It’s been very interesting to interact with Steve Holmes on the question of men and women as conference speakers. Steve posted about Project 3:28 on his blog, to which I offered some comment, and Steve offered a response to my observations which I reposted here. I offer here some reflections and questions which come out of this discussion.
My first question is: where do we find our unity as Christian sisters and brothers? Steve opens his response with some warm comments which I appreciated:
Before I start, I should say that I respect Ian greatly, that we agree on most subjects … and have made common cause together before now… Ian has been a committed and effective campaigner for female leadership in the church, and has done much good as such, for which I honour him. If we disagree, it is en famille.
But the comment provoked me to ask whether we shouldn’t be able to say that to any Christian, even if we profoundly disagree on a particular subject. I am aware that the question of unity and separation is complex, and will be tested particularly on the upcoming debates on sexuality in the C of E. Yet in the fragmenting world of social media, it seems to me we are in serious danger of returning to the world of the Corinthian church: ‘I follow Brian’; ‘I follow Rob’; ‘I follow Steve.’ Was my previous post, however clumsy, so bad to warrant the term ‘Disgusting’ from one commentator on Facebook? Should we ever be using such language of sisters and brothers in Christ?
Secondly, can we take seriously the cause of patriarchy and discrimination whatever our view on women’s ordination? As Kate Kirkpatrick demonstrates, media portrayal of women is systematically prejudiced—something that has no connection with considered reflection on men’s and women’s roles. In Facebook discussion, Stephen Kuhrt explains some of the things that happen in Christ Church, New Malden, which includes recruiting women as well as men to ‘techy’ roles such as operating the sound desk, once a month having ‘men only’ serving coffee, and ensuring women and men lead services together. (You cannot disagree with anything in a church that has a Fun Committee, surely!).
Most of these things have nothing remotely to do with whether or not women can exercise a teaching authority in the church—so why aren’t we all doing them?
Thirdly, can we recognise that issues which look like a problem for women are in fact a problem for all? A couple of years ago, one of the plenary sessions at the British New Testament Conference was given over to a debate on why there are so few women in biblical studies as a discipline, when theology is a popular choice for women at undergraduate level. One of the issues that emerged was that, in order to get a PhD in the subject and find a job, you actually have to put up with a lot of what Paul would call ‘skubalon’ (Phil 3.8). Rather foolishly, men put up with it; rather sensibly, many women think there must be a better way to live. In many places where women are under-represented, what really needs to change is a system that damages people, often connected with an unhealthy workaholism. The absence of women points to a deeper malaise.
Fourthly, can we make proper space for parenting? In his response to me, Steve argues that speaking and parenting is not a ‘zero-sum game’, that you do not trade one off against another in a binary way. Related to that, he explores the reality of travelling and family life, and suggests that the best leaders are able to do both. My worry with this approach is that it reflects a contemporary cultural trend to reject human finitude. There is a strong narrative that ‘we can have it all’—but that narrative actually penalises those who put a premium on parenting, and privileges those who don’t, whatever the context. If I accept an invitation to speak, it means I have to sacrifice something else. Deciding to do one thing means deciding not to do another. Even though our children are teenagers, I need to plan very carefully when I am away, because if I am not home, someone else has to be.
In this, I profoundly disagree with Steve’s comment about gifting:
The point seems to me straightforwardly transferrable: if God has gifted a woman to teach, and she is being prevented from full exercise of that ministry by family responsibility, there is a gospel duty on the church to find ways to relieve that responsibility so that she may build up the church through the exercise of her gift.
As someone commented, would we say the same about men? And what if both parents in a couple were so gifted? It is not just about gift; it is also about calling. I might have many gifts, but I only have one life, and I need to heed what God is calling me to do with it—and one thing is for sure, it is not to use every one of my gifts! I treasured the comment of Holly on my post:
As a woman, no matter how gifted I might be, my children and my connection and my input into their daily lives is more important (not to me, but *for* them) than any representation I might have in any sphere…whether that is local church or on a conference level.
This might seem like a moot point, in that, I’m *not* famous and I’ve not been asked. I’m not uneducated, however, and I’m theologically driven. I’m articulate. I’ve got a good personality. The point is, that had I deemed leadership at any level worth more than my children, I have the skills and would have pursued it.
Now, I would be very happy to hear both men and women articulate this. But whatever the reason (and Steve and I are probably going to agree to disagree on the reasons just now), more women than men will feel this at the moment. Can we give the space for them to articulate it?
Fifthly, can we acknowledge that the nature/nurture debate has not been resolved? Some of the comments I received in response to my previous post seemed to assume a. that all gender differences were socially constructed, and b. that this was clear to anyone with any sense, as well as c. if you did not believe this, you were an enemy of the gospel! I have previously posted on this, and Alastair Roberts added a lengthy comment on my last post which merits careful reading.
Social constructs don’t just fall down from on high, but tend to result from the crystallization of typical patterns of behaviour in a given environment. Alternatively, they can be seen as the ruts that are driven by such behaviour, which make non-typical behaviour increasingly difficult. Social constructs are often unhealthy and need to be changed. However, although the behaviour that underlies them can frequently be redirected by strategic changes, the behaviour itself will always tend to push in some directions rather than others. In short, social constructs cannot be divorced from or escape underlying biological and other realities.
Sixth, can we admit that certain aspects of this Christian subculture need reforming? Jon Kuhrt offers a trenchant critique on Facebook:
One big issue underlying this whole issue is the obsession in Christian circles with platforms – it is a breeding ground for a deeply un-Christian culture of status seeking, hero worship and envy which deeply damages the church. One associated issue is the insecurities that Christian celebrity culture engenders within those seeking to cling onto their status as a big top speaker or top author…So I agree that there should be equality but we should all be far more suspicious of how platform culture has warped perceptions of what Christian leadership looks like.
David Shepherd, a regular commentator on this blog, says something similar:
When I think of large-scale religious celebrations like Spring Harvest and the Big Day Out, I am reminded of the banquets of the Jewish calendar and the shameless self-marketing of the teachers of Torah.
‘“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.’ (Matthew 23:5–9)
Seventh and last: can we be clear about this as a mission issue? John Drane commented on Facebook that this is a mission issue, a phrase that gives weight and priority to it—but what exactly does this mean? There is no doubt that unthinking patriarchy within the church has damaged and angered women in the church and put off many outside it. But in what sense is this a mission issue above all the other issues that the church must engage with? I am in no doubt that Scripture clearly supports the change made in the C of E to admit women to all orders of ministry—but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the C of E now has more credibility or effectiveness in missional terms.
In answer to my question, Stephen Kuhrt stated that Christ Church New Malden is about divided about 60/40 between female and male membership. This means the church is roughly 50% more effective at reaching women. Many Anglican churches are divided 2/3 to 1/3—meaning that they are already twice as attractive to women as to men.
If we are going to pick one issue which should be central to mission above all others, it is probably our very small appeal to working men. This is somewhat ironic given the make-up of Jesus’ first disciples.
I work freelance. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?