Last term Steve Wittams-Howarth delivered a hard hitting sermon on sexism and misogyny.
Even though he only scratched the surface of the topic his talk (that you can find here) provoked some people into further thinking and questions, so we caught up with him afterwards to find out some more.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m married to Sarah and I’m father to our two year old son with another baby due shortly. I’m also a trustee of an international AIDS charity. Previously, I’ve been a theology student, a teacher of RE and Philosophy, and had a teaching and training ministry in the Pioneer network of new churches.
One young man commented that he almost felt guilty for being male after your talk. Was this your intention?
Not at all, but the statistics regarding male abusive behaviour towards women, even in our own culture, are alarming and we have to face up to this. Thankfully there are many men who behave with ‘consideration and honour,’ as verse 7 puts it, towards women. However, I did want to dig beneath the surface and ask us to examine if, in some ways, our attitudes could be somewhat patriarchal or sexist.
We have the Queen, a female prime minister, women bishops and many other women playing prominent roles in many other areas of society, surely we don’t need to still be talking about sexism and misogyny?
My aim was to show that, in fact, we do. Thankfully, many things have changed, but despite many years of legal equality, women’s pay and opportunities generally still lag behind those of men. Also, the recent controversy over the appointment and resignation of Bishop Philip shows that there are still issues within the Church, and it was in that area I was wanting to provoke thinking as well; particularly to how sexism or patriarchy affects our Biblical understanding.
So who is sexist? The Bible? The Church? Our culture? We ourselves?
I don’t see it like that, but if we are to interpret scripture correctly, we must be aware of the cultural background any particular scripture is set against. Much of that culture was patriarchal and sexist. Our series on 1 Peter showed similar issues with attitudes to slavery and political authority. The early Church had to wrestle with how to live out a radical new way of seeing the world in the light of Jesus’ kingship, whilst still living in a culture that was far from that which God intended.
Yes, but that was then and this is now. We don’t have slavery anymore; we don’t live in an imperial dictatorship and, generally speaking, man and women are treated as equal.
For centuries that wasn’t the case. Christians like Wesley, Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect saw a different reality to the prevailing culture and campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of slavery. A little later, Christians again were at the forefront of gaining political rights for ordinary men and the furthering of democracy in Britain. We don’t have such a good record when it comes to women’s rights. It’s the mission of the Church and the calling of individual Christians to look beyond the culture around us and to pray and work for the culture of God’s Kingdom to become and earthly reality.
What do you think that will look like with regards to men and women?
Genesis 1:27 makes it clear that male and female together reflect the image of God in humanity. Moving on into Genesis 3, the story of the fall, we see it all going wrong. As a result of human sin women suffer in their reproductive role and end up as subservient to men (Genesis 3:16). The Bible is saying that the original purpose God had for humanity: a people truly reflecting his image here on earth, was corrupted at the most fundamental level. Jesus came to reverse that and establish God’s kingdom. In his life he showed us what it means to be truly human. If we look at the way he treated women, bearing in mind the pervading sexist culture, we get a glimpse of restored male/female relationships. Back to our 1 Peter passage, chapter 3 verse 7 applies to the way that all men should treat women: with consideration and honour.
So, what about women bishops?
Personally I’m all for equality on every level. I think it’s as hard to justify inequality as it would be to justify slavery. Both are expressions of fallen cultures: they dehumanise people and violate the image of God. In the debate however, especially in the light of recent events, I would like to finish by highlighting 1 Peter 3:8 which calls for unity of spirit, sympathy, love, tender heartedness, humble minds, blessing and definitely no abuse. With such emotive issues, we must be careful to live out God’s Kingdom culture in the way we treat one another, even, or especially, when we disagree.
In your talk you mentioned some different websites and organisations if we’d like to find out more. Can you tells us about them again?
Certainly. I’d recommend www.restoredrelationships.org an international Christian alliance to end violence against women and transform relationships. A local charity www.snowdropproject.co.uk offers practical help to survivors of human trafficking.
Tell us more about yourself... How are you involved in the life of All Saints?
I’m part of the church family and a church warden. I preach occasionally and get stuck in where needed.
What difference does Christian faith make to your life?
There’s no area of my life it doesn’t radically impact! When I pray “Your Kingdom come your will be done” that’s got to start with me, and there’s a long way to go yet.