Mary Magdalene, was one of Jesus’s most celebrated disciples, and the most important female disciple in the Jesus movement. Luke’s gospel in chapter 8 tells us: He made his way through towns and villages , preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve as well as certain women – Mary of Magdala, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Suzanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene became Jesus’s close friend and most prominent during his last days, at the cross and at his burial. She was the first person to see the post-Easter Jesus according to both John and Mark .
But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different from this wealthy woman disciple. In art, she’s often semi-naked, or wearing low-cut, voluptuous clothes. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. Traditon casts her as a prostitute.
The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is a sinner and forgiven, is a very powerful image of redemption, a signal that no matter how low a woman has fallen, she can be redeemed.
Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels, but not once do the writers mention that she was a prostitute. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel both of whom dry Jesus’ feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made the prostitute story official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner and saint. The Catholic Church did later declare that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent sinner, but this was not until 1969. After so long the reputation was entrenched, particularly in art.
Mary the mother of Jesus is cast as demure, self-effacing, virginal, distraught witness of the death of her son, never the robust champion of justice for the poor and oppressed, the Mary of the Magnificat. In the same way Mary Magdalene has become a symbol of wanton sexuality finally brought to see the error of her ways, rather than the first person to recognise that death had not vanquished her friend and her leader. I’m not aware of any painting that shows Mary Magdalene throwing her dignity to the winds and sprinting back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that she had seen the lord.
Why has church tradition treated these women as stereotypes? Why did the church disregard the biblical record of the lives of these women? And why today in the governing hierarchy of the church are women seen as a problem? How can opponents of the consecration of women bishops talk of women as a source of taint?
We see the word ‘taint’ used quite frequently eg in reports of business dealings which have been tainted by corruption. G4S was described last week as being tainted by arrogance and incompetence. It’s a word associated with evil or immorality. To suggest that a Christian congregation should be protected from the taint of a woman is deeply shocking.
It was fortunate for the church that the news headlines two weeks ago were all about the chance that Andy Murray could win the Winbledon singles title. Otherwise, some journalist at a loose end might have unpicked the amendment clause that caused such a furore at the General Synod. The original proposal was to legislate for full female bishops, but on the understanding that they would agree to stand aside and allow a man to step in and perform duties where particular congregations objected, and thereby avoid a split or an unpleasant scene. This appeasement proposal was agreed by 42 out of 44 dioceses through their diocesan synods. But the amendment includes the right of any male bishop to declare he will not ordain women as bishops and priests, thereby keeping himself unsullied by women.
It’s this provision that introduces the idea of ‘taint’: that anyone who ordains women as priests or bishops is ‘tainted’ by those actions and therefore unacceptable to those opposed. It endorses in law the principle that for many of those opposed it’s not sufficient to have the ministry of a male rather than a female bishop, but that the only acceptable bishops are those who have kept themselves apart from their episcopal colleagues in not ordaining women as priests or bishops. This is a powerful declaration of separation.
What are we saying to the world at large about our church? And how can we proclaim the gospel to all nations, as Jesus did in the towns and villages with the Twelve and the women if we have misogny and inequality at our core?
The same specious reasons are paraded by the opponents of women bishops as have been used for decades. Jesus’s chosen Twelve were male apostles. So they were. They were also Jews. They would all have been circumsized. Several were fishermen. How many of these criteria must we apply when selecting our minsters? There was an MP once who stood up in the House of Commons and said that he was aware that everything that could conceivably be said on the subject of the debate had already been said many times, but not by him. How long are we going to hear opinions that ceased to be valid centuries ago endlessly repeated as if they were revelations of the divine will?
The debate in the Synod was adjourned a fortnight ago but there is no guarantee that the amendment, if it’s reintroduced, won’t succeed in the autumn. So we must carry on presenting our view of what is right for our church and our world, in the name of integrity and justice for women and men.
When Mary Magdalen encountered the gardener on the resurrection morning, he addressed her as ‘woman’, though he clearly knew her name. When his mother asked him for help at the wedding at Cana, Jesus called her ‘woman’. He must surely have known her name and her relationship to him. We heard the story of Jairus’s daughter a few weeks ago. When Jesus went into the bedroom of this unconscious child he addressed her as ‘little girl’. I think the gospel writers want us to realise that Jesus, a product of his own time, was nevertheless keen to assert that he saw the human dignity in women and girl children as naturally as he saw it in men. Women and little girls stood very low in the social hierarchy of Jesus’s day, below men and boys but above slaves. But Jesus defied the social conventions and when he talked to Mary Magdalen and Mary his mother and Jairus’s daughter, he did so as if they represented and affirmed the female sex.
If Jesus could do it, surely the church can do the same.