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.

Comments

  1. Mike Spencer says:

    I am very sorry and I am not disowning any information on feminist areas within the church, however the history of mankind within the church has definitely been male dominated and I would say that it is a crying shame. We must support women, the church does definitely lack “the woman’s touch” however we need to view women and men as humans wether feminine or masculine and after all, although Jesus was a man, he had some wonderful feminine characteristics. You can’t get away from it each one of us living now is a human being. So let’s push quietly now for more women in high places, we don’t need to shout about it, we’ve got through the first hurdle. We are all human beings. I don’t believe we are seen differently by Him, whoever He is.

  2. Susie Collingridge says:

    Interesting post, Liz, thanks. I thoroughly recommend linking up with Awesome.org.uk also on Facebook etc – great network of ordained Anglican evangelical women 🙂

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.