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‘I commend to you Phoebe’

25 May 2018

Poor imagination has populated the New Testament with men, Paula Gooder says. She tells Madeleine Davies about redressing the balance


Portrait of a woman, Roman period, A.D. 90–120

Portrait of a woman, Roman period, A.D. 90–120

AT THE end of a recent Channel 4 documentary, Jesus’s Female Disciples, a series of stone women rose from the façade of St Peter’s Basilica to join the men gazing down on the beetling tourists below. It was a powerful riposte to an earlier scene, in which viewers were shown early sarcophagus carvings depicting the raising of Lazarus. Mary and Martha were gradually shrunk, before being completely erased.

The presenter, Professor Joan Taylor, observed of Mary: “She’s just a kind of footstool in the corner.”

Watching the programme, Dr Paula Gooder, a New Testament scholar, was struck afresh that, 2000 years later, acts of erasure continue to be performed by our own imaginations.

“Imagine a scene in which we talk about Jesus and his disciples, and you imagine men and what they were doing,” she observes. “We have to imagine women there, because they were there. How do we begin to get that more normalised view out to people in churches?”

She is not entirely sure of the answer, but her new book, Phoebe, suggests that it lies, at least in part, in firing imagination with scholarship. It is the story of the deacon and benefactor named by Paul in Romans 16.

It is not, Dr Gooder emphasises, a novel. She would not presume to call herself a novelist, and, in any case, there were “constraining factors” that don’t apply to novels in which the story drives everything.

At the back of the book are detailed notes setting out the scholarship that underpins every element of the story, from the size and layout of Roman houses to first-century beliefs about honour and shame, and marriage and patronage; even the reliance of ordinary Romans on “take-away” food stands. Dr Gooder has tried to keep Phoebe “as pegged to history as far as I can”.

It is, nevertheless, her first foray into “historical imagination” — something not usually applied to Paul’s letters, to the detriment of our understanding, she suggests.

“Techniques of meditation that we do around Gospel stories will often encourage you to imagine yourself into the time of Jesus; but you never, ever do that around Paul’s letters,” she argues. “Just imagining yourself into what it looked like, what it might have been heard like — did you agree? did you not agree? — lifts it off the page.” There is, she says, a “good reason” for hesitation. “We want to deal in truth, but, if you use careful imagination, and you use the history you know, you can get access to a different form of truth, which is an emotional, spiritual truth.”

DR GOODER, who spent 12 years in ministerial formation before taking up her current position as director of mission learning and development for the diocese of Birmingham, has long found the two-verse reference to Phoebe “tantalising”. Despite its brevity (easily explained, she says, given that “we are the trespassers into a bit of private correspondence”), there are various points of scholarly agreement, she says.

Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Corinth and a wealthy patron. Her name was normally given to slaves, “and therefore she would have been a freed slave”. She took Paul’s letter from Corinth to Rome, “and therefore was probably the first person who explained it to anyone who wasn’t Paul.” These four pieces of information are “gold”, she suggests. “You can’t not do something with that.”

Persecution, conversion, and intra-church debate are all explored in the book, which contains an affectionate depiction of the intimacy and excitement of early church communities. But it is Phoebe’s memories as a slave which give the book its heart.

“The harsh reality about being a woman who was a slave in the first century was that your body wasn’t your own,” Dr Gooder observes. “Just as now.” While her scholarly notes testify to the particularity of first-century customs and beliefs, the story itself contains numerous nods to modern culture. Women continue to be enslaved, and abused; debates about the part they play in the Church rage on.

“It’s a reflection on what prevents a woman who is clearly already in certain levels of leadership from going into another greater form of leadership,” she explains. (Phoebe eventually leads a mission to Spain.) There remain “some very contextual reasons why some women struggle to occupy their role in leadership more than men do”.

A line in the closing pages — “Phoebe has been battling her calling ever since we met her” — was “definitely autobiographical.

“It is frankly quite hard to be a woman in leadership in the Church,” Dr Gooder says. “Given half a chance, I would not be high-profile, doing big speaking events. . . It is apparently what God has called me to do.” Part of that reticence, she says, is about the fact that, “as a woman, you get a lot more negative feedback than you do as a man.”

GRAHAM LACDAODr Gooder, speaking at St Paul’s Cathedral

ON TWITTER this year, in response to a cartoon illustrating this phenomenon, she revealed that, two years ago, she had stepped back from speaking engagements. It prompted a wave of encouragement and solidarity, but also the suggestion that it was necessary for women speakers to have a “wing-person”.

One woman friend recalled “keeping a watch” on Dr Gooder at a clergy conference when “four male clergy were wrangling with you just before you were due to speak”. Her friend had to “call time” with five minutes to go.

“In all honesty, it’s quantity,” Dr Gooder explains. “When you say these kinds of things, people go ‘Oh dear, she’s a tender flower; a couple of negative comments and she wobbles.’ We’re not talking a couple. . . If you count them up over the years, we’re definitely into thousands, about appearance, tone of voice, whether I ought to be doing it, whether I can do it, whether I understand my theology.”

Initially, she could laugh it off, but, as time went on, she found she was second-guessing herself. “When I would decide what to wear, I would think ‘Well, it can’t be a skirt, because people might criticise whether it’s too short or too long; so then it needs to be trousers, but it can’t be that type of trousers. . . It starts to erode your soul a little bit.”

She has recently returned to public speaking: she is addressing Spring Harvest this year, and is scheduled to appear at Greenbelt in August. When it comes to supporting women speakers, she advises people not to approach them with the first thing that comes to mind, but the second, “because there’s a very, very strong chance that a hundred other people have said that first thing”. When her children were younger, she found that at least five people at every conference she attended would ask whether she was worried about them.

She also advises people to be aware that “people naturally criticise women more. . . If you want to pick them up, then that’s great, but just say something positive before you get into the negative.”

DR GOODER is encouraged by a “massive change of culture” in which many women in their twenties and early thirties have followed her into scholarship and speaking; but she is also conscious of a “huge drop-off” in academic progression, so that the number of women entering postgraduate work bears little relation to the undergraduate ratio.

She is also aware that the publication of Phoebe is likely to trigger renewed scrutiny: her choice of central character steps into “hotly contested areas about women’s roles in ministry”. Besides positioning Phoebe as the exegete of the Letter to the Romans, she introduces Prisca as a church leader, and Junia as an apostle.

Paul never appears, but remains a powerful off-stage presence, discussed by a community by no means uniformly well-disposed towards him. “Paul loved to argue so much that he couldn’t understand those who didn’t, who were in some way undermined or damaged in the process,” Phoebe muses.

It is one of a number of lines that acknowledge Paul’s divisive character, while seeking to explain it. “There’s a whole range of Christians who either just think Paul isn’t for them because they’ve had a bad experience in some way or another, or have never read a book on Pauline scholarship,” observes the author, who has “lost count of the times that I have been told that Paul is ‘bad for women’”. She disagrees, but describes taking “a journey” during her graduate work on Paul, during which she was taught by the Rt Revd Professor Tom Wright, and “began to see Paul through Tom’s eyes”.

A MEMBER of the General Synod for ten years, she played a central part in the passage of the women-bishops legislation, sitting on the drafting group and steering committee. She appeared distressed, beside Lord Williams, in a photo taken in the aftermath of the fall of the first Measure, in 2012. These debates, and those that have taken place during the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, of which she is also a member, were in her mind during the writing of Phoebe, she says.

“What I learned from both of those is that you can have a really contentious debate among people you know well in a completely different way than in a big arena.” Forming relationships changes the debate, she suggests; the difficulty occurs in taking the conversation wider, to those who haven’t “travelled the distance relationally”. It is striking that, in Phoebe, heated debates are tempered by interlocutors familiar with the personal histories of their adversaries. Dr Gooder admits that she “might have been over-generous” in her depiction: “I think, in a way, I was idealising how we might do those debates today.” The Galatians were, she notes, “quite vicious”.

Nevertheless, Phoebe is infused with the author’s affection for the Early Church. “They were working it out on the hoof,” she explains. “It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s vibrant. These people had just encountered Jesus, and he’s made an enormous difference in their lives. . . They’ve got to work out what does this really mean . . . that’s absolutely captivating.” While every effort has been expended to engross the reader in the sights and smells of the first century, there is also the occasional knowing nod, as when Prisca, on reading the letter, remarks: “I wouldn’t be surprised if people are still trying to work out what it means in a few months’ time.”

Although she is “desperately” keen to let novelists know that she is not “a newbie having a go at what you’ve been doing for years”, Dr Gooder cites historical novelists, including Philippa Gregory, among her inspirations. “What she has done single-handedly is reintroduce women into the history around Henry VIII,” she says. “People are now studying, for example, Mary Boleyn’s life in a way that they never were before she wrote The Other Boleyn Girl.

She hopes that Phoebe will work similarly, to “open up the world of women and say, ‘They were there: they are just a bit silent.’” When asked about the great historic Christians who inspired her, Dr Gooder has tended to reach for people like Paul, “but I do want to be inspired by female characters.”

Now that Phoebe has been given a voice, she has already identified other subjects who should populate the Early Church of our imaginations: Euodia and Syntyche, Paul’s co-workers in Philippians (urged by him to reconcile), and Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, converted in the city. Their stories are, she suggests, “crying out” to be told.

Phoebe is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99 (CT Bookshop special price £12.99).

Read our book review of Phoebe here

Listen to the full interview here

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