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Interview with Professor Joan Taylor

Interview with Professor Joan Taylor, Murdoch University's 2019 International Theologian.

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Interview with Professor Joan Taylor

by Sarah Stapleton (with Luke Hoare)

I am sitting at the first in a series of three lectures by Professor Joan Taylor, Murdoch University’s 2019 International Theologian.

We are looking at an image of a fresco from the 3rd Century. The fresco is of a group of people arranged around a table, and words painted on the fresco say ‘Agape Meal’.

The fresco is from the Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus at Via La Bianca, Rome, and is described simply as ‘Woman holding a chalice at an early Christian Agape feast’. For myself and the woman sitting next to me the image elicits audible gasps.

My neighbour whispers to me excitedly ‘That is a woman holding a chalice aloft like we see in communion!’ ‘Yes,’ I agree, and although I attend a church where I regularly see a woman holding a chalice aloft, I am as stunned as she is.

Less than a week later, sitting with Professor Taylor, Murdoch University’s 2019 International Theologian, I ask the question of which I am almost nervous to hear the answer: Would you say that the early church was one where women and men were ministering side by side, performing similar roles with equal standing … within of course the bounds of the cultural context of the time?’

Joan’s answer is in the affirmative, and leaves me wondering aloud: What on earth happened to the church after these frescoes were painted? Why is it that many Christian women find themselves today (as they have throughout the ages) standing on the margins at the Eucharistic feast, watching a man hold the chalice aloft?

According to Taylor, it was the ascension of the Emperor Constantine in 306, together with the masculine cultural norms of late antiquity, that were the key factors in the exclusion of women from the Christian leadership from the fourth century onward.

Constantine the Great was proclaimed Roman emperor by his troops in York in 306 during a time of civil war. Later, before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he reputedly had a dream instructing him to fight under the banner of the cross. After his victory, not only did Constantine initiate toleration of the Christian church, he also began a policy establishing Christianity as the empire’s official religion. Constantine needed a religion that would unite his kingdom and inspire his armies, and so began a campaign to promote a masculine, war-like version of Christianity, in which the feminine and nurturing aspect of God were down-played, and female Christian leaders were excluded and rejected.

But times are changing, and women are becoming once more supported in positions of leadership, especially in the Anglican church. So why is it important to re-examine the role of women in the church of Biblical times?

As Professor Taylor makes clear: If we believe the Bible to be the word of God, the origin and backbone of the Christian faith, we need to study and understand it as a document written in a time and context that is different from the world we live in now. Knowing more about the communities that lived with Jesus, that followed the teachings of Jesus, helps us to be faithful to God’s will in our ministering to the communities we live in today.

In an increasingly secular age, the parts of the church seem to be painting themselves into a corner, trying to defend beliefs and values that were not actually those of Jesus or the earliest church. Thanks to the careful scholarship of Professor Taylor and others like her, we have the opportunity to better understand and be inspired by the pivotal role women played – and will continue to play – in the ongoing ministry of Jesus’ church.

Professor Joan Taylor is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College, London. Her documentary with Professor Helen Bond, ‘Jesus Female Disciples: The New Evidence’ can be viewed via ABC’s Compass program on ABC iView.

Published in Messenger, October 2019

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