Intentional or token?

Christian festival season usually means that the issue of gender representation rears its head again. Someone, somewhere will analyse festival programmes, working out what proportion of the speakers are female and whether that proportion seems appropriate. For Focus, that person was me, while in the green room for a BBC recording.

Focus was analysed thus:
Main stage speakers: 1 woman out of 9.
Seminar speakers: 8 women out of 27. (Though 2 of the seminars I went to had women speakers who had not been listed on the programme.)

Focus wasn’t alone. The Keswick Conference had none (people on Twitter were not surprised by this), and someone at New Wine LSE tweeted this comment during the week:

Ah yes, the lay wives of clergy thing… Yes, couples where one is ordained are both called by God, but the issue really isn’t about the woman concerned, but the prevalence at many of these conferences of wives of church leaders speaking from the front while ordained women sit listening. Why aren’t the ordained women speaking??

At Focus, Wednesday morning was a highlight for me – not just because it was orchestral & choral worship morning, but because this was the first time I’ve heard an ordained woman speak at a main stage HTB network event. It was church plant morning, where those plants that were new, or changing, reported back and were prayed for. Again and again male clergy came up to the stage with their wives in tow. The men did most of the speaking. But then, the leader of a new plant in Hounslow was invited up – Libby Etherington, an ordained woman. I whooped vigorously! I cheered again when my belief that she was the first female HTB church planter was confirmed from the stage. [As an aside, in the commissioning of the newest church plant, I think HTB may have commissioned their first unmarried church planter. Another landmark.]

It’s progress, but much more work is needed…

Earlier in the week, I’d attended an excellent seminar on gender from Sean Doherty (my Ethics tutor at St Mellitus) & Tamsin Merchant (part of the brains behind the recent Young Women’s Vocations Day). The content was great, but it was the questions at the end that fascinated me:

  • How can women find mentors if they worship in churches where few women in leadership can be found?
  • What can we do to encourage women who feel called into leadership?
  • Do churches/conferences need to be more intentional about involving women, or is intentionality tokenism?

That last question was my own and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I want to see women speaking, but I want it to be because they have something worth listening to, not just because “we need to have a woman”. I hear great women speaking on a regular basis – I’ve had some great lectures from female theologians; I’ve been to women’s events where talented women have contributed; I’ve worked in a denomination where women have regularly held the top job and performed brilliantly; and I know that there are a lot of great women out there that I’ve never had the opportunity to hear.

Often, when I mention the lack of women at these festivals, people ask “well, who would you like to hear?”, which isn’t always a fair question. Do you know of every male speaker on the Christian circuit? No. Then why expect me to know which are the women who should be speaking? I do have some names I throw into the mix – especially if it’s a theological setting. But part of the problem is that at these big events, there are big-name speakers flown in from the US. Attitudes to gender within many of their churches are even more complicated than ours, and finding women who are in the same league as Louie Giglio (Focus’ top speaker, and an excellent one), Bill Johnson, Rick Warren or Rob Bell is nigh on impossible.

But I know and understand that, so I don’t expect to find women – or that many at least – in that league. What I would like is for a conference to think to itself: “Well, we’ve got a big-name from the US who happens to be male, do we have a British woman who could contribute too?” And to actively pursue balancing out the main stage speakers so that there’s an even mix of men and women. Someone, this year, should have looked at the list of speakers at the Focus Big Top and asked why there was only one woman…

It’s not all about the conferences though. In fact, for the conferences to get the idea, it needs to happen at grass roots level. There needs to be an inherent intentionality to include both men and women in all forms of leadership and speaking – then perhaps it won’t be too much effort. When I asked my question, Tamsin replied that intentionality was not tokenism, it was a change in mindset that was needed. She used an example of a lunch I’d been at just an hour earlier where everyone who had spoken had been male, but hadn’t needed to be – that’s when intentionality comes into play. Sean added that it’s only tokenism (in his opinion) if someone asks a woman to contribute by saying it’s “because you’re a woman”.

The Wednesday morning where we heard from the first female church planter was also the morning when all the St Mellitus ordinands, graduates and staff are prayed for. I like to refer to this as ‘ritual humiliation of ordinands’ day, but it’s actually a real privilege. HTB has a strong relationship with St Mellitus and many of those training there are placed with HTB plants and go on to work within the network too, but as we stood on stage, I noticed something…

Nicky G. +Richard & St MellitusNicky Gumbel & The Bishop of London pray for St Mellitus. (Credit.)

It’s not necessarily clear from this photo, as it doesn’t show the whole stage and some of the people are obscured, but while standing up there I became aware of how few women were present. One of the things I love about St Mellitus is the fact that men and women are split pretty much 50/50 – there’s no noticeable imbalance. (If anything, given all the people in my year who did two years not three, our final year will be rather female dominated!) Yet in that group on the stage, there were only four female students – i.e. four women who are placed in churches that are part of the HTB network and go to Focus. There was (as far as I could tell) one woman who had trained at St Mellitus and now works within the network. There were an awful lot of men. All the women I’m training with will get (and have got) jobs at the end of it all, but it doesn’t look as though any of them are at an HTB network church. Is there an intentionality to have women leaders? I’m not sure. Curacies are often the luck of the draw, but at the moment it seems that the men are luckier. [Obviously, these churches can and do take curates from other colleges and many people I train with wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of the network, but there is a definite absence of women in leadership.]

We need a church that is intentional about sorting these imbalances out. In the mean time, I’m going to be intentionally asking the same questions and making the same points over and over again, until something changes. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.


  1. exactly what I’ve been thinking recently, especially after just coming back from new wine.
    2 out of 13 speakers in the main venue were women. I find it hard to believe that people don’t comment
    On this time and time again yet little changes. And then there’s the leadership teams. At new wine all are couples or male, and it’s the husband who is ordained. Where are the ordained women?! I agree, I don’t think intentionality is tokenism if done with the right mind set.

  2. Helen Gilbert says:

    I find it embarrassing that in 2013, in one of the countries that most prides itself on being forward thinking and offering an equal society, the church is still struggling to allow well educated, thoughtful, dedicated women to speak in public and lead its people. It makes it hard to trust the church’s judgement.

  3. Caroline Hewlett says:

    This is exactly why, as an ordained women who has come up through evangelical churches, CUs etc, I avoid New Wine like the plague. An organisation that advertises ‘conferences for ‘ministers’ wives’ says it all, really. I came from an evangelical church, did my curacy in one, and have since been unable to get a job in an evangelical church. I recently applied for one, and was not offered it – not a surprise, since their stated aim was ‘to get more young fathers into our church’ (the latest thing, based on some New Wine research, I believe…). They appointed a young man with 3 small children – who had only been ordained 3 years. The other 3 people who were interviewed, who all had a lot more experience, didn’t have children, and some of us were women…

  4. I am highly conscious of the way HTB focuses on male leadership. I have been twice to Focus, and twice have heard the speaker specifically pray for men after a leadership themed talk (come up to the front, male only) only to mention women quickly at the end. (As an aside, ‘we also pray for the women’.) I’ve concluded it must be part of their core theological base.

    At a women’s breakfast last year (I didn’t attend but a friend did) apparently God wasn’t really mentioned, it was a talk on how the speaker met her husband, how and when they got married, and how they had children. And how ‘God never disappoints’. My friend was seething.

    Also to note that the Focus ‘Look back at the week’ video showed a clip of Pippa Gumble making a mistake on stage, when all week long she had been a fabulous, confident, host on stage. It was GREAT to see her on stage so much. The editors chose a clip of her not looking good, in the name of good humour, and also to represent the on stage banter with her husband.

    The clip chosen of the one women speaker in the ‘look back at the week’ video also was similar. She shared an example of how her husband was ‘more holy’ than she was due to his patience when getting a parking ticket. I feel that HTB preaching subtly belittles women by using humourous everyday marriage examples, which portray conservative male/female, husband/wife roles.

    Does it matter that HTB are a conservative (I use that word loosely as I’m not sure exactly what it means in public conciousness) part of the wider church community? Realistically it will take at least a couple of hundred years for things to even out- even if we all start talking about it. (Headaches for HTB I see arising).

    Disclaimer: I highly respect HTB projects and leadership in many other ways. I became a Christian because of Alpha at HTB.

  5. When I first became a regular worshipper at HTB over 20 years ago the genuine, prayerful policy was that only married women could lead pastorates – with their husbands. How far the leadership has come on this issue and I do sense growing intention to go further. Women now play a far bigger role up front and at Focus there has, for a number of years, been a conscious effort to ensure at least one female main speaker, which never used to be the case. So yes, there is intentionality – just space for plenty more. But I’m very grateful for what has happened so far.
    However I am even more grateful for the teaching (not from HTB as it happens) that has encouraged me to understand that we lead out of who we are, and we offer different gifts of leadership to the church. So I don’t have to be an alpha male to lead… and in fact I don’t have to speak as eloquently as Beth Redman or Amy Orr-Ewing to be worth listening to occasionally. Moreover I don’t have to be ordained to use my gifts up front, which I do, even if I am a clergy wife, which I am, and am consistently called to support my husband in his ministry. Nor indeed, do I have to be on the stage in order to exercise my own (soon-to-be) ordained ministry. My real care is that every person, male or female, married or single, is released – not least by the example of those of us at the front – to have life in all its fullness: the deepest healing, the strongest trust and the readiest obedience to God’s call.

  6. Thanks so much for all your comments. I was so interested in all of them, that I ended up writing a follow-up post to respond to them:

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