If women can be called and equipped in speaking, teaching and leading by the Spirit just as much men (which I think is true), then should we expect to see 50/50 gender representation at Christian conferences? Steve Holmes believes so, and as a result he and others started Project 3:28 to monitor whether this is happening. Interestingly, there has been change:
In 2013, of the 431 speakers at conferences we counted, 24% were female; in 2014, we counted 1081 speakers, and 34% were female.
There are questions here about sample size, and year on year comparison, but my first response is ‘This must surely be a good thing.’ And yet Steve’s post made me think, and there are some big questions to be explored here.
One issue is the whole idea of a ‘Christian speaking circuit’. Steve is quite right; there is one. And I am pretty clear I am not on it. When I enquired of one of the founding organisers of Spring Harvest about this, I got short shrift: ‘Oh, everyone wants to speak at Spring Harvest.’ For anyone on the outside, it is a bit of a mystery how this all works. I think it is it akin to Facebook news feeds and committees in the Church of England: the more exposure you have had, the more you will get. In case you have not realised, Facebook will tend to show you newsfeed items that have already been looked at or commented on by others; the more views something has, the more views it will get. And C of E committees seem to be filled by people who spend all their time on other committees! As Steve notes:
The conference circuit operates as its own breeding ground: you get brought in to assist at a side-show because someone has heard that you might have what it takes; succeeding there, you get more and more invites to bigger and bigger platforms.
Steve then touches in passing on two related issues which I think are at the heart of this:
At every point on the way up, though, the process is gendered. Young men are more likely to be given a chance than young women, unless someone is very intentional about it. Women are more likely to doubt their own competence and say no…
He is absolutely right here; during my decade in theological education, I was constantly surprised by how many very competent women, clearly called by God into leadership, had questions about their own calling and competence—whilst some less able men appeared blessed by a complete absence of self-doubt. The reasons are many and complex, as they are in wider culture, but a significant factor for any evangelical women was the legacy of ‘conservative’ teaching that women should not be in leadership.
But closely related to this is the question of experience.
On the assumption (and it is an assumption, but it is one I believe to be well founded in Scripture) that God gives gifts to people regardless of gender, roughly half the ‘best’ speakers should be female, where ‘best’ = ‘most gifted’; if our platforms are 75% or 66% male, then we are not getting the ‘best’ speakers.
The problem is, though, that ‘best’ means more than ‘most gifted’; it means also ‘most experienced’, and so we get a vicious feedback loop: we want the same names and faces on every platform, because they have learnt through long experience how to do it well, and because they are famous names and so draw the (paying) crowds.
…the hard yards on this road come when, if you have family, your children are young, and it is generally harder for a mother than a father to accept invitations to be away from home.
And here’s the rub: if you think women should be equally represented in one sector of ministry, and you think that involvement should be on the basis of competence (which combines giftedness, whatever that is, with experience), then women should have as much experience as men—and that implies, for the majority who are married with children, that men should be equally involved in childcare and parenting as women. And it probably means that you need to see parental roles as interchangeable. My problem is, I don’t think I do. And there is a mass of evidence to say that this isn’t the case.
Steve accounts for this imbalance in ‘current sociological realities’, but I think it goes much deeper than that. In order for Project 3:28 to achieve its goals, it really has to be arguing that fathers should spend as much or more time in parenting as mothers, something I don’t think I have ever heard proposed in Christian evangelical ‘egalitarian’ circles. In fact, I am not sure that it is a major theme even in secular feminism; the repeated refrain on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour is much more about how women need to juggle home, family and career, rather than arguing that men ought to parent more. In my ministry, I have consistently sought to listen to God’s guidance within the constraints of allowing my wife continuity for her career as a GP—but I am struggling to think of many (any?) friends in ministry or academia who have said that they have done the same.
The awkward reality is that many women do want to invest their time and energy in their children, and will choose this above accepting an invitation to speak on a platform or being involved in another aspect of public ministry—not least because they feel this is what God has called them to.
And we need to allow this to shape the statistics on speakers.
Apart from anything else, we need to on the basis of logic. That God calls men and women does not logically imply that God calls men and women statistically equally into all forms of ministry.
If we don’t, then we will create a lot of frustration. Women will be frustrated at being expected to do everything—to be dedicated mothers as well as competent ministers and speakers. Men will be frustrated at the sense of being bypassed on the grounds of ‘political correctness’. (I know they shouldn’t, but they will.) It is supremely ironic that, at the same time people are complaining about the managerialism of the Church of England’s Green Report, the first woman bishop to be announced probably wouldn’t satisfy any of the criteria set out for ‘senior leaders’—mostly because she took time out to raise her children. I would counsel any man my age in the C of E who thinks he ought to be an archdeacon or bishop—forget it, regardless of your competence or experience, it isn’t going to happen.
For me there is one final, deeper frustration that is more important than all of these—the frustration that, yet again, we are aiming to squeeze women into a male mould in the name of ‘gender justice.’ There is powerful evidence that women think in different ways from men, and that women preach with a different voice from men. It seems to me that the notion of teaching and influencing people by offering a single, powerful figure standing on a platform at a conference is a particularly male way of conceiving ministry. (And, by the way, it is not a very biblical notion.) I would much rather see women’s ministry done in the ways that women find most effective—and perhaps we men might learn something from it.
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