Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Johnston McMaster on Acts 2:42 and the Unity of Women and Men in the Church?

imageYesterday marked the beginning of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Note that it is not the Week of Prayer for Christian Uniformity. There are many matters about which earnest and sincere Christians disagree: what church structures should be like, how to interpret some passages of scripture, what Christian unity would look like if it were ever to arrive, even if Christian unity is a worthy goal.

In the post yesterday where I re-launched this blog with the tagline Building a Church Without Walls, I shared some of my own remarks from a local Christian Unity week service. It should be clear from that post that I consider Christian unity a worthy aspiration and I do not see it coming about unless people at all levels of the church – from the clergy to the people in the pews – see it as a priority.

Rev. Dr Johnston McMaster, a colleague of mine at the Irish School of Ecumenics, has also prepared some remarks for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, centring on this year’s scriptural passage, Acts 2:42. The Irish School of Ecumenics has made his remarks publicly available to church leaders and others who might wish to reflect on them this week. I reproduce them below:



JANUARY 18th – 25th 2011


“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” Acts 2: 42

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2011

One in the Apostles’ Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread and Prayer

The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer is based on Acts 2 v 42, one of several summaries of the early church’s life. Acts is volume 2 of Luke’ writing, the continuation of the faith community’s narrative that began with a Gospel. The key themes of Luke’s Gospel are continued in Acts. These include the centrality of the Spirit and the profound concern for the poor.

Acts has a double agenda which has a subversive focus. The first agenda is in relation to the church in its subversion of the Greco-Roman society in which it is placed.

There are many encounters with powers and authorities and repeated affirmations of the disobedience of faith. In Ireland the relationship between faith and politics, church and state has changed radically and perhaps, irrevocably. Churches at the edge of power and politics have still to work out a very different relationship between faith and politics and what the nature of their unity is in this potentially creative place.

Luke’s other agenda is subversive of the church itself. Acts was written when a movement was gathering pace to make the early church more organised and respectable. Faith, order, ministry and practice were to conform to a definitive norm. This movement included putting women ‘back in their place’, by putting limits on and even excluding them from leadership in the church.

By the beginning of the second century women were being silenced and denied equality and leadership roles and we see this reflected in I Timothy (100-110 CE). Luke writes against this movement with the Spirit poured out in ‘all flesh’, men and women, and with many stories of women in Acts, often in key church leadership roles. In 2011 when the centenary of the women’s suffrage movement in Ireland is marked, there is still serious work to do in relation to gender equality issues in society and not least in the churches. Unity for Luke, and for us will include the unity and equality of the sexes in the community of faith.

A Snapshot of the Early Church

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Luke offers a series of impressions or snapshots of the earliest faith community. The ‘They’ is inclusive, transcending class, culture and gender, the Spirit having been poured on ‘all flesh’ equally. The unity of the church is beyond humanity and patriarchy. Luke’s snapshot subverts the organisation and pattern of Greco-Roman society and the movement within the church itself towards patriarchy and the control and disempowerment of women.

The ‘apostles teaching’ in Acts is not adherence or obedience to a body of theology, formulated and defined. It is ethical praxis, a way of being the community of faith in relation to economic sharing, social solidarity and being with the poor and marginalised. It is also the practice of inclusivity and equality. These are the Lukan themes which Peter’s early speech on the Day of Pentecost has begun to express.

‘Fellowship’ is the rich word KOINONIA and it highlights the faith community as a shared partnership in which there is a mutual and profound regard for each other’s spiritual and physical wellbeing. KOINONIA is also a shared partnership in diversity and it is a way of being church with radical implications for shared power as well as what it means to seek the common good.

‘The breaking of bread’ has been integral to the faith community’s life together from the outset. It is the practice that highlights most the disunity of the churches at present. The fact that a shared partnership cannot share ‘bread’ together seriously negates all the marks of the church in Luke’s snapshot. For some it is the pain of separation with which we have got to live. For others the pain is inappropriate and unnecessary. For yet others the real pain is that in a world where the majority have no bread our division over the speculative and theological nature of bread is a denial of the gospel. The scandal of the Eucharist in the Corinthian churches was economic and therefore socially divisive. For Luke also the breaking of bread goes to the heart of economic sharing, and not surprisingly the ethical and economic practice of the KOINONIA had ‘the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2 v 47).

‘The prayers’ are not private but public prayers in which the faith community engaged with God and with the world of economic oppression and marginalisation, the militarism and violence of Roman society and the new trend towards the exclusion of women from power and leadership within parts of the church itself. Prayer is engagement with the messy life of the world.

Luke’s snapshot takes us well beyond the unity of the church. The Spirit poured out on ‘all flesh’ breaking down all ethnic, cultural, class and gender barriers, and the constant interaction in Acts between faith community and wider society, including power systems and authorities, reminds us that God’s purpose is the unity of all humankind.

Our shared prayer is ultimately for the unity of the whole inhabited earth, which is the essential meaning of OIKOUMENE. In modelling Acts 2 v 42, our prayer goes beyond Christian unity to the unity of all life.

— Prepared by Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, ISE staff member

I appreciate how Johnston draws our attention to the ‘snapshots’ that provide us a glimpse, back through time, of what the early church may have looked like.

It is quite a vision: a church where women’s gifts are not subordinated to those of men and the Spirit poured out on ‘all flesh’ ignores the distinctions of ethnicity, class, gender and culture that are now, sadly, reflected in many of our present-day church institutions. It is easy to forget this vision and think that the church might not have been intended to be this way; while on the other hand it can be easy to idealise that vision (the early church probably had more problems and disagreements than we think!).

A comment on yesterday’s post said:

I think Gladys needs to be more upfront about what she means by lines such as “why women may be prevented from using their gifts fully in your church?” What does that mean?

I didn’t have anything specific in mind when I posed that question: women’s gifts and ministries are more accepted in some denominations, and in some congregations within particular denominations, than in others.

I think Johnston’s reflections provide an important theological and Bible-based challenge to the way we think about women’s roles in the church. In addition, I’m a sociologist of religion, not a theologian, so I tend to look at questions around women’s role in the church in an empirical way:

I think these empirical findings, combined with Johnston’s more radical or ‘subversive’ reading of Scripture, provide a springboard for thinking again about how our churches might begin to recognise and value the gifts of its women.

(Stained glass image of Mary Magdalene sourced on flickr photosharing, by Fergal OP)

7 thoughts on “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Johnston McMaster on Acts 2:42 and the Unity of Women and Men in the Church?”

  1. When I hear the words ‘being church’ little red flags rise in my mind.

    If unity doesn’t mean uniformity, why do folks keep harping on about women ‘priests’ in the Catholic Church? Where’s the tolerance and diversity for that option – the option not to have them?

    You can prove whatever you want with surveys. Why not do a survey of young men aged 18-30 and see if they feel rejected/included/loved in the Church. You’ll have a hard time finding them in the Church so maybe try the local pubs. You could even try asking them why they find Church, Mass or whatever, seemingly irrelevant. Heck you could even ask me and I might tell you.

    I can offer yo this little tidbit: I was at a Catholic event in Dublin recently. I got into conversation with some middle-aged women. I am a young man in my late 20s. So anyway, the consensus among these women were that there should be no women priests in the RCC, regardless of the fact that it is not possible according to the Magisterium. One women said ‘There’s nothing worse than women in charge’, whilst another said ‘if there were women priests the men would run a mile’. I agreed. I said that if there were to be women priests, I would take myself off to the nearest chapel of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Let me say it clearly, IF there were to be women priests introduced in the morning, men would leave the Church in droves. My uncle said the same thing recently: if the Church brought in women priests, he would leave.

    Gladys, you don’t understand the depth and the strength of feeling (call it a backlash) against the radical-feminist equality agenda. One lady in Dublin said that the Catholic priesthood is the last thing that men have. This was a women stating the obvious. These were just ordinary Catholic women of faith.

    It’s easy for you to sit in an ivory tower and plan how you and your fellows are going to put the Church and the world to rights, but please realise that not everyone wants what you want. You could include God in that. What God wants just might not be what you want.

    Let me finish with some words from Pope Benedict, from his recent book, Light of the World. This excerpt is in the public domain and it is quite relevant to this discussion.

    ”A new intolerance is spreading, that is quite obvious. There are well-established standards of thinking that are supposed to be imposed on everyone. These are then announced in terms of so-called “negative tolerance”. For instance, when people say that for the sake of negative tolerance [i.e. “not offending anyone”] there must be no crucifix in public buildings. With that we are basically experiencing the abolition of tolerance, for it means, after all, that religion, that the Christian faith is no longer allowed to express itself visibly.

    When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means that she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity and that, instead, an abstract, negative religion is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow. That is then seemingly freedom – for the sole reason that it is liberation from the previous situation.

    In reality, however, this development increasingly leads to an intolerant claim of a new religion, which pretends to be generally valid because it is reasonable, indeed, because it is reason itself, which knows all and, therefore, defines the frame of reference that is now supposed to apply to everyone.

    In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished; this is a real threat we face. The danger is that reason – so-called Western reason – claims that it has now really recognized what is right and thus makes a claim to totality that is inimical to freedom. I believe that we must very emphatically delineate this danger. No one is forced to be a Christian. But no one should be forced to live according to the “new religion” as though it alone were definitive and obligatory for all mankind.”

    Interestingly, it was Pope Benedict, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, confirmed in 1995, that the reservation of ordained priesthood to men only was part of the Deposit of Faith:



    Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

    October 28, 1995

    Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.

    Responsum: In the affirmative.

    This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.

    The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved this Reply, adopted in the ordinary session of this Congregation, and ordered it to be published.

    Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the Feast of the Apostles SS. Simon and Jude, October 28, 1995.

    Joseph Card. Ratzinger

    Tarcisio Bertone
    Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli

  2. >>>I think these empirical findings, combined with Johnston’s more radical or ‘subversive’ reading of Scripture, provide a springboard for thinking again about how our churches might begin to recognise and value the gifts of its women.<<<

    I can't help but make the link between what this gentleman, Johnson, is saying, and the 'Rules for Radicals' book by Saul Alinsky , who paid tribute in that book to the first radical – Lucifer.

    The Christian faith is not about subversion, radicalism, or activism – the Christian faith is about love, pure love. But if you want to subvert the Catholic Church, it has been tried and found wanting. The Communists tried it, lots of people have tried it, but ultimately, it doesn't prevail, because Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. Note His Church, not 'our Church'. That is not to say that radicals can't cause serious harm, they can, but it's just that they won't prevail in their endeavour.

  3. Sorry guys, this post was not exclusively about the Catholic Church nor was it specifically about women priests. You seem to be jumping to conclusions without any evidence.

  4. One thing that occurs to me is that often a church’s loss, when offered gifts are unused, can be a benefit for the wider community. Lay people can often act in ways that are difficult for clergy; Christians from diverse congregations can achieve more together than they could within their separate denominations; inter-faith initiatives can reach further than single faith groupings and secular contexts can provide opportunities for wider service than specifically religous ones. Ironically, those who suffer most from the failure to take all that lay people can offer are probably the clergy, who find themselves burdened with many tasks and roles that are peripheral to their central ministerial or priestly vocations.

  5. I know I am always harping on about the Pope, but that is only because he is the one, most prominent, person in the Church who ‘gets it’. In his recent book, Light of the World (read it!), he states the following (again, this text excerpt is in the public domain), in an exchange with his interviewer, Peter Seewald:

    >> Peter Seewald: ‘A “culture of doubt” is very much “in” these days, and it has found a comfortable nest even in media outlets associated with the Church. In many cases, editors simply take over uncritically the slogans circulating among the usual critics of the
    Church. Bishops follow the lead of their media consultants,who recommend a soft line in order to avoid any damage to the bishops’ liberal image. And when, on top of that, huge media concerns belonging to the Church remove religious books from their main sales lists—doesn’t this raise doubts as to whether we can still speak credibly about new evangelization?’

    Pope Benedict: ‘ These are all phenomena that one can only observe with sadness. It is sad that there are what you might call professional Catholics who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops. We must really make an effort to change this. In Italy—where there are far fewer enterprises run by the Church as an institution—I observe that initiatives arise, not because they are set up by the Church as institution, but because the people themselves believe. Spontaneous new beginnings arise not from institutions, but out of an authentic faith.’ <<

    I can vouch for this, and this is the experience of faithful Catholics in Ireland. Let me now comment from another commentator:


    It’s very frustrating. I’m young, faithful, but unemployed!!! It appears the Holy Father shares our pain.

  6. (cont…)

    That quotation is here:

    >>> Protect the Pope comment: It seems that Pope Benedict, like many of us, has given up on Church institutions dominated by liberal professionals, such as catechetical centres and Education services (Of course there are a few faithful and loyal catechetical centres and Education services, but they are the exception in my experience).

    Pope Benedict makes it clear that he doesn’t look for signs of renewal and hope from those institutions of the Church top heavy with liberal professional Catholics but from people who have an authentic faith outside the institutions.

    Commenting on the Pope’s remark, Fr. de Souza observes: ‘It is easy enough to point to the managerial bishop or the administrative pastor and lament the lack of fervour for the faith and the absence of evangelical criteria in decision-making. But could not the same be said of any diocesan office in Canada, the staff room of any Catholic school, the executive officers of any Catholic social welfare agency or the bureaucrats that administer the vast panoply of Catholic organizations?’

    As a Catholic blogger observes, ‘many vibrant, young, and faithful Catholics who would love to offer their all to the Church are left to find work in the secular world. Why are all the professional jobs in the Church held by dissidents?’ <<<

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