To tell you the truth I’ve never really been that interested in Mary…but you have to admit there is something about her, the mother of Jesus that is, that quietly and persistently challenges you to take another look at this woman. So as a result, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary, and especially wondering if she has anything to say to us about women in leadership today.

The problem with Mary of course is the way that she has been ‘interpreted’ by biblical scholars throughout history.Generally there have been two broad perspectives on this woman.Firstly there is one tradition that almost treats her as a goddess. Mary is seen as almost divine, most certainly a saint and a woman to be adored, worshiped and definitely not exactly human. She is a woman above the rest of us and not able to be emulated. You see this coming through of course in Catholic theology to some extent and this view is very visible through art in history.

 

If you have a look at this painting by the well known artist Duccio di Buoninsegna who was painting in around the 1300’s, even though he was known for ‘humanising’ his subjects you still don’t get a sense that Mary is entirely human from this painting. She is something other than us, not an ordinary woman and therefore should not be seen or treated like one. She is to be respected, admired and worshiped.
The other view is the opposite and it comes from within some parts of the evangelical tradition. Maybe it’s based on a reaction to the former view or a fear that Mary might be seen as divine but this view treats Mary as a mere vessel. Here she is seen as a mere carrier of God but not important in and of herself. In this interpretation of Mary she is nullified and made invisible. I sensed this a little when I spoke at a church on the topic of having vision and purpose in your life and I used Mary as an example for our encouragement. The group I was speaking to was made up of men and women and a man came up to me at the end of the talk and said that it was interesting to hear a message on women in leadership. As far as I knew I had not spoken at all in the message about women in leadership. I was simply using Mary as a role model for Christians – men and women, for helping us to discover our purpose in life since Mary had been given such a crucial one by God.
It made me realise that the norm is to use men as examples of the biblical heros of the faith in messages to mixed gender congregations. The implication being that you use women in the Bible as role models for faith if you are speaking at women’s gatherings. The comment this man made showed that he had never viewed Mary perhaps as a role model for his faith. She was a carrier of God but was she important enough to this man to be seen as an example for him in his daily walk with God?
There are of course exceptions and deviations from this. I value Leon Morris’ observation who in his commentary on Luke says about Mary’s response after she had accepted her extraordinary and daunting purpose given to her by God, ‘We are apt to take this as the most natural thing and accordingly we miss Mary’s quiet heroism’.
How is this relevant to us today?
I think that society does the same thing to women. Women are either treated as either ‘goddesses’ to be worshiped, mysterious and hard to understand or on the other hand they are treated as mere vessels that is, carriers of children, supporters to husbands but not important in and of themselves. Society still gets it wrong about women. One example is the recent failed marketing ploy by Bic to put out onto the market special pens for women. Women responded in anger, humour and cynicism wondering why special pens needed to be designed for women and anyway what exactly was a pen for a woman supposed to look like? One reviewer on the Amazon website sarcastically commented
‘Finally!
Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I’m swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga. It’s comfortable, leak-proof, non-slip and it makes me feel so feminine and pretty! Since I’ve begun using these pens, men have found me more attractive and approchable. It has given me soft skin and manageable hair and it has really given me the self-esteem I needed to start a book club and flirt with the bag-boy at my local market. My drawings of kittens and ponies have improved,
Where has this pen been all my life???’


Another example of society getting it wrong regarding women comes from an article by Tara Moss where she states that,‘…in Media, 93 per cent of working directors are male, 80 percent of producers are male, as are 87 per cent of writers. There are nearly five men to every woman working behind the scenes in film and television. And female characters are outnumbered about three to one on screen- a ratio that hasn’t changed since WW2. The majority of main characters remain male.Female characters on screen speak to one another so rarely that it spawned the Bechdel test, created by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel.To pass this simple test, two female characters need only talk with each other at some point in the film about anything other than a man. Of the nine films up for best picture at this years Oscars, only two clearly passed. What we miss out on as a result of this male centric storytelling are the different types of women that exist- the variety of occupations, attitudes, personalities,, sizes and shapes real women have- and normal portrayals of female friendship’

Our culture not only gets it wrong but it misses out when women are not treated as important in and of themselves but are either ‘worshiped’ and admired which has the effect of distancing women from the norm or on the other hand they are devalued as people which has the effect of rendering women invisible.
What happens when we apply this to the church?
I think women are visible in some roles in the church but not in others particularly in the ‘upper levels’ of leadership. For instance when I tell people I am a minister people will sometimes ask me whether I am in children’s ministry or if I am in administration. They can’t conceive that I might be in another role that has broader responsibilities.
Now I understand that Christians have different views on women in leadership, I understand all the arguments for and against, I have heard statements like ‘the “women’s issue” is not a gospel issue’ and that we need to focus on being more mission focused rather than focusing on the minor issues of Christian debate. I am ok with people having different opinions on a matter that the Bible is not directive about.
However my concern is this: There are enough people out there who do believe that this is an important issue, that is that women do need to participate fully in church structures and all its functions. So why are things not changing? That’s probably what baffles me the most.
I have a theory.
I think that most of us, men and women included, are preservers of the status quo rather than being true change agents.I’m not sure that most of us have the boldness and courage within our contexts to bring about the change that is needed. To tell you the truth even as I write this I am worried a little by the reaction that I might get. Will I be labelled a radical feminist? Will people think I am extreme? Will I be thought of as polarising? Irritating? Irrelevant?
Well known author on organisational leadership John Kotter who wrote the book Leading Change says that in order to bring change there needs to be a sense of urgency in people due to the fact that things are not right in the present and that in fact the current state of affairs is detrimental. He in fact says that if you want to bring change you must discourage ‘happy talk’ that says that ‘things are ok’. People who say ‘everything is fine’ are preservers of the status quo but those who continually question things are the real change agents.The truth is he says, that most people want to preserve the status quo. He says in that book,
‘Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo’
I saw this played out in an interesting way on social media a while ago.
One particular male publicly affirmed the gifts that a particular female had in leadership.I thought that was great. It was an encouraging act within that context. Comments in response ranged as usual from the humorous to the witty to boring and irrelevant. One female made a comment that she wondered if that particular woman that was being affirmed would be allowed to enter into more ‘upper levels’ of leadership within that church structure. When I read that comment I could almost hear everyone involved in the conversation roll their eyes. ‘Not the women in leadership issue again!’ The man who had affirmed that woman regarding the gifts she had, replied that despite the issues of women in leadership she still had wonderful gifts and he was affirming them. He got plenty of ‘likes’ for that comment.
I thought about that afterwards and while I applaud the man who publicly affirmed that woman, in the end I thought to myself ‘He is a preserver of the status quo by Kotter’s definition’ and that the woman who pushed the women in leadership issue further was actually acting as the change agent.
I wonder if we have given up on this issue because we are ‘over it’? I wonder if we have marginalised this issue because we think that the job is finished? I wonder if some people realise that even though they view themselves as change agents they could actually be functioning as preservers of the status quo? Have we lost that sense of urgency regarding women in leadership?
Where are the courageous and bold ones, men and women that will speak out not with ‘happy talk’ but rather with irritating questions that penetrate a more institutionalised way of thinking?
There is most definitely something about Mary. The greatest purpose ever given to any human being by God was given to a woman. I think God trusts women with responsibility! Mary was honored by God. Her heroism, her ability to praise God in her circumstances (as frightening as they were) as reflected in the Magnificat, her ability to reflect on her relationship with God as she ‘pondered’ the things that were happening, shows that she was a woman who maintained a very deep faith in God as she worked through her incredible responsibility.
She was no goddess nor was she a mere vessel. She was a woman called to fulfill her purpose in God’s power.
This is the call placed on many women today also.
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Do you think the views here are extreme? Do you think we have lost that sense of urgency regarding equality and the value of women in leadership? Are you a change agent or a preserver of the status quo?