Monthly Archives: November 2012

Unspeakable Acts of the Apostles

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Separately from anything else I say in this post, I want you to remember the brutality and injustice suffered by trans people around the world, educate yourself about trans issues, and if you can, do something positive to help.

Today was also day two of the winter session of the General Synod of the Church of England. This fantastically bureaucratic, partly democratic body is the main governing organ of the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and one of the largest Christian churches in Britain. And today, that church quite frankly shot itself in a foot which hadn’t fully healed from the last blast; it voted against the latest proposed code to introduce women bishops.

That’s a slightly unfair characterisation – in fact, the measure received the required 2/3 majority from the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, and only just missed it in the House of Laity. And the introduction of women bishops has already been agreed; the debate is about when, and how to do it without alienating people whose views on the priesthood are closer to Rome than to Canterbury (or Uppsala).

What bothers me, as a relatively agnostic member of this church, and a queer feminist, is how far we’ve come, in a negative sense, since the days of the early church. I think St Luke, in particular, is fairly clear who’s welcome, and who can lead.

Luke is the probable author of the Acts of the Apostles, which was the only one of the many books of ‘Acts’ kicking around the Hellenistic Near East to be taken up by the church at large. The book continues the same story, in the same style, as the Gospel attributed to Luke. And the way the story unfolds appears to me to say something quite specific about how the early church saw itself.

Firstly, in Acts 2, we’re reminded that Judaism in those days was a diverse and complex community of faith; those celebrating Pentecost in Jerusalem include Jews from all over the region, including modern-day Turkey, and Egypt. (The Jewish community in Alexandria produced the Greek version of the Tanakh which was adopted by the Roman church as its Old Testament.)

But it’s the wider picture of the early Christian church that especially interests me. After Jesus’ death, the community in Jerusalem was led by his brother James, whose murder is described in Acts 12:2. James, known as ‘the Just’, and latterly as ‘the Brother of God’, was a rabbi, as Jesus had been – a faithful Jew, and a member of the local (but not national) religious establishment. And like his brother, he was from Galilee, beyond Samaria – a far northerner, and a stranger in the eyes of national leaders. In many ways, he was very much the sort of person one might expect to find leading a splinter group of Pharisaical Judaism in those days.

But the church was spreading out beyond Jerusalem, and far more unlikely people came to be involved. The first specifically identified African person to become a Christian shows up in Acts 8. We never learn this person’s name; but they are identified as a eunuch, a senior civil servant in the Treasury of the sovereign queen of Ethiopia. This makes it highly likely the eunuch was what we would regard as a black African; the kingdom of Ethiopia was beyond Greek-dominated Egypt, and continued to be ruled by an indigenous dynasty. The eunuch’s devotion to Hebrew scripture, and Philip’s willingness to accept him into the community, are particularly significant: the Torah (Leviticus 21:16-24) forbade the priests of Israel from having any contact with eunuchs, which it declared to be a defiling influence. The later prophets had taken a different view: the book of Isaiah depicts God promising the Temple – seat of the priesthood – and an everlasting name, to faithful eunuchs. Philip’s actions can definitely be seen as following the prophet’s challenge to the Law.

The movement to spread the faith more widely became the pet project of a Hellenistic Jewish travelling salesman – Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St Paul. As a Syrian, Paul was a Roman citizen and not a Judaean subject; and he had previously been a fierce opponent of the new sect. But his new zeal brought him into contact with a wide range of people, and took him further afield than ever. His first European convert was a Hellenistic Jew like him – and she became the leader of the first church in Europe. Her name was Lydia of Thyatira, and she was a seller of purple cloth. Excuses are sometimes made about how this must have been her husband’s or father’s business, but the text doesn’t mention them – just Lydia, and her profession. It’s ironic that the trade in purple supplied the Roman aristocracy with the formal robes which gave rise to the attire of modern bishops in the western Church. Yet in most of the churches which follow from Lydia’s beginning, women can’t even be priests, and even in those where they can, they often can’t become bishops.

So the picture Luke gives of the early church is of an institution that, in just three people, spans three continents, three careers (religion, public service, and business), three ethnic groups, and three distinct gender expressions. It’s a damnable shame to us all that the institution they founded now excludes, discriminates and harms people because of who they are, what they do, and how they express their identities. And I, at least, am not going to leave, or to shut up about this.

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