All of a sudden, I’m a feminist…

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking more about the fact that I’m a woman than I have done for a while – or ever, in fact. [No, I haven’t been under the misapprehension that I’m a man in a rather feminine body…] I’ve never labelled myself as a feminist, but I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m now leaning in that direction more than I have done in the past.

Previously I’d been happy with my self-labelled post-feminist nature, however lately it’s seemed that this doesn’t quite cut it. An early indication was my violent reaction to misogyny on a building site (a site on which I was working, I’m not talking wolf-whistling builders). [In fairness, ‘misogyny’ might be a tad harsh, but I strongly disliked the assumptions made as a result of my gender.] Now, I find myself training for ordination in a church that’s divided on whether women can hold senior leadership positions and within a tradition that has a history of restricting women’s roles.

Over the last week an online discussion on the role of women in the church has erupted. It’s always an issue that bubbles under the surface in certain church circles and last week all it took was a Twitter debate (some of it decidedly ungracious in my opinion…) to get it going again. Subsequently, Krish Kandiah wrote a post on the subject, to which Jenny Baker responded, resulting in my being moved me to do something I rarely do – write a serious (and in all probability, very long) post on a contentious issue on my blog…

I don’t intend to get all biblical and recite all the reasons why believe that women have as much of a right as men to lead, but what I do want to do is to share my story and explain why even those who feel this is now a ‘non-issue’ actually do need to care about it.

My church background is Methodist – my parents, yes, both of them, are ordained presbyters in the Methodist Church – and until the summer I worked for the Methodist Church as a researcher (and had a few other jobs with them prior to that). But since 2005 I have worshipped in an evangelical, charismatic Anglican church and, as of September, am now an ordinand in the Church of England.

Growing up in the context I did meant that I saw women taking an equal role in the life of the church – women have been ordained as presbyters in British Methodism for decades. It was something of a shock to me when (while a pupil at a rather conservative CofE primary school) I discovered that not all churches allowed women to be ordained. For secondary school I was shipped off to an all-girls CofE comprehensive that is still known in London as being fiercely feminist – we had ‘Her-story’ classes when ‘History’ was deemed too masculine! This was in the early 1990’s when the ordination of women was finally becoming a realistic prospect. I vividly recall the day a member of staff interrupted an RS lesson with the news that General Synod had voted in favour of women becoming priests – it was a moment of rejoicing for the whole school – and I suspect I (naively) thought this was the end of the battle in terms of equality in the church.

My entire secondary education was spent in all-girls schools where we were urged to reach beyond the glass ceiling, but honestly, as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t see why there should be any problem in breaking through it. In fact, we saw it as a bit of a joke – would feminism really be needed in the 21st century? We didn’t think so.

At university I had my first encounter with a Christian woman who didn’t believe that women should be ordained – I was stunned. It was another black mark against the Christian Union and I labelled them as crazies and assumed they weren’t particularly common.

Then I had my spiritual transformation. [I jest, slightly. It wasn’t a road to Damascus experience, I simply found a church that was unlike any I’d ever experienced before and felt at home there.] I found myself in a church where I couldn’t take peoples’ views on women for granted – yes, the vicar supported women in leadership and spoke on the issue a number of times, but it couldn’t be assumed of everyone. After the vicar spoke to the men and women of the church separately on the subject, I found myself in the pub after church defending my beliefs (and, what was now emerging as my calling). One man even said that he wouldn’t want a woman leading his church because he knew a lot of stupid women. You know what? I know a lot of idiot men who shouldn’t be vicars, but it doesn’t mean that the whole gender should be banned from leading!

As I’ve pursued my calling to ordination, I’ve faced some interesting questions and conversations. One of my closest (female) friends belongs to a New Frontiers church and doesn’t believe in women holding leadership positions in church – but, she supports my calling. There have been friends in the Methodist Church who have questioned my move into a church where women currently can’t be bishops, to whom I’ve responded with a belief that things will change and that things certainly can’t change if women like me decide to avoid the very places where change needs to happen. Very recently I was at an event where someone asked “why do you feel called to ordination?” and I quickly realised that she wasn’t asking out of interest, she was asking because she believed women shouldn’t be ordained – it made me angry, but I answered rationally and truthfully.

Now I find myself in a place where I have to keep asking the “where are the women?” question. Not because my parish isn’t supportive – it very definitely is; and not because my theological college isn’t – it clearly is too; but because there just still aren’t enough women around. Yesterday I was bemoaning the lack of women on a list of ‘ordinand consultants’ [the staff were also bemoaning this, and asked for suggestions] – the one woman featured specialised in children’s work, thus confirming a typical stereotype. I am actively seeking out women who are in my line of work and who I feel I could be inspired by and who could inspire others. I am battling feelings of despondency when I look around the room at meetings and see that all the other women are vicar’s wives. I’m not going to stop asking the question until those situations change.

While I’ve been writing this, someone on Twitter has suggested that women in leadership is an ‘irrelevant’ issue – a (female, ordained) friend concurred and I weighed in with my opinion that for the sake of women where this is a relevant issue, we need to all keep fighting. Both the tweeters are Methodists and I agree, in Methodism it’s irrelevant. While conducting my Missing Generation research project last year, gender was never mentioned as an issue, something my Quaker research assistant found extraordinary – there are people in Methodism who like to think that it’s a massive issue, but honestly, it isn’t. Yes, you need to make sure that there is an even gender-representation at all levels of the church (and yes, there is currently just one women in its senior management team), but seriously British Methodists, you’ve got it pretty sorted! [Just please, please, please lay off the gender neutrality in liturgy/hymns issue!] It turned out that the tweeter actually meant that the issue of male/female equality was irrelevant to modern society – but I don’t agree there either. For as long as Iceland persist in using ‘That’s why Mum’s gone to Iceland’ as a slogan, we are not a truly egalitarian society!

To throw my own opinion into Krish’s theory that there can be a middle ground – I don’t believe there can be. As Jenny points out, such a middle ground requires a significant number of women to be denied doing what they believe God is calling them to do. What we need to do is to keep talking; to not get angry, defensive or abusive; to listen to differing opinions; and, ultimately, for people to be enabled in following their vocation. 

Comments

  1. Thanks for this – it’s good to hear you’re experience (hmm…maybe ‘good’ isn’t the right word there).

    I do think the debate in certain sections of the church about women is irrelevant to the real world experience of most people in this country because any debate that questions whether or not woman can take a particular role simply because of their gender is archaic. (heavens even the herditary system of the monarchy is starting to recognise that firstborn women can become queen ahead of their younger brothers). If you mention the debate to anyone outside church world you may as well be suggesting that there is still a debate to be had around whether white people are superior to black people or not – utterly laughable if the ramifications weren’t so serious.

    This is not to devalue the experience of women in the church wrestling with bigotry (and some of the stories I hear from my sisters in the Anglican church really make my jaw drop). Nor is it to say that the debate about the role of women in wider society isn’t an important one (we only need to look at the lack of women in the government to see that it’s a real issue) – but no one outside the church is seriously suggesting that by virtue of their gender it is innappropriate for a woman to fill certain roles.

    I experience something simiar as a gay man in the Methodist Church – friends outside the church can’t begin to comprehend how it could be an issue. It’s another area where certain Christians are trapped in the dark ages and dress up their bigotry with fancy theology and biblical references.

    Every blessing to you as you live out your calling in a difficult place.

  2. Thanks Ric!

    I think your distinction between a simple absence of women in roles throughout society and people believing that ‘by virtue of their gender it is inappropriate for a woman to fill certain roles’ is a really important one. That’s the key really for explaining to those outside the church why this is an issue that still divides it.

  3. Hi Liz, followed your link on Jenny’s post on Sophia Network. Your thoughts on the gender issue within church are much like my own – and I too have started to write about my experience – because I think that whilst the academic side of this debate is VERY important, I think it needs to be read along with the experience of many. I became a Christian at 16 and immediately followed all that was modeled – including the view that men lead and women follow. That was before I started to hear God call me into the ministry. It totally messed me up for a long time!! You can read the first in my series of posts on ‘coming out’ (as an Egalitarian) at http://www.joroyal.com/2011/11/one-where-i-come-out-part-1.html

    Thanks again for this post – 🙂
    Jo

  4. Liz

    Thanks for writing about your experience. It does feel like something is being stirred up at the moment, which some find threatening, but I think it’s very important that we hear how the issue impacts people

    Jenny

  5. This was good to read. I have experienced this myself and heard similar views expressed a lot recently which suggests to me that change may be in the waters. It seems to me that there are more and more young women in particular coming through the ranks with a strong sense of calling and I’ve experienced a lot of support for that in the wider church. Just yesterday a principal of a college encouraged me to train to the highest level I can (if the church will have me!!) saying we need more women educated to the highest level for the good of the future of the church.

    Keep up the good work with your blog, it’s always great to read whether a good laugh or discussing a big issue.

    Nicola

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