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Reform Magazine | May 18, 2024

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A good question: How much equality is there in the Church? - Reform Magazine

A good question: How much equality is there in the Church?

Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: How much equality is there in the Church?


‘Those from a particular cultural background are often not encouraged to feel fully at home’

Inequality has been a problem for the Church since ancient times. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” asks James, pointing to the different ways in which rich and poor people are often treated. “You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin.”

Early Christian leaders often displayed worryingly prejudiced attitudes towards women, reflecting views
commonly held in their era. As Churches (with honourable exceptions) became more closely allied with the economically privileged and politically powerful, class and ethnic inequality also became deeply embedded. Nevertheless, the outstanding capabilities and spiritual strengths of people of lower social status sometimes shone through, which Christians might regard as the work of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s world, many Churches seek to welcome and value everyone equally, whatever their sex, age, education or background, whether or not they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, disabled or from an ethnic minority. Others still struggle with this, either because of faulty theology or, sometimes, reluctance to offend church members used to certain patterns of privilege…

Savi Hensman is a writer and also works in the voluntary sector. She contributes regularly to


michael-jagassarMICHAEL JAGESSAR
‘If good intentions were measured, Churches would fly high’

If good intentions in equality were measured, Churches would fly high. The underlying ethos informing our life together is one of equality shaped by the good news of Jesus – abundant life for all! At least, this is our aspiration. There is currently more intentional work on equality, inclusion and representation across all levels of our Church life than before, but one’s location in and experience of Church, and an awareness of how inequality works, will determine one’s answer to this question.

We do have processes to ensure fairness and equality of opportunity. We like to think of our churches as places of welcome, accessibility and fair treatment of all. This may be the case for the church members who are there because they feel welcomed; but what about those who are not because they feel excluded – those who feel the rules, ethos and way of doing most things still favour an “in-group” of people and a certain way of being church?

Equality that goes beyond good intentions is challenging: It demands we relinquish privileges, whether we are aware of them or not. It is always work in progress, given the variety of people we are, with our complex identities. Who would have thought, for instance, that a Church committed to the ministry of the whole people of God can end up with an all-white-male “top table” or a situation where some of its key decision-making bodies lack any minority presence?..

Michael Jagessar is secretary for racial justice and intercultural ministry for the United Reformed Church

joanna-moorheadJOANNA MOORHEAD
‘The Catholic Church fails to
 reflect one half of its members’

In front of me on my desk, as I write, is a flyer for a series of talks on Catholicism; they are on a range of topics, and some sound interesting: One looks at new media, another at humour, yet another at astronomy.  But what the series has in imagination it entirely lacks in credibility when you look at who the speakers are. Every single one is male.

The flyer sums up the problem in my Church with equality: An organisation reflects its leadership, and the leadership of the Catholic Church is much too linear. Of course, internationally, it reflects ethnic groups across the globe, but it entirely fails to reflect one half of its own membership, and of the world’s population – women.

Over the last 50 years, institutions across the globe that were run by men have been forced to let women in. Company boards, elected bodies, banks, multinational corporations, governments: All have had to overhaul, allowing women a foothold. And what happened? They suddenly found that, far from women at the top being a problem, they weren’t sure how they’d managed to function all these years without them. Women brought to the table different ways of seeing things, of doing business and of communicating. What began as a box-ticking exercise became a game-changer, and in the most positive way possible. It quickly wasn’t about making up numbers, but about ensuring survival, to have women properly represented at the top…

Joanna Moorhead is a Catholic freelance writer


janet-hendersonJANET HENDERSON
‘Most decision-making is still undertaken by men’

Having been an Anglican deacon and priest for over a quarter of a century, I’ve seen the presence of women as readers, deacons, priests and now as bishops increase dramatically. Gender roles have been shaken up. The Mothers’ Union now has a male CEO and there have been three female Anglican college principals. In episcopally-led churches, men have often been in the minority as members while being in exclusive possession of the visible leadership of the church. Since I was ordained it’s become commonplace for synods, meetings and projects to have a much better gender balance. The atmosphere has shifted: There’s talk of the “over-feminisation” of the Church.

So if you define equality in terms of opportunity to volunteer, minister and be resourced for doing that, you may gain the impression gender equality is improving. However, when equality is defined as something more profound than numbers in ministry, a less sanguine picture emerges. Most theological enterprise, teaching, preaching, conference-speaking, writing and decision-making is still undertaken by men; this is more obviously true of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but is also the case in the Anglican, Free and Pentecostal churches. Female perspectives and priorities are missing. In its protracted debate about women bishops, the Church of England has missed a chance to address the really deep issues about the systematic exclusion and vilifying of women…

Janet Henderson was Archdeacon of Richmond and Craven. She is currently researching and writing about worship



This is an extract from the April 2015 edition of Reform.

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