Putting women front and centre

Over the last 24 hours, a great blogpost has been doing the social media rounds (in my world) on the subject of the lack of women leaders in evangelical/charismatic churches in the UK. It’s a topic that’s incredibly close to my own heart and one that I have written on before. In fact, I’ve regularly written about some of my own experiences as a woman in the church – largely because in many circles we’re still very much in the minority.

Richard Moy’s post is excellent, in that it’s based on research he’s been conducting, and in that it provides some really concrete suggestions for what those in positions of authority and influence in the church could do to improve things. I hope that anyone in authority who reads this challenge really takes it up and runs with it:

“If a woman has been called to ministry it seems eventually that calling will come out. If that involves a 20 year time-lag and a journey away from evangelical theology to find space to outwork her calling because she got no encouragement from you then that’s on your head. Deal with it.”

As a woman in the first year of a curacy (in an open evangelical-ish church), who was sent for ordination from a very large charismatic church, and who was placed for three years at a HTB church plant while training at St Mellitus, I feel I have a voice to add to the discussion. Particularly to those women who might have read Richard’s post and felt that pursuing their calling was going to hit barrier after barrier, unless something changed immediately. What I want to say is that there is hope! Yes, there are institutional issues, but there are things that can help…

Young women gather at St Jude'sA day for young evangelical women interested in ordination, 2013.

There are plenty of exceptions…

To start, let me say that my sending church (who sent 5 women into training while I was there) were incredibly supportive of my call to ordination. They don’t currently have any ordained women on staff, but in the last couple of years have intentionally tried to have a gender balance amongst those up at the front – leading, preaching and worship leading. They’ve seized the need to be intentional and run with it.

My placement church sent another three women into training during the 3 years I was there – from a comparatively small congregation. (In contrast, one man started theological college in the same time period.) Although both ordained clergy were male, alongside myself there were several other women who would preach or lead, and a few who led worship too. I don’t think that this was a deliberate move, but their very presence meant that other women were inspired to follow their example.

Now, I find myself in a church so open to women in leadership (I think I’m their third female curate, and there’s been a female SSM for decades), that a recent service unintentionally led by an all-female cast elicited a comment of “Where are the men?” It’s the norm here, just as I think God intended!

But, these positive experiences do not change the fact that I have returned from summer festivals seething at the lack of ordained women represented. Or been angry that women in one particularly large church had no one to turn to for mentoring or the odd coffee because there was no women there ordained or an ordinand who could take on the role. There are issues, as Richard has identified.

However…

Evangelical/charismatic women are entering training

I trained at a college were the number of women was pretty much equal with men. St Mellitus is a college with a broad spectrum (don’t let the connection with HTB fool you), and I trained alongside a number of women from New Wine churches and HTB plants. Some of these women had perhaps waited some time to begin training, but that’s their story and I can’t make assumptions on what impacted upon that.

I never felt particularly outnumbered at St Mellitus (unlike friends I’ve spoken to at other colleges) and also felt very affirmed in my calling as a woman. Whenever we raised issues of gender balance (particularly for a specific teaching slot and on the staff team) these concerns were listened to and acted upon. St Mellitus now has a faculty that offers a number of different inspirational examples for a female wannabe theological educator!

From recent conversations, I know that this year a number of women will join HTB church plants as curates and that’s a big step forward. Currently, there’s just two (and just one woman leading a plant) and that is definitely an issue. Change is happening but it will take time and quite a big culture shift in some places – but you can find a lot of support for this, if you know where to look!

There is support out there 

I’m very lucky – I readily acknowledge this – as I grew up in a denomination where issues with women are few and far between (those enlightened Methodists!) and had numerous feisty ordained women around me as I was growing up (my mother being one of the feistiest!). I had never been in the position of facing challenges on the basis of my gender until I began the ordination process, and as a result I think I was in a stronger position than a woman from a male dominated church might find themselves in.

Facing such challenges alone is difficult. I can imagine that the women Richard writes about – who may have been pondering their calling for some time, but have no one to look up to, be mentored by or to encourage them – may find them insurmountable. What is needed is strength in numbers. In my world, that includes: female college friends; a ‘Mighty Women of Valour’ group (of lay & ordained feisty women); the Gathering of Women Leaders network; deans of women’s ministry; ordained women who’ve been on the journey longer than I; and plenty of men who want to support women in ministry too. The key is getting connected and allowing them to support you!

Finding hope in statistics…

The stats aren’t great. I was shocked to discover that my area of London Diocese, Stepney, known to be one of the most affirming of women (we’ve had two female Archdeacons already), only has 3 female clergy aged 35 or under. Of the three, I’m one and two friends are the others! (Happily that number will also grow next year – although one will also turn 36. And we are from across the spectrum too.) A group of us are already working on a plan to encourage women in their vocations across the breadth of traditions in Stepney, and the same can be said for other parts of the church too.

But, the numbers look set to improve imminently. I think the church is already seeing the benefits of events held specifically for evangelical young women interested in ordination – I was involved in one in June 2013 and I know several people I met there are now training. At St Mellitus, the cohort with whom I studied on the MA last year included several women in their early/mid-20’s – a very unusual sight!

I think that the change has already begun, but it’s going to take a while before they are reflected higher up the chain. Richard particularly emphasises the lack of female incumbents in more evangelical churches – there are a few, but ones I know of I could probably count on my fingers. Interestingly, when I think of ordained women who inspired me during my journey, virtually none of them have become incumbents! They’re in diocesan/national roles, or university chaplaincy or theological education – not necessarily because they are women, but for a host of other good reasons.

The Moment of Ordination

What can be done…

If you’re reading this as a woman who is thinking about ordination, but who currently worships in a rather male-dominated context, can I make a few suggestions:

  • Ask some questions. It can be really hard, but ask your incumbent whether they’ve considered inviting a woman to preach or whether you yourself could have a go. They may ask for some suggestions, so have a think about who you’ve heard speak elsewhere, or ask for recommendations from others. “But I don’t know anyone” or “Everyone we asked was busy” are common responses to such questions, but there are ways around them!
  • Find solidarity! Align yourself with like-minded people with whom you can rant, or who can help back you up when you ask difficult questions. [Over just the last couple of weeks I’ve been part of a group doing just this for a friend – it’s massively helpful, even in the long-term.]
  • Go along to events at which you might discover more like-minded people; follow them on Twitter/Facebook; get introduced to people who inspire you – you never know what might happen. My involvement in GWL is one example of this – my first gathering was quite intimidating as I didn’t know many people, but now I have a fabulous supportive resource that I can draw upon and through which I can support others.
  • Get to know women who have been there and done that. I had female friends a little way ahead of me in the selection process and that was very handy. Is there a Dean of Women in Ministry in your area? Are there other ordained women you could meet with? I’ve made it a rule of mine that if I ever get into a vocational conversation with someone, I’ll follow it up with a coffee – I partly owe my own exploration to someone who did that for me, so I want to pay it forward!
  • Most of all, remember that God created you as YOU! It’s not an accident that you are the gender you are in this place and time. He has a plan for how you – specifically you – can impact the church and the world, so you owe it to him to follow it through!

Christmas Jumpers 2013Almost everyone in this photo is now ordained – there’s hope! (Also, this is the 2nd image on a Google image search for St Mellitus. Well done!)

We tend to like doom and gloom in the Church of England, but can I encourage people that – as far as women are concerned – the future is bright! Yes, change needs to happen, but I think such changes are beginning to happen. We’re in a momentous season for women in the church at the moment (eight female bishops and counting…) and we need to keep up that momentum.

Boarding the sinking ship

This morning, an article with the above title went up on Threads – but for some reason it’s currently not available. It was a response to another article (published at exactly the same time) entitled ‘A sinking ship we should abandon?’ – a reference to a church that is quickly disappearing. The article to which I was responding proved to be very controversial and at points today I’ve pondered whether agreeing to write a response was a good thing. (There is a whole blogpost about that which I composed in my head earlier…)

The missing posts may be owing to a glitch on the super-shiny new website that launched yesterday, or it could be that someone at Threads thought better of publishing it. I’ve had a few requests on Twitter for the text, so I’m posting it here. (My version may be slightly different from the one Threads posted, as I know they edited it for length!) It’s possible it’ll reappear on Threads, in which case this post may come down. I won’t post the other article here, even though I have the text, as I don’t think that would be fair. Hopefully it’ll resurface tomorrow. 

Apparently, I’ve made a bad move, career-wise. On July 4th, I was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral, into an institution that may as well be irrelevant the majority of the population who don’t believe in the God I’ve committed my life to. I’m not so much a new curate, more a new curator at the ‘faith museum’ that is the Church of England.

I know the stats: the 2011 census showed a drop of 13% in the number of Brits identifying themselves as Christian since 2001. Since 1960, attendance at Church of England churches has halved. Methodist membership’s declined by nearly two-thirds since 1980. The numbers are bleak.

Am I kidding myself that the pension fund I began paying into last month will still exist by the time I retire in 30 or 40 years time? Will I even have a job in my 60’s? How about some more stats: I trained at a college that didn’t even exist ten years ago, and next month, it will welcome a record number of ordinands (over 70). My diocese is aiming to have doubled the number of people entering ordained ministry by 2020. Is this a last ditch attempt to rescue the institution? I think not.

The church got things wrong in the past, but it’s by no means irrelevant today. In parish ministry, I get to meet people at the highest and lowest points of their lives and everything in between – from weddings and celebrating new life, to the funeral of a child that was barely two. I have witnessed how, when the worst of life happens, church communities come together in response. Clergy have a unique role in those spaces and no matter the statistics, society doesn’t seem to be ready to let them go yet.

That’s part of what makes up my ‘calling’. To serve society. It’s not about the Sundays, or being a local celeb. It’s about serving as Christ first served. I know that’ll I never match his sacrifice. I know that many in society don’t give a toss about why I do what I do, but it doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t end at the church door, or the parish boundary, but stretches out far ahead of me – wherever I end up and in whatever role within my vocation.

Countless people question this calling. Some have the right and duty to do so, others are curious. Total strangers, intrigued by my answer to their polite “So, what do you do?” quiz me about my motivations. Often they’re not interested in ‘the church’ – but are curious as to how God impacts someone. “It’s a calling” is never the end of a conversation, often it’s just the beginning.

I could stay hidden amongst those who share these out-dated beliefs, in the security of an emptying church building, but I don’t. I out myself as a ‘professional’ Christian in my dog collar, and get landed with stereotypes, high expectations and abuse. Rather than offering protection, it brands me as one of ‘them’. Not so much a status symbol, as an object of ridicule.

But I carry on wearing it, tucked under my ‘normal’ clothes. I’m just trying to be me, living out what I think God wants me to do. I’m not edgy or trendy (although potentially marginally more so that the kind of vicar Sara Cox had in mind when banning them from wearing trainers). I’m this curate, in this place at this time, looking for God to use me. I’m a feminist who’s made the conscious decision to become Anglican in order to fight the church’s patriarchy – the stained-glass ceiling may have been broken, but it’s left behind shards that can cut those attempting to travel through it.

I’m anxious not to get caught up in a Christian bubble – I’m more interested in getting out into the ‘real’ world than inviting people into ours. If the church is to survive it has to make that its mission. It’s not an easy ride. When things didn’t go to plan and I screamed at God in anger and frustration, the message came back loud and clear that ordination was the way forward.

I don’t know how we avoid the iceburg, but I do know that abandoning ship isn’t right either – someone’s got to be on the bridge to steer a new course.

Born on the 4th of July

(I drafted this nearly 3 weeks ago – all it was lacking was photos. My life is so consumed by the new curacy & my still-to-be finished Masters that I just didn’t quite get around to finishing it! Apologies. Come September 18th, all will be back to normal – whatever normal is these days!) 

Yesterday, I celebrated the 34th anniversary of my birth. My birthday is not the 4th of July, it’s 26 days later on the 30th (or the 29th, depending on the time zone I’m inhabiting at the time).

But the 4th of July is when Reverend Liz Clutterbuck was ‘born’. As the sonorous tones of the Bishop of London echoed around both my head and St Paul’s cathedral, I was officially ordained.

The Moment of OrdinationPhoto: Graham Lacdao on behalf of London Diocese.

Lots of people I’ve seen since who weren’t there have asked how it went. Often, my first response is: “it was hot…” – and it was! The hottest week recorded in London is not a time to be wearing multiple layers of robes in a building that, though usually cool, warms up rapidly when filled with a few thousand people. Sweat was literally pouring off the faces of some of my fellow ordinands!

Mim & I on our way inMim & I on our way into the cathedral – before things got really sweaty! 

But obviously, it was so much more than just toasty. I’d been to two ordinations at St Paul’s in previous years, so I knew roughly what to expect in a practical sense. However, I was tripped up (literally) by some unseen (or unrealised) practicalities. Like processing & singing simultaneously; kneeling with a straight back for over 20mins; and wearing a cassock.

Oh, the cassock!! Why had no one warned me that practicing walking, kneeling, using stairs and acclimatising to cassock wearing would be necessary?!? The wearing of them at compline on our retreat was compulsory (apart from on the record temperature setting Wednesday) and kneeling practice was recommended afterwards. There’s a definite knack to kneeling in a way that actually means you can stand up without falling backwards. Categorically, I was more nervous at getting tangled in my cassock during the ordination moment than the ordination itself!!

View of the processionA view of the procession into the cathedral – courtesy of Duffy.

It was also lovely to have so many friends and family there too. While the absence of friends at a clashing wedding was mourned, it did enable me to open up my guest list. My genius idea of drawing a diagram of where I’d be amongst the ordinands & texting it to key individuals also paid off – as I turned to face the congregation immediately after the ordination moment, I saw my family and friends just ahead of me. My sister (one of my two ‘supporting friends’ & a gold ticket holder) sat immediately behind me, facilitating the passing of water and potentially inappropriate comments to me. As we processed up the cathedral’s steps, Duffy (of Chateau Duffy fame) appeared on his bike, cheered and proceeded to take a load of photos of a moment that no one inside the cathedral would ever see. Similarly, my lovely Gloucester neighbours were the first people I saw as the brand new Deacons emerged from the cathedral. Will & Juliet waved so madly that those nearby were moved to ask if they were mine!

The newest of London's DeaconsThe new Deacons of London Diocese (Photo:Graham Lacdao on behalf of London Diocese.)

The post-service scrum on the cathedral steps was just that – a chaotic scrum! So many people greeted me, including several that I’d not expected to see. My mum was moved to tears by the appearance of a long-time friend, unseen for a decade, who had been there to support another ordinand, but who had realised that I was there too. She was barely over that shock when I pointed out another friend (a 5th member of the family for several years, really) was there too. 

A glimpse of the scrum! (Thanks Sheenagh!)

Biggest regret? Not putting my hair up, given how hot it was. (I jest…kind of!) Definitely, not getting to chat properly with everyone who had made the effort to be there! My school friends from Gloucester & London; people from previous churches; the neighbours from Glos; my aunts… If you’re reading this, let me say again THANK YOU for coming! I really did appreciate it! A particularly heartfelt thank you goes to the lovely Bev who was instrumental in sorting out my post-service shindig, after things went rather wrong 2 days before.

And yes, The Hucklebuck was played at the party and yes, I did dance. In my vestments.

Oh, and if you were at the ordination service and heard the Bishop of London mention (three times) that there was a ‘lady cement mixer’ amongst the ordinands let the mysterious mixer reveal herself:

Lady Cement Mixer

To explain: our ordination forms had required us to write a short, ‘fun’ biog – so I threw in the fact that I could mix cement and scaffold. The Bishop appeared rather taken with this fact, as it appeared both in the service and in his Address to the Ordinands. During the service, ordinands a couple of seats away from me asked their neighbour if they knew who it was. I’m convinced that when I told them it was me they did not believe me one bit!! Amusingly, my mother was moved to wonder who the lady cement mixer was too – she thought it was a construction worker done good. If only…

All-in-all, it was a pretty epic day! There’s nothing quite like getting ordained in one of the most recognisable cathedrals in the world – and I am still incredibly grateful that it was made possible! Now, let’s say we do this again (albeit on a smaller scale) in June next year?

Busy Women

November 17th 2014 is a date that will be recorded in the history of the Church of England. It was the day when, after years of wrangling and discussion, the legislation enabling women to become bishops was finally signed and sealed.

I will remember the day, not because I whooped for joy and drank champagne (I’d done that in July when Synod passed the legislation), but because that evening I went to see Made in Dagenham the musical – a recent addition to the West End, and a story that has unnerving similarities with the women bishops campaign.

It was a free ticket courtesy of a friend who occasionally passes such things my way. Her greeting, as she joined me in our amazing, middle of the second row seats, was along the lines of: “isn’t this a good day!!” – and I, in my idiotic way, thought she was just talking about the imminent musical watching! But no, she was celebrating the demise of the stained glass ceiling!

Made in Dagenham backdrop

The musical is excellent – let’s get that out of the way first of all. I highly recommend it to all those of a feminist, musical loving persuasion. I’m often dubious about great films making the progression to the stage, but this one is up there with Billy Elliot – just replace tutu wearing Geordies, with overall wearing Essex girls. It’s the only musical I’ve ever come across to include a number on the subject of quantitive easing. A number featuring a toe-tapping Harold Wilson no less! It does the politics brilliantly – poking a lot of fun at the PM, but letting Barbara Castle be effortlessly wonderful.

Its final number probably would have had me standing up and cheering (appropriately, it’s called ‘Stand Up’) on any day, but on this day when the women of the Church of England had secured their own gender-based victory, it was all I could to stay in my seat and in control of my faculties! I wanted to shout to the entire theatre that I knew how these women represented on stage felt – we’d done it!! Nearly all my decorum vanished in that moment.

Made in Dagenham tweet

Even the star of the show appreciated the occasion! 

The events of Made in Dagenham occurred in 1968. Here I was FORTY-FOUR years later celebrating a victory of similar proportions! How did it take so long?? What on earth has the Church of England been doing all this time?? And, most importantly, when will this struggle get its own musical?!?

Of course, many of us know what the church has been doing over the decades. It’s been making progress – but slowly, so as not to cause alienation, division or schism. It’s been pondering theologically the question of whether women could hold this position. Its bureaucratic cogs have been turning slowly, first approving women priests twenty years ago, then battling over the episcopacy. Then, this week…

This week we’re celebrating again. On Wednesday, it was announced that Libby Lane will be the very first female bishop in the Church of England. When I started writing this post last week, speculation was rife as to who and where this would happen. [I’d hoped for Gloucester – purely because of my bias towards its cathedral!] The story isn’t over with the signing of the legislation or the first appointment – in fact, a new one is just beginning…

Permission granted to wear purple (should I aspire to)

I will never forget the evening of November 20th 2012. As I reflected on the morning of the 21st, I hadn’t expected the failure of the women bishops’ legislation at General Synod to hit me quite so hard, but it did. For me and for many within (and outside) the Church of England, that very public, very painful moment had a huge impact.

18 months ago, we didn’t quite realise that new legislation would get through quite so quickly – originally, it was believed it would have to wait until a new Synod was elected in 2015. But wisely, those in charge thought differently and enabled the revised measures to go through the system in (realistically) the shortest time possible for the government of the Church of England.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I had a great story of where I was when I heard the vote had gone through, but I don’t. I was in my bathroom, cleaning – or rather, I’d interrupted my cleaning to watch the live stream of Synod. A live stream that was too over-burdened by demand and didn’t finish loading until the results had been announced. The thunderous applause gave me a clue as to which way it had gone, as did the text I immediately received from my mother containing two words: “Deo Gratis!” [Yes, that is the way in which Clutterbucks like to rejoice.]

Yet again, I was surprised by my reaction – the hands holding my phone were shaking and when a good chum rang me minutes later (entirely unaware of what had just happened, she just usually rings me at 4.30pm on a Monday), I could barely hold a conversation together. Partly thanks to my excitement and partly because of social media’s explosion of joy. Finally, on paper, women are on an equal footing with men in the Church of England.

Episcopal PedicureIn 2012 I had an intentional episcopal purple manicure. Monday’s pedicure was entirely accidental, but welcomed!

Looking back, what has also surprised me is how much we needed that 18 months of delay. I know that I wouldn’t have said this at the time – and some may disagree – but I think its done the church an awful lot of good.

    • The revised legislation is better. That was clear from many of the speakers on Monday – hearts and minds had been changed and that was a very large step forward.
    • While many felt the issue would divide the church, I actually believe that if anything, post-no vote, church unity was more evident. On the one hand, different church denominations have come together in their condemnation of the No vote. But within the CofE itself, groups and traditions that would usually be miles apart from each other, came together in solidarity for women in the church. Personally, I’ve benefitted hugely from the Gathering of Women Leaders, an ecumenical group of women in leadership who have been hugely supportive of women across the board (not just us Anglican ones!).
    • Was the extra 18 months also required in order to fan the flame of flame of passion for the cause of women within the Church of England? Yes, there was already a fervent campaign for women bishops, but with many assuming Synod would pass the legislation in 2012, was complacency a problem? Have we now realised that we cannot afford to be complacent (on this or any other issue) and that there is actually a fight that needs to be fought? It may feel like a broken record, but as far as women in the church are concerned, numbers still need to be counted; inequalities noticed, reported and resolved; and voices shouted. There’s still a long way to go.

Yesterday, a new chapter in the Church of England’s history began. It’s an exciting one, but it doesn’t mean an end to the discussion of gender in the church. There are many who are not rejoicing today, and we should remember them. Just because women will soon join the episcopate does not mean there will now be equal representation of women throughout the church.

Yesterday, a good start was made, but it will need a lot of effort, co-operation and courage for things to change.