Community, we are very blessed and I look forward in the coming days to a greater transition in the realms of leadership from my generation to succeeding generations, good men and women, who can lead the Community into the future of God’s choosing.

So what began as I watched Dolly Parton at Glastonbury has evolved into an appreciation of men and women, whose lives have touched and influenced my own for good and whose ministries are a means of great blessing to many, within and beyond the Community and the church. It’s been my privilege to have met and worked with several great men and women, people who through their friendship have considerably impacted upon my own life and work. I have just exchanged correspondence with Richard Foster; we don’t see each other now as regularly as we once did but his book, Celebration of Discipline that I came across as a young believer in 1978 and later through our meeting and emerging friendship, has inspired me to make spiritual formation accessible to ordinary people and to extol the issue as imperative, the foundation, the main building block upon which leaders build, inform and shape their ministries. Two amazing women, outside of my immediate family, who’ve had a major impact on my life are Gayle-Anne, a very close friend, psychotherapist and counsellor and Janet Elizabeth, my spiritual director. Both of them, read me like a book, very scary but their friendship, insights, prayers and support are deeply illuminating and transformative.

There are many others, men and women, who are gifted leaders; who have affected change for good, brought transformation, inspired and through being who they are, not just what they do, have evoked responses and people following them. For example, my great friend Rob, who I share a very closely with, who operates in the very different arena to that which I’m working in, but who like me, is called to imagine and implement relational ways of leadership that promote transformation, innovation, creativity and the space for others to grow and develop.

Good leaders are rare but essential for the well-being of any society. I give thanks to God for those whom it is been my privilege to have met, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude and those whom God is raising up among the younger generation, that they may be given wisdom and grace, courage and inspiration to lead, think outside the box, discover new paradigms and lead us into the future.

PS       Thank you Dolly for triggering this reflection!

 

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