Pope Joan went there first…

While we are on the subject of women in leadership, I was reminded of the story of Pope Joan the other day. (Check out book of the week on radio 4)

She supposedly reigned for a few years some time thought to be between 853 – 855 AD. It is probably just a story, but what a story!

The first mention of the female pope appears in the chronicle of Jean Pierier de Mailly, but the most popular and influential version was that interpolated into Martin of Troppau‘s Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum somewhat later in the 13th century. Most versions say that she was a talented and learned woman who disguised herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. Due to her abilities she rises through the church hierarchy, eventually being chosen as pope. However, while riding on horseback one day, she gives birth to a child, thus revealing her sex. In most versions she dies shortly after, either by being killed by an angry mob, or from natural causes, and her memory is shunned by her successors.

She probably never existed.

But the point is, that for Centuries, people thought that she did- and for many she has come to personify something of the way Church has vilified and marginalised women. How women are seen as carriers of an evil seed- eaters of the fruit in the Garden.

I wonder if it also says something about how for women to succeed in a male dominated leadership environment, they have to disguise themselves as masculine. The Margaret Thatcher complex perhaps…

How do we celebrate difference whilst at the same time promote the sharing of power?



Church in the margins- gender and leadership…

There has been some discussion over on Jonny’s blog about that old issue of gender in leadership. It seemed to rage over two different book reviews- here and here– both of which were on new forms of church, and both of which were overwhelmingly male in authorship and involvement.

Some of the comments have been very pointed and it is quite likely that some people have been left feeling sore by the whole thing. I know that blogging can easily result in these kind of ego rattling discussions, but to be honest, I have never liked them. It is like watching a slowly unfolding car accident- compelling, but at the same time unpleasant.

Not that the issues do not need to be aired.

Particularly when it concerns the marginalisation of female voices within the discussions about what church is becoming. The kind of marginalisation that stands in a long line of similar suppression of female voices throughout church history.

I have my own particular perspective on these issues, as we all do. Our small group has no leaders- in the formal sense that is. Different people take (or are given) control at different times however. I also meet with another Bible study/prayer group, in which I am usually the only man.

In both of these gatherings, leadership, as far as it exists, is best understood in terms of hospitality. And in this, we do have a leader- and she is the one who organises, invites, disseminates information, provides tea and a listening ear. This kind of leadership is so much more than being the host of a dinner party- it is faciliative, releasing and creative in the way that it makes people feel safe, included and part of something. It is both the object and the means by which we become church.

Perhaps you could say that this is what female leadership looks like. And if so, it seems to me to be the kind of leadership that is needed within our new forms of church more than any other.

Women might be better at this kind of leadership than men (or rather some women might be better than some men, with the percentage balance towards the women) but let us be honest- we can all get it so wrong.  And this is often revealed in how we use personal power as much as how we display public leadership.

I am no longer easily ‘led’ by anyone- male or female- but I hope I am an easy companion as we walk side by side. And when I see power being used to overcome, overwhelm, overpower- particularly when this is done callously and with scant regard to the damage being done- then our ways will diverge.

So for me, the new forms of church that are emerging have an opportunity to correct some of the public leadership gender imbalance- and this seems to me to be a great thing. But despite the fact that I am a straight, white male, I am going to risk saying this-

There are more important things.

Kindness- as a measure of spiritual maturity

Another great collection on Radio 4’s start the week programme. Listen again to it here.

There was this fascinating discussion about KINDNESS, relating to this new book, co written by a psycho analyst Adam Philips  and Historian Barbara Taylor.


They appear to take the view that our society has retreated from kindness as a way of interacting and engaging with the people around us. We assume that we are no longer inter-dependent and needful of others, and so kindness becomes identified with a kind of weakness and vulnerability.

They go as far as to suggest that we tend naturally towards kindness, but learn to suppress this as we grow into our culture. All Kindness, suggests Philips, is a RISK- but a risk that is transformative in the taking.

There is a review of this book in Guardian by Mary Warnock where she says this

Kindness to others arises out of sympathy. As the authors note, there is much evidence that other animals besides human beings (or “men” as they properly designate them) can enter into the sufferings and fears of others of their kind. But it is human animals alone who, because of their imaginative powers, can enter into the feelings of other people far removed from them, whom they cannot see or touch, but whose plight as fellow-humans they can share

In the Gospel of St Luke, a lawyer is told by Jesus that to live well he must love his neighbour as himself and, when he further asks who is to count as his neighbour, Jesus answers with the story of the good Samaritan, for many the very essence of Christianity. Kindness here arose spontaneously, not in obedience to any rule, in fact in defiance of convention. But as Christianity became increasingly ecclesiastical and hierarchical, with the consequent corruption of the priesthood, the good Samaritan was forgotten.

The new Protestantism declared man to be fundamentally sinful, such good actions as he could do dependent on the grace of God; and so the possibility of natural kindness disappeared.

So we come back to Jesus, and his call to live for a radically different agenda, according to the rules of a New Kingdom. And one of the watch-words of this new kingdom- is kindness.

It is one of those fruit listed by Paul as evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (See here for some more ponderings on this.)

When we come into contact with kindness at a point of real need, we rarely forget it. It lives on in our souls. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians- all sorts of other loud and visible manifestations of faith will clang like gongs and then fall silent- but love will last for ever.

Which makes me think again about the myth of the super-Christian. I am interested in the stature aquired and the adoration we give to some of our leaders- perhaps for their charisma, their vision or their oratory power. When one of these paragons of Christianity falls from Grace, how dreadful it seems… how shocking.

Might this be because we measure spirituality according to a strange criteria? We equate knowledge with understanding, declaration with practice and power with ordination from on high.

Might we best return to a simple measure- of kindness shown, and a skew towards grace in all things. These are the leaders I look for. Jesus has ruined the others for me!



I once knew a man who drew me.
Impressive like a monument
His lighthouse lit the horizon
And I paddled his way, shipping water.

I liked his cant
The slant of marbled arch
Burnished bronze
Banners in the breeze

And I threw out an anchor
But found no hold.
Rather, the bones of others wrecked on these rocks
Sirens silent, cannons cold.

And the monument was unmoved
Like an unblitzed cathedral in a ruined city
This man could rise above and
Point heavenward, uncomprehending.

Fool that I am, and blind from logs in my own eyes
I know that men are clay
From the feet upwards.
And the closer we come, the more we see the cracks.

But what then is the measure of a man?
I hope one day to stand before my God
Having loved indecently, unchaste
Always poured out love in haste
And death to dignity.

So I claw across sea green rocks and crawl towards
The monument.
Insecure, teetering on foundations brittled by salt brine
And I wonder how to save it.

How not to replace it.