What inspired a vicar to start a conversation about equality in his church – and what happened next? Revd Kevin Scott, from St John the Baptist Parish Church in Malden, explains.
In my time as Vicar of St John’s I have tried to model our mission and ministry on God’s all-inclusive love. Among other things, this has meant declaring the equality of women and men, and all that flows from that. This has led to a number of practical actions. We have actively supported the full ministry of women in the Church of England. We have resisted and changed language which gives the impression that God is male or that suggests that maleness is the norm for humanity. We have taken a stand against activities which degrade, oppress and abuse women.
My colleagues on the Ministry Team are of a similar mind. We are also of a similar age – much of our formation was in the 1970s. To us it is both normal and obvious to see feminism as part of the liberating Good News of Jesus Christ. That is why three incidents hit me so hard and knocked me out of my complacency.
I was talking with one of our children’s workers, a professional woman in her 30s with a university education. I was saying that we need to think about the names we use for God in order to avoid gender bias. “Who cares about that sh*t anymore?” she retorted.
I dropped in on our Women’s Group – a brilliant group started by women for mutual support – and showed them a press cutting of one of our new women Bishops: “It’s a shame they couldn’t have found someone better-looking to be a Bishop” one of them commented.
At our local school there was a big display in one of the corridors entitled ‘Our British Artists’. None of them were women. I pointed this out to the female teacher responsible for the display: “I hadn’t really thought about it” she replied.
I talked to younger female clergy colleagues about these incidents. They told me that they thought this was about age and history. There was a whole generation of women (and indeed, men), they suggested, for whom the issues and principles of feminism had never been articulated. They were not even born when others were battling for equal pay and opportunities legislation. ‘Equality’ was so assumed within society – it was such a done deal in the minds of so many – that it was never critically examined.
The idea of setting my own position down on paper began to form. It would be a way of laying down a marker, of stating my position as Vicar and leader within the Parish. I hoped it would also start people thinking about these issues. It’s not a great work of political or theological literature, but here it is. Having written it, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it.
As a first step, I circulated it to a large number of women (of all ages) in the Parish, and asked for their comments. If I had been dismayed by the three incidents described above, I was thrilled by the responses I got. You can read the (anonymised) responses here, but here are a few highlights:
“It was so refreshing to hear your thoughts and beliefs on what is such an important part of the church…… making it equal and inclusive for all. Reading it made me feel more confident in my place in the church and equally my position in life.”
“Reading your paper I realise that at St. John’s I am not a woman: I am a full and active member of the church and never have to think that anything I do or want to do is restricted by my sex or even my sexual orientation. I hope and pray that everyone else in the congregation feel the same.”
“Thank you for sending me your paper on Feminism. This is the sort of things that makes me proud of belonging to the community at St John’s. There has been great progress in terms of equal rights for men and women over the last half century, but more remains to be done, and in my opinion the Church should play a role in improving the place of women in the Church and in the society as a whole.”
Where should we go from here? Clearly, we can be encouraged but we can’t be complacent. I am open to suggestions.
We’d love to hear from other church leaders who have started – and continued – similar conversations in their congregations – and what has happened as a result.