Positive Church

One of my ‘extra-curricular’ activities (i.e. non MA work) is being a part of the Transformational Index team. I’ve had a loose association with the TI for a couple of years, as it’s a project that’s emerged from the incubator of Matryoshka Haus (the missional community in which I have many adventures), but it’s only been since last summer that I’ve officially been on the team.

The TI “is a tool that helps organizations to quickly identify their intended social impact and to measure progress in a way which balances a commitment to values with a focus on results.” Coming from a research background, I’ve been interested in it for a while – helping people measure things using methods other than straight stats is a bonus for someone who worked as a qualitative researcher for three years!

TI in action

Last week, we had a team gathering at which each member gave a TED style talk on a subject designated them according to their interests and specialities. I was allocated ‘measuring positive change in UK churches’, which sounds daunting, but actually enabled me to get on one of my high horses…

Using traditional forms of measurement, the church in the UK exists within a negative narrative. The numbers often seem damning:

  • The 2011 census showed a drop from 72% Christian affiliation in 2001, to 59%.
  • Since 1960, Church of England Sunday attendance has dropped from 1.6 million in 1968 to 800,000 in 2013. [Source: 2013 Statistics for Mission, p.6]
  • In 1980, Methodist membership stood at 600,000. In 2013 it was 209,000. [Source: 2014 Statistics for Mission, Methodism in Numbers.]

Within these reports (if reading statistical reports is your thing) are some positives. The Church of England has seen a big increase in worshippers at cathedrals. Mid-week attendance in both denominations has also been on the up. In recent years, the stats process has started including initiatives that fall under the banner of ‘fresh expressions’ (an ecumenical effort to find ‘new’ ways of being church) – many of which have connected with people who wouldn’t otherwise have connected with church.

The problem is that if we ONLY use stats to measure change in the church, the negative narrative is easy to fall into. Simply counting numbers in the pews on Sundays or midweek isn’t going to demonstrate the positive impact that a church might be having upon its local community. Knowing how many have signed up to an Electoral Roll doesn’t give any insight into the spiritual journey individual worshippers may have been on.

If we only use stats showing church attendance or membership, we’re also making an assumption of what ‘success’ looks like. It’s not so very long since the Archbishop of Canterbury got into hot water for stating:
“The reality is that where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches,”

What does ‘growth’ look like? Is it bums on seats? Hearts changed? Number of interactions with local residents? And what about ‘good’?? When we make measurement simplistic, we’re not really measuring what matters.

Whitby Abbey

If you’re a church-y type, and you care about such questions, I’d like to propose two things:

1. Think about what ‘good’ looks like in your context. What is important? How could you measure that effectively, beyond just the statistical obligations.

2. Step beyond the negative narrative simple statistics (and the world!) might say about the church. Find the qualitative data that speaks against it – the individual stories of change; what your context looks like; and where the positives are.

Those positives aren’t very difficult to find. Another piece of recent extra-curricular work has been some research into fresh expressions of Church in London Diocese. This isn’t the time or place to go into that research (my bit was just the preamble to a much bigger project), but suffice to say that simply gathering a list of such initiatives provided numerous examples of positive change – of churches re-opened after years closed; of innovative ways of connecting with young families; and a high level of creativity and hope.

This might seem like a slightly random blogpost (especially after several weeks absence), but having shared my thoughts on this topic with the TI team, I felt they needed a wider audience. Don’t let negative statistics determine who or what the church is. Get positive!

Hidden London: Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia

It’s an odd experience when you follow a walk that includes both your street and your place of work. I suspect I hadn’t got round to doing the Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia walk because I figured I knew most of the facts the book would tell me. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong in my assumptions – I learnt a lot, and can now regale my family, friends and colleagues with new fun facts.

Thanks to the walk’s circular route, I was able to pick it up at the end of my street (where my almost-local pub was one of the listed highlights) and follow the loop around. Several of the listed places were simply roads, parks or squares that I’ve regularly travelled through (in fact, it included the three squares that form the backbone of my weekday running route), and as a result, I did skip bits.

The squares of Bloomsbury & FitzroviaSome of the squares of Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia: Gordon Square in the spring; Russell Square in the autumn; Bedford Square in mid-winter; and Fitzroy Square on a sunny Monday morning. 

The first surprise was that I learnt something new about my place of work! I was very pleased to see St George’s feature as a landmark on the walk and discovered that until 1875 the church hosted an annual Christmas dinner for chimney sweeps’ apprentices – according to the book the church ‘is still known as the chimney sweeps’ church’. I can’t say that it is, but I am aware of a plaque to chimney sweeps on the wall of the church kitchen.

St George's St George’s in the middle of winter – the only time it’s visible through the trees. 

I was also pointed towards a Ted Hughes quote in nearby Queens Square [incidentally, fascinating grammatical fact, the name does not have an apostrophe], forming part of a Jubilee memorial for the Queen (not the same Queen that the square is named for, obviously) and alluding to his ill-fated marriage to Sylvia Plath in the church. (This is my favourite St George’s fact, but other people in the church don’t like to mention it. However, having read the collected works & journals of Plath as a teenager, I was delighted to discover it.)

Queens Square Jubilee Monument

Very excitingly, one of my discoveries was London underground related! The book informed that the mysterious round buildings just off Tottenham Court Road, used as Eisenhower’s underground HQ during WW2, was originally a tunnel intended to be an express version of the Northern Line. An express Northern Line? Can you imagine the joy that would bring to commuters?!

Eisenhower Centre My main joy in this photo is the fact that ‘centre’ is spelt correctly, despite the American connotations! 

Then there’s the places I simply hadn’t heard of – like a hidden mews where the residents like to grow plants:

Coalville PlaceCoalville Place, just off Charlotte Street. 

Or Pollock’s Toy Museum and shop. I didn’t go in, but I admired the splash of colour it brought to an otherwise dull street:

Pollock's Toy Museum

When you know an area well, it’s also interesting what the book doesn’t choose to tell you. On this walk, you crossed Kingsway (the original, tram-related function of the Kingsway tunnel was referenced) to proceed across Red Lion Square to the Conway Hall. However, no mention was made of the interesting things to be found there. Admittedly, my initial excitement in discovering the square three years ago was fiction related. Fans of Ballet related literature of the twentieth century will no doubt be aware of the Drina Ballerina series, in which the erstwhile heroine attends a ballet school in no less a square than that of the Red Lion. For years as a child (and several as not quite a child) I revelled in the descriptions of Drina’s walk from Westminster to Kingsway. But there are other, factual facts of merit that could have been included.

For example, on the southern side of the square is a plaque marking a house in which the pre-Raphaelites lived – pretty notable, surely? Then there’s the statue at the main entrance to the square. Admittedly, I had to look it up, but the character depicted really is fascinating. Fenner Brockway is one of just a handful of ‘private’ individuals (as opposed to heads of state, etc) to have unveiled their own statue – largely owing to him living so long that the planning permission for a posthumous statue nearly ran out! He was an anti-war activist, politician and active member of the decolonisation campaign. The location of the statue is thanks to the square’s proximity to Conway Hall (a non-religious foundation and now home to The Sunday Assembly) and Brockway’s time as President of the British Humanist Association.

Fenner Brockway Red Lion SquareFenner Brockway, and the pigeons. 

Obviously, in some parts of London there are simply too many fascinating facts to include!

We are not Delilahs

In Christian circles, there is a debate over whether it’s ok to meet one-to-one with a member of the opposite sex when one is in a position of responsibility within the church. Last week, the topic came up ten minutes before the end of our second lecture on gender and theology.

As the discussion progressed, it was clear that there was a strong opinion from some in the room that a male church leader meeting alone with a woman was really not a good idea at all. It wasn’t a unanimous opinion by any means – one woman spoke of feeling completely ignored after her vicar insisted her husband attended a meeting between the two of them, and then proceeded to only address the husband.

As she spoke, I became more and more frustrated. What would I do in such a situation, given that I don’t have a husband to take to such meetings? Married male voices in the room spoke of needing to be particularly cautious around single women, and quite honestly, I felt terrible. I am a single woman, training to be a church leader. I am not a Delilah, seeking to corrupt every married man that I meet (or any married man for that matter!). But that’s how single women were seemingly being painted.

Now, I’m not naive. I realise that we need to be wise in how we deal with our relationships with other people – especially when holding positions of responsibility, and especially in the church. Here are some thoughts/wisdom I have on the subject:

  1. Do not assume anyone’s sexuality. Potential issues may just as well arise with those of your own gender, as well as the opposite one. Obviously, this cannot mean a blanket “Do not meet 1:1 with anyone at all!” because nothing would actually get done. Therefore, we need…
  2. Wisdom. Be wise! If you sense that a meeting may be misconstrued or that you realise that for your own safety, extra people need to be around, then make it happen. Obviously, with children, young people/students and vulnerable adults there are legal safeguarding measures to be taken into account.
  3. Trust people. I’d like to think that I can be trusted not form an unhealthy attachment to a married man. I trust myself and those with whom I agree to meet. If I don’t trust a situation, I use wisdom. (See above.) If you don’t trust yourself to ever meet with someone of the opposite sex alone, I think there may be questions you need to ask of yourself.

When I spoke up in the lecture, aside from defending the honour of single women, I also pointed out the reality of parish ministry – there is a high chance I’ll end up as an incumbent in a church that isn’t able to provide a large staff team, and as a result there will be situations in which I have to have 1:1 meetings with members of the opposite sex. I cannot say to someone: “I’m terribly sorry, I can’t sit with you and plan your mother’s funeral until I find someone who can chaperone us.”

Right now, I do have some specific boundaries. For example, I don’t meet with the guys in my student group outside of the context of a church service or our home group. If they want to have a deep & meaningful, they can (& do) chat with the church’s male clergy. [Would I prefer to be doing student work in tandem with a male volunteer? Yes please!] But on the other hand, have I met 1:1 with my church’s male Rector, Curate, Worship Leader and Operations Manager? Yes. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t.

These ideas have far-reaching consequences. There are individuals who feel slighted, not listened to, or marginalised. Is that a good thing for the church to be doing? I don’t think so. It also has a huge impact upon the raising up of women in leadership – an issue that Jenny Baker wrote about brilliantly [do read the comments] and that I touched upon last summer in a post about women speakers at Christian festivals. In churches where there is a culture that men and women can’t meet alone, women lose out on mentoring experience from the men leading these churches.

One to One's tweet

Before writing this post (which took over a week to actually publish, thanks to deadlines and life), I asked Twitter for some opinions. What followed was one of the best Twitter discussions I’ve seen – especially given that it involved the church. (Twitter debates amongst churchy people can get horrid, it’s a terrible reflection upon Christians.) No one got angry, but instead answered my simple question with honesty, integrity and respect. The whole thing has been Storifyed, but here are some particular highlights, including the article by Jenny Baker mentioned above:

Jo S tweet Matthew Currey tweet Elizabeth Harrison tweetMark Scarlata tweetSean Doherty tweet

Sean, as befits an Ethics lecturer, had quite a lot to say on the subject, including the following (which was spread across three tweets, condensed for the sake of space!):

“I was lucky to have @Janie_Mo as my training incumbent, she wanted male curate to balance leadership of church but not many male clergy would deliberately pick a woman for same reasons – ‘woman as temptress’ stereotype to which the correct response is ‘don’t flatter yourself’!”

There is no straight answer to this debate. There can’t be hard and fast rules. But I’d love for people to stop and think about the impact and implications of their actions and decisions. If it’s never crossed your mind that it could be an issue, perhaps it’s worth taking time to think about it. If you’ve created rules for yourself, imagine what those rules feel like to those it affects. And most of all, don’t presume that anyone is out to ‘corrupt’ those they meet with!

Baking – with added vitriol

Last night was not a great night for our student group to be doing the second week of an all-church Bible study that has to be done at the same time as everyone else. Several guys arrived at my flat wanting to know if we could have the Arsenal match on ‘in the background’ (everyone knows there is no such thing as ‘in the background’ when it comes to football); I, on the other hand, was in a state of frenzy at the fact that while I was leading a meditation on Genesis 37, anyone not watching football was watching three women bake cakes and pies.

This year’s GBBO final is the most watched of all the series – 8.4 million people watched last night (that’s more than X Factor apparently). It’s also been fiercely debated in the media and on social media. I had at least two fierce debates with people on Facebook yesterday about who should win – nothing terribly unusual about that, in competitive arenas people are always going to have their favourites. Just as the guys were desperate to see an Arsenal victory last night, I had strong views about who should win a national amateur cake baking competition.

I’d had strong views last year too – I’d loved the work of John & James and therefore I wanted ‘anyone but Brendan’ to win. I wasn’t out to destroy Brendan, I just liked the other two more. That’s how life works. [I’ve been re-watching that series recently and it is a classic. James and Sue need their own baking show!]

GBBOFinalists2013Ruby, Kimberley & Frances.

This year, I wasn’t overly keen on either Kimberley or Ruby – if pushed, I’d take Kimberley on her consistent technical skills – but I loved Frances’ creativity. One friend argued that she wanted Ruby to win ‘because she was so vulnerable and pocket-sized’, but last time I checked, vulnerability wasn’t a way of avoiding a soggy bottom. I wanted her to gain some confidence in her skills – to apologise a couple of times for what you think are terrible bakes (but it emerges aren’t) is fine; to do it consistently is not. Friends debated whether Kimberley appeared smug thanks to editing – but is simply saying that “I’ve baked this before” during a technical challenge really a sign of smugness? Surely it’s just stating fact?

Opinions are fine – but not when they cross the line. What got interesting about this year’s competition is that so much of the criticism was in relation to the finalists’ gender and size. Last year, I don’t recall sexuality being used in such a way, even though 2 of the 3 finalists were openly gay. Why should female bakers still attract such ridiculous interest?

Ruby puts it brilliantly in a column for the Guardian:

Raymond Blanc waded in on the commentary to so helpfully deride the “female tears” on the show. (What are “female tears”, anyway? Are they more fragile and delicate than male tears? Do they wear pink?) Kimberley’s self-assurance – a character trait so lauded in men– has been rebranded as smugness, cockiness and even malice.

It’s a culture of frilly baking versus macho Michelin stars, of real chefs versus domestic goddesses. Food has become divided and gendered, torn between the serious sport of haute cuisine and the supposedly antithetical world of women pottering around in home kitchens.

I saw one male friend complain that the presence of 7 women to 1 man in the semi-final (that’s 1 male judge, 1 female judge, 2 presenters & 4 female contestants) was indicative of the assumption that baking was a female activity. Has he not seen the prevalence of male finalists in previous years? That the series is gender balanced to begin with and baking is judged on talent alone? That seeing women outnumber men on a prime time TV show is still a flipping rarity in Britain??

Another friend posted a link to Ruby’s column this morning, with the comment “now to face up to this in the church too”. I couldn’t agree more. If the world of food has become gendered, how much more is the church? Are “female tears” derided? Is self-assurance seen as smugness or malice? Is there still the assumption that if there’s food to be cooked, women will do it? I’m sure you can come up with your own answers…

Great-British-Bake-Off-2165415Farewell, class of 2013! (Incidentally, did anyone else notice Deborah’s brilliant new hairstyle in the final?) 

Back to the Bake Off. I have a suggestion for the BBC (well two, see above idea of the James & Sue Baking Show). The Bake Off moves to BBC1 next year, now that it’s considered to be mainstream enough. So, how about we make a bit more of the final? This year, there was a rumour that the winner had been leaked – so avoiding a repeat of this would be ideal. A good way to do this would be to make the final a live one.

It sounds ridiculous, I know, but actually perfectly doable. Have the same tents in Somerset, broadcast the day’s baking (perhaps just the showstopper) via the BBC’s red button so you can dip in and out whenever you want to. A friend even suggested multiple ‘oven cams’ so you could choose which cake you wanted to watch rising. Then at the end of the day, BBC1 could broadcast the judge’s decision live. Fabulous. What do you think, BBC?

Oh, and for those who don’t know, my favourite won. Frances made a gorgeous wedding cake and looked stunned when she received her celebratory cake stand. There were audible whoops of joy from my living room. Until next year, Paul & Mary…

Intentionality – a follow up

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!]

Clergy Wives
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.

Rosie-The-Riveter-Button-(0276)Speaking out
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.