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.