Tuesday’s post about the representation of women amongst speakers at Christian conferences and within church leadership as a whole has garnered a lot of comments – on the post, on Twitter and on Facebook. On the one hand, it’s great to have a discussion about this issue, but on the other hand, it’s shown me that I need to clarify my views on a couple of things and respond to a few of the comments.
So, before you carry on reading this post, it’s probably going to make sense to read the earlier one – including the comments. If you’re my Facebook friend, you might want to read the thread there (or not), or take a look at some of the tweets. [It's at this point that I wish, for the sake of tidiness, that everyone responded in the same location!]
I wonder if the inclusion of the tweet from the person at New Wine caused people to misunderstand my thoughts on clergy wives who speak at conferences. I’m not anti-wives – in fact there are many that I have (and would) pay to hear speak. One such wife, who does speak at these festivals, is a real encouragement to me during this whole ordination process and I have a huge amount of respect for her. I do not consider these women to be under-qualified because they’re not ordained, like any other person, I simply expect for them to have been chosen to speak on their own merit!
But, I do feel that to ask a woman to speak on the basis of who she is married to, rather than her gifts, talents and areas of expertise, is wrong – it seems akin to the tokenism mentioned in the previous post. At Focus – the conference on which I was reflecting – the one female main stage speaker was not a clergy wife (it was Beth Redman – a worship leader’s wife) and several of the wives of church planters spoke during the Wednesday morning session I referred to. There are issues surrounding clergy wives, which I’ve highlighted before, but just want to list here:
- If the only female speakers seen are married to clergy, it gives the impression that churches or conferences are of the opinion that women may only speak if they are doing so in the context of being married to someone who is in leadership. (We recently saw an example of this with the furore over Bristol University’s CU rules for women speakers.) If conferences believe that this is the only acceptable context in which women may speak, then they should be open about it. If they do not, then they need to demonstrate this, by including women speakers who are not married to church leaders.
- Again, if the only visible women in leadership are there because they are married to church leaders, it gives the impression that the role of leadership belongs to the man and the woman he is married to. For women, this suggests that church leadership cannot be attained without a husband. For men, it suggests that leadership in church is rightfully within the male domain. In such contexts, church leaders again need to explicit in their teaching that this is not the only model of leadership that works or is Biblical. [I'm still exceedingly grateful that in a previous church I attended, the vicar described himself as a 'male feminist' and regularly taught on women in the church - it's that kind of direct message, to both genders, that needs to be present in churches.]
- If wives are teaching/leading to the exclusion of ordained women (and other lay female speakers), there is a problem. As I said above, any speaker needs to have something to offer those listening – there ought to be no room for tokenism or special favours to those with ‘big name’ surnames. But I wonder if that’s always the case. How do other women get their first chances?
Ultimately, it does the cause of equality and representation no good if women are battling factions! If in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female…then surely there should be no division between lay, ordained or married? Yes, in an ideal world, but we’re not there yet. In the mean time, it’s important that these conversations happen sensitively, without denigrating those who genuinely feel called to take on these roles.
The strength of patriarchy
This is an interesting one. Several responses to my post were along the lines of “men get to speak because they are men – it’s their privilege and the women speakers are token” and I find that a difficult argument to believe. Call me naive or even stupid, but I refuse to believe that patriarchal thinking is so widespread. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a church background where if it did exist, it was minimal, that I give many the benefit of the doubt. That’s why I think it’s about intentionality – those organising festivals and making decisions about church leadership need to intentionally think about who they’re inviting and the message that they’re sending. If they want to look patriarchal, then fine – tell people that that’s what they’re doing and people will vote with their feet either way.
Some comments referred directly to the HTB world and that’s a difficult one for me to comment upon as I’ve only been a part of it for two years. I do find that I regularly have to challenge people’s assumptions regarding HTB and women. For example, the idea that the majority of St Mellitus’ female population are less likely to be evangelical – no, amongst the full-time students, the majority of women are evangelical. I speak for myself, but I certainly found St Mellitus to be more egalitarian than other ‘evangelical’ labelled theological colleges I visited. There was a bit of a stir on Twitter a while back regarding women in leadership at HTB (and I appreciate Heather’s comment on this on the original post) – there are women, both ordained (as curates) and in the leadership of different ministries. Clearly things have come a long way in recent years, but there is still more to be done. But, it is not the bastion of misogyny that some people seem to believe it is. Far from it.
My thoughts in the post on Tuesday were just that – my thoughts. They were the things that I had pondered, as a woman less than a year away from ordination, in a denomination that still forbids my gender to hold senior leadership. They were not the definitive ‘this is how things are for women in the leadership of evangelical churches’, nor were they an attack on anyone – simply a request for some more thinking to be done, resulting in actual action, with regard to women. I was nervous posting it and when receiving comments, I read each with trepidation. This is a subject incredibly close to my heart and in many ways it would be easier to stay silent. But I made a decision a while ago that this was an issue I was so passionate about that I would continue to speak out – with respect and with dignity, but I would speak about it. It may damage my job prospects within the church. It might make me unpopular with certain parts of the church, but I will not be silenced – and nor should any other women in the church.