In late June 2015, Caitlin Hurley, Emma Little, Jane Tooher and I headed to London at the invitation of the Proclamation Trust. The Proclamation Trust has been a leader of evangelical ministry in the UK, through their training of men and women in expository Bible teaching; conferences for clergy, women in ministry, and ministry wives; their Cornhill course; and their many written resources.
The invitation included the opportunity to attend The Proclamation Trust’s flagship conference, the Evangelical Ministry Assembly (EMA), and after EMA to participate in an international women’s consultation organised by Carrie Sandom. Carrie is the Associate Minister for Women and Pastoral Care at St John’s Church, Tunbridge Wells, and has served in women’s and student ministry for almost 20 years. Carrie has also been involved in leadership and training through Proclamation Trust, and it was her vision that brought women from the USA, UK, South Africa, UAE, France and Australia together for the two-day post-EMA ‘think tank’.
The consultation took place at the beautiful Oast Houses Christian Retreat Centre, originally a building used for drying hops as part of the beer brewing process, and now converted into beautiful guesthouses. What a wonderful location to meet with women involved in a variety of ministries throughout the world!
Before I get into the details of the consultation, let me outline the way the week worked as a whole. The EMA conference is aimed at people in ministry throughout the UK. This year’s theme was ‘Identity Crisis: preaching to a confused world’. Each morning Christopher Ash (Cornhill Training Course, London) taught us from John 8, followed by a session theologically exploring this issue, led by Bruce Ware (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Timothy Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC). Each afternoon was broken into two sessions, the first a seminar stream and the second Bible talks from Andrew Reid (Holy Trinity, Doncaster, Vic), Reuben Hunter (Trinity West Church, London), and Vaughan Roberts (St Ebbe’s, Oxford).
We attended the afternoon seminar on ‘Women in Ministry and Biblical Complementarianism’, led by Carrie Sandom. This elective was attended by those involved in the consultation, plus others who were part of the EMA conference. Carrie outlined over the three afternoons what biblical complementarianism is, why it matters, and how it works. The emphasis throughout the seminars was on the danger of embracing distorted views of the role of women in church and family life, and the importance of holding to what she termed ‘the complementarian middle’. The complementarian middle was defined as ‘men and women as equal and different with complementary roles in the family and church’. The complementarian middle seeks to avoid the extreme positions that both the egalitarian left and hierarchical right take when exegeting and applying passages such as Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 11, Titus 2, 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.
Carrie also highlighted that along with the biblical distortions, one issue in the complementarian conversation was what she called the collapse of biblical masculinity. This collapse, she believes, has contributed to the rise in people adopting an egalitarian position regarding women in ministry. This position believes, for example, that justice demands that men and women are given the same opportunities in ministry (e.g. to be the senior minister of a church), as that will be the evidence that both are viewed equally in God’s family. Of course the arguments and outcomes are much more complex than this, but it is one simple illustration.
It was this part of the conference that awakened me as to how much work we’ve done in this area in Sydney. The Priscilla and Aquila Centre, led by Jane Tooher, as well as many other groups and individuals (such as Equal But Different), have certainly presented the Bible’s view of men and women in depth, through seminars, writing, preaching and teaching in various contexts. Carrie believes that for many women in the seminar this would have been quite confronting or revolutionary teaching. Yet for us Aussies it was more confirmation of the goodness of God’s created order. Due to time Carrie wasn’t able to deal in great detail with passages relating to both creation and order in the Trinity, but she acknowledged the importance of Genesis in particular in understanding the roles of men and women.
Leaving EMA and arriving at the Oast Houses bought us to the second half of our conference, the women’s consultation. There were 21 women present, representing 7 countries, as well as David and Heather Jackman (David established Cornhill and was the first Director of The Proclamation Trust), Adrian Reynolds, the Director of Mission for The Proclamation Trust, and Rachel Olajide, the conference manager for The Proclamation Trust. Over the course of the next two days David led us in a Bible study through 1 Corinthians 1–4, and Adrian facilitated discussions that explored ministry opportunities and challenges in our various contexts. We spent an extended period of time analysing both our society’s and church cultures, to see what stood out as issues that impact complementarian ministry. It was intriguing (and perhaps comforting?) to discover that many of the issues we face here in Australia—of busyness, materialism, health, identity and family—are common throughout the Western world. Despite real cultural differences, there are commonalities with which we can identify.
Yet as the consultation continued it became clearer that there were two conversations going on. The first was a conversation about women in ministry, with a focus on women’s ministry. We discussed why we do this, and how to do this within our society and church cultures. Ideas were shared, encouragements given, and disappointments explored. It felt quite reassuring to be having these conversations with like-minded women from around the world. It gave us confidence that those of us in Sydney who are committed to this kind of ministry are part of a bigger fellowship and work.
The second conversation was more broadly about complementarianism, and this is where I think the work that’s been going on in Sydney stood out. I think it would be true to say that we are continuing to develop a more comprehensive understanding of complementarian ministry. By this I mean that we see women’s ministry sitting under the umbrella of men and women in ministry partnership. Jane Tooher’s work at Moore College and the Priscilla and Aquila Centre has stretched us to be creative in this area. Of course, there is more work to do, and it would be interesting to investigate the extent to which this thinking is having an effect in our local churches.
Overall the consultation was a good time of fellowship and creating connections with other like-minded women. The challenge will be: what’s next? We didn’t have any clear goals set for the consultation so there was little in the way of concrete outcomes. Yet there was still much to take away.
My first thought is: how can we both protect and extend our thinking on complementarianism, especially in a rapidly changing world? Emma Little, serving in the Diocese of Armidale, reflects:
Throughout our discussions it felt to me that we are going to become more and more different to the world around us if we continue to hold this position, but for me at least that simply affirmed how important it is that we get this right. We need to continue to affirm the goodness of God’s design while wrestling with what it looks like practically as we seek to minister to people in many and varied contexts.
Secondly, what will be the impact of the growing acceptance or recognition of ‘soft complementarianism’? ‘Soft complementarianism’ is basically a position that is open to women participating in most areas of ministry (preaching regularly in mixed congregations, for example) but not all (such as being the senior minister of a church). Essentially it means moving on from the traditional and historical understanding of passages like 1 Timothy 2 (women are not to teach or have authority over a man) while claiming still to hold to the traditional view of male headship and leadership within the church and family. It’s a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too position. If this position gains traction and prominence it will eventually lead to a change within the Sydney Diocese. History shows that (over generations) once ground is given on women teaching, eventually pressure will be applied to include women in overall church leadership. Soft complementarianism seems like a friendly, reasonable halfway view, but inevitably it undermines the Bible’s view of men and women in the church and family.
Thirdly, we must continue to promote and support men and women serving together in ministry, as well as holding on to distinctive ministries for men and women. Leaders of our churches need to be helped to see how this is possible. Failure to do this will rob the church of women’s gifts and contributions to our life together, but also, paradoxically, it will give rise to promoting women into ministry positions that aren’t supported by the Bible.
Lastly, exploring these questions will allow us to help others wrestle with complementarian ministry. My overall impression from our consultation is that our unique situation of being an evangelical diocese, with evangelical leadership and a theological college, puts us in just the right place to be a leader in this area. What can our role be in helping other countries/dioceses/churches think through complementarian ministry? How can we support, encourage and train others in how they approach the topic and practice? There are some exciting opportunities for us in the years ahead.
Kara Hartley is the Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, which simply means she has the privilege of teaching the Bible to women as well as supporting, training, praying and encouraging women serving in Anglican ministries. Kara lives in the Sutherland shire with her husband, Brett, and they attend St John's Anglican Church at Sutherland.