Why is the Church So Afraid of Women?
I don’t want to be a bit-player when it comes to spirituality.
I don’t want to be made to feel ashamed, sidelined or silenced simply because I was born with a vagina. I don’t want to be patronised or made to play small just because my body isn’t in possession of a Y chromosome.
I don’t want to be consigned to making the tea, working in the Sunday school or clapping the men on from the wings. I want to be out there, preaching, teaching and blazing a trail for Love.
I don’t want to choose between being a virgin or a whore – because that’s a choice born out of fear, created by the patriarchy. I want to celebrate my passion, my fire and my sensuality – just as I celebrate my humility.
I don’t want to be meek and mild – I want to be meek and wild. And I want to reclaim the sacred in the feminine
In 2010 I set out on a quest to see if I could find a source of true happiness, strength and peace that wasn’t dependant upon another person, career success or material possessions.
My quest took me deep into the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions – which was a real eye-opener for a devout atheist like me.
As part of my quest I took part in the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity.
I’d previously been very wary of the Christian church, largely due to the teachings in the Bible about women and sexuality.
But reading Jesus’s teachings about love and forgiveness was a real lightbulb moment for me. Surely the only way out of the spiral of hate and fear in the world is to love – and forgive – our enemies? Surely the only way to heal is to learn how to truly love ourselves and each other?
But the more I learned about Christianity, the more confused I became about the discrepancies between what Jesus taught and how he lived and what was being taught and lived in his name.
And one of the most dramatic discrepancies I found was when it came to women.
The more I researched the early Christian church, the more alarmed I became at the way the women who had played a key role in its formation had been subsequently photo-shopped out of existence.
One such woman was Thecla.
The chances are that you’ve never heard of Thecla. I hadn’t until very recently. But in the first few centuries after Jesus’s death she was a household name, in Christian households at least, with pilgrims flocking to her shrines and revering her as one of the most important people outside the Holy Trinity.
Thecla’s story is told in The Acts of Paul and Thecla (a text dating back to the second century, although some scholars have dated it as early as ad 70).
The text is one of many gospels and scriptures that early Christians saw as sacred, but didn’t make the grade when an (all-male) council in Rome decided what should go into the New Testament, some three hundred years after Jesus’s death.
Thecla’s story begins when the apostle Paul arrives in her home city of Iconium, in Asia Minor, and begins preaching his message from her next-door neighbour’s house.
Seventeen-year-old Thecla sat spellbound in her window for three days and nights listening to Paul’s message, which focused heavily on sexual renunciation: ‘Blessed are those who have kept the flesh chaste, for they will become a temple of God.’ (Acts of Thecla 5). Thecla’s mother was not very impressed by this as she’d just arranged for her daughter to be married to a man named Thamyris. Back then arranged marriages were the norm, with women having no say in things and very few rights at all.
But Thecla would not be moved. Paul’s words had convinced her to renounce sex and devote herself to God.
Thamyris was outraged at this turn of events and dragged Paul off to the governor of the city to stand trial. That night, Thecla managed to bribe her way into Paul’s cell, where she spent the night listening to his eloquent words and ‘kissing his bonds’ – not a euphemism.
Paul and Thecla were both sent to trial. As an outsider, Paul was flogged and banished from the city. As a local, Thecla was condemned to be burnt at the stake. But, just as the flames were taking hold, a divine intervention in the form of a freak thunderstorm extinguished them, and Thecla escaped. She tracked down Paul and begged him to allow her to join him on his mission, offering to cut off her hair so she would pass as a male.
Paul, rather mean-spiritedly, some might say, refused to baptise Thecla, fearing that she might change her mind. But he allowed her to join him and they travelled to Antioch. When they arrived a prominent citizen named Alexander noticed Thecla and tried to force himself upon her. Rather than submitting to his will, Thecla tore off his cloak and crown, publicly humiliating him.
Although the gathered crowd found this highly amusing, Alexander had a serious sense of humour failure and took Thecla to the local magistrate, who condemned her to be thrown to her death in an arena of wild animals. Many local women protested the great injustice of this sentence, but to no avail.
There then followed a series of scenes straight from an epic action film. First, a wild lioness was unleashed on Thecla but instead of killing her, she licked her feet and killed the bear that was subsequently sent to kill her. But as more and more wild animals were released into the arena, Thecla began to despair. Spotting a vat filled with human-eating seals (yes, really), Thecla threw herself into the water and baptised herself.
At this point, God once again intervened, this time with a lightning bolt, which killed the seals and allowed Thecla to escape. Realising he was fighting a losing battle, the governor then gave up and released her. Thecla dressed as a man and set off to find Paul. When she found him, he told her to go and teach the word of God. She spent the rest of her life preaching the Christian gospel.
Now, I can guess what you’re thinking – human-eating seals, convenient thunder and lightning storms, feet-licking lionesses – it’s all a tad far-fetched, but taken in the context of the miracle stories the Bible is crammed full of, the story of Thecla is no more or less believable.
What it does do is give women and girls a strong spiritual heroine they can look up to – a woman who, thousands of years before the #MeToo movement, refused to be humiliated by or be sold off to a man; a woman who wanted to devote her life to her spiritual faith and when a man wouldn’t baptise her, she baptised herself – in a vat full of murderous sea-life creatures, no less.
No wonder she was a household name in the first few centuries of Christianity. Imagine being taught that story in Sunday school. Imagine a Thecla-inspired sermon about the importance of owning your own power.
Imagine Christian boys, girls, women and men growing up to believe that none of us needs permission when it comes to fiercely devoting ourselves to Love, and that both men and women can be spiritual leaders.
You can find out more about the female spiritual leaders who have been photo-shopped from religion and history in my new book, Something More … a Spiritual Misfit’s Search for Meaning, which is out now and available here.