Lesson 2 (alternate): Romans 16:1-7.
This is not the passage that most churches would read on this occasion; it is, however, the choice made by the Inclusive Language Lectionary, specially because it names women who were important in the early church and are often forgotten – and because reading it in this context helps to correct that.
This week’s lessons are all about being called: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 recounts God’s calling of Samuel as he slept in the temple and John 1:35-42 tells of Jesus gathering (or acquiring, since he doesn’t seem to have very much agency in the matter) his first disciples. We aren’t given that level of detail about the calling of the people whom Paul greets – Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Epenetus, Mary, Andronicus, and Junia – but we get the sense that they are each in their own ways responding to what Christ has asked of them. For the majority of these figures, this is the only mention made of them (Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned at other places in Paul’s letters, and Priscilla might even have written the letter to the Hebrews; Epenetus is mentioned as one of the seventy disciplines in a list by Hippolytus). Four of these seven names are women (although Junia has sometimes been named Junias, consensus at the moment seems to be in favour of the former).
In this passage, women are named as significant. Phoebe is a deacon or minister, who seems to be travelling from one church to another; Priscilla is, alongside Aquila, one of Paul’s “c0-workers in Christ Jesus”; Mary – yet another Mary! – works hard; and Junia, alongside Andronicus, is “noteworthy among the apostles”. They were obviously doing something. I can imagine that they were doing whatever it was with their heads covered, because you can do a lot of things while wearing a hat or scarf; but I find it harder to imagine being a deacon, a co-worker, noteworthy among the apostles, without speaking about religious matters to people other than your husband. Paul, presumably, for starters. The rest of Romans 16 goes on to give greetings to many other people, including at least five or six more women – not all of them named, like Rufus’s mother, but all of them clearly important within the congregation in Rome.
I’m not sure what I want to say about this. There doesn’t seem to be any point saying that this passage illustrates the way the women’s stories are left out of the Biblical account and/or neglected by later writers; we all know that already. There doesn’t seem to be any point talking at length about the tension between this and other parts of Paul’s writing; that’s been done before, and in any case, the writings as they stand have already done the damage to church, and to women, and to the world as a result. I suppose the questions with which I’m left are: can we rescue anything of value from this? and is the work required really worth it?
I don’t think I’d be writing a blog post a week about Biblical passages if I didn’t sometimes find something useful there, so on some level I am answering the first question in the affirmative – even if I often struggle to pin down what it is that I’m finding, or to justify the process required (ignoring contradictory passages or the overall effect in favour of the little bit I happen to like, for example). This chapter of Romans strikes me as an interesting historical document, but not actually one which is inspirational – except in as far as it opposes some churches, churches like those which produced the Inclusive Language Lectionary in the first place, like those who continue to struggle with women’s calls to ministry, churches which I may or may not like but to which I don’t belong, either, so it’s not really any of my business. Overall, I feel that Margaret Fell dealt quite adequately with the arguments in 1666/7, and that it’s ridiculous that this is still an issue in so many places.