Month: July 2016

Christian Feminist Q & A – Natalie Collins

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Natalie Collins and I work as a Gender Justice Specialist.  I’m 31 and am a Northerner living in Essex with my fab husband and 3 excellent children.  I am working class, talk extremely fast and am allergic to small talk.  I tweet and blog as God Loves Women.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I grew up in a Christian home with parents who raised us to trust God for provision and who lived out deep faith commitment.  They also believed most things printed in the Daily Mail.  

Through various challenges as a young adult I discovered parts of what it means to love God and be loved by God in ways that can only be found through deep suffering and pain.  We attend an Anglican church (though I am not an Anglican) and I would probably identify as a radical evangelical.

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

Feminism enabled me to make sense of the abuse I had been subjected to.  It was when I discovered that there was an analysis which a) made sense of why male violence happens and b) how we change it, that’s when I began identifying as a feminist.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

Jesus saved my life. Feminism made sense of my life.  So in many ways, no there hasn’t been a personal fight between the two.  However, I totally get why feminists find Christianity incompatible with women’s liberation. Feminism works as an ideology.  Christianity only works as a relationship with the Living God that leads to the Way of Life. I have to wrestle with the Bible and Christian culture and Christian people (I don’t literally wrestle with Christians, only ideologically, or metaphorically).  But on a fundamental level, feminism and faith have never been a difficult thing for me to hold as true for my life and for the world.  

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

Yes!  I have worked delivering domestic abuse education programmes for women. I wrote the DAY Programme, a youth domestic abuse and exploitation education programme and train practitioners across the UK to run it with young people.  In my work I specialize in addressing domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation, pornographies amongst various other things. I set up a campaign to address the abuse within the Fifty Shades series.  Within a Christian context, I am one of the founding members of the Christian Feminist Network and I also am part of Project 3:28.  I’m also really interested in gender reconciliation and earlier this year organised a UK workshop with Gender Reconciliation International. I tweet, write and speak on lots of aspects of feminism and faith.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Male violence against women is the thing I am most passionate about addressing and also, within a Christian context, representing feminism in a way that challenges the patriarchy in the church, while also showing secular feminists that Christian feminism is not an oxymoron.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

Yes.  I’ve become much more radical and uncompromising.  

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

The Christian foremothers have been had a great influence on me; Cathy Clark Kroeger and Elaine Storkey amongst them. My daughter Megan is a massive influence and she inspires me to believe and hope for change. My dear friend Sue King who is an older woman and a Marxist feminist has challenged and encouraged me in so many ways over the years.  I love her a lot. Also my lovely friends Jo and Cath, who love women with all their being. And a wonderful woman called Jenny Parnham, who thinks deeply and has a massive vision for girls. Ah, once I start thinking about all the women I love and who inspire or influence me, I could go on forever!  

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

I think it’s changed in the last few years. I feel a sense of trepidation, like telling feminists that I’m a Christian is a sort of “coming out” in that space.  But I’ve never been treated unkindly for it. Even women who have told me they can’t follow my twitter account because of the God stuff haven’t been unkind. Feminism isn’t Christianity and so the two things are never going to be One Thing.  

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

I was in a church once where the leader said that feminism was spiritually evil. My mum took a long time to come round to the idea that feminism could be good as she was extremely committed to the “pro-life” cause and so feminist was synonymous with “baby killer”. I’m so deeply feminist now that I’m mainly oblivious to Christians who are anti-feminism. Some of my best friends are Christian feminists and I am in a really blessed position of knowing loads of people who are a Christian and get feminism, so I guess I’ve made Christian feminism my “norm”.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think there’s a lot to celebrate, but there’s also a lot to be concerned about. Patriarchy is always subverting feminist ideals to further its own purposes. Popularity is always on the side of the powerful and so there’s a questions about whether the popularity of feminism has degraded it, diluted it and undermined the primary goal of feminism, which is women’s liberation.  

I think that there are lots of ways that feminism is being controlled and dominated by issues and voices that are not, at core, feminist. But I also think that the rise of feminism has enabled change e.g. the end of Page 3, preventing Ched Evans being re-employed, keeping women on banknotes, making the struggle of women visible.

I believe that there is a prophetic move towards women’s liberation that has been happening over the last decade and so I think some of what we are seeing is God moving (often with non-Christians getting it more clearly than Christians).

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

I think there’s things I’d like to see a focus on and then there’s things I’d like to see the focus reshaped. I think things are changing in terms of women’s representation, mainly through the hard work and dedication of women and men to see things change, and then in the last few years, with the Project 3:28 statistics that are released each year detailing the gender balance on the national Christian platform.

I’d like to see a reshaping of the focus on trafficking, pornographies and the Christian white saviour complex. The issues of trafficking and pornographies are massively complex and the response must include a deep feminist analysis of the issues, which is sadly lacking in the majority of Christian responses to these issues. I guess the ideal would be that feminist analysis and practice would be mainstreamed through the social justice elements of Christianity.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Yes. I think feminist events could seek to ensure the voices of feminists of faith are included in their work, just as other intersectionalities are. I think articles, blogs, seminars and talks which discuss feminism and faith would be great. I’d also like to see it ensured that the majority of content published about faith and feminism is written by feminists of faith.

JBNWlWECNatalie Collins lives in Essex and works as a Gender Justice Specialist. 

Website: http://www.nataliecollins.info/

Blog: https://mrsglw.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @God_Loves_Women

Christian Feminist Q & A – Ali Wilkin

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m 46, I was born in London and was raised in Essex, and I lived in Hull and Sheffield before returning to my home town after my marriage broke down. I’ve been a single parent (and single) for 16 years, and I’m the proud mum to two amazing young men. I’m passionate about the things I care about, read like a demon, try to listen more than I talk, and talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

My parents are agnostic, although my family on my Mother’s side are C of E; my great-grandmother had very close ties with her local Quaker and Pentecostal churches too and I was always very influenced by her openness to worshipping as she felt led by the Spirit. I am an Anglican, and have been since coming to faith 12 years ago – the Eucharist is the place where my head faith and heart faith first truly came together, and I love liturgy.

Since becoming part of a fresh expression of church 6 years ago and one of the lay leaders of that, Monday night has been church night: that is either in the form of a shared meal, a social evening at a local pub, or coming together for a simple shared supper, worship, prayer and study in our local community centre. There are plenty of challenges in being part of ‘corporate’ lay leadership* of such a community, but I am blessed to be part of a group of people who are so generous, committed and gifted.

*There isn’t a single leader: each one of the lay leaders has different gifts and responsibilities, and decisions are made as a group together. 

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I identified as a feminist as a young child and right through to my early twenties initially: it was as natural to me as breathing. I used to doodle feminist things on my school note books (things like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”/”whatever we say, whatever we do, yes means yes and no means no”) along with feminist and CND symbols.

It was a very simplistic feminism, but as I got older I began to have a lot of questions and issues, which the feminism I was being presented with could not easily address. It treated all girls as being essentially the same, and as a result it increasingly didn’t speak to me or to some of the girls and women around me – in terms of class, race and sexuality particularly, the concerns of the feminism available to me were entirely unrelated to the lives and struggles of working class women, black women and women of colour, LBT women (and the intersections of those), and in my early twenties I began distancing myself from feminism increasingly.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I had distanced myself from feminism before I came to faith and from the start my own experience of faith felt deeply at odds with the patriarchal nature of the Church, with its gendered language and performance of faith as worship before a masculine God. Eventually I began to feel very strongly a particular call on my faith, and I believe God is raising up a generation of women (particularly LBT, black women and women of colour) to speak out against oppression: the feminism I was re-discovering through that has grown a faith and feminism entwined around each other.

In the early days of my faith I struggled with what I thought of as the tension between the two, but I had a wonderful example in my late great-grandmother whose own instinctive faith was such an amazing example – she had always encouraged me to learn to trust my own instincts, and this helped me to see past the human patriarchal constructs which men have spent 2,000 years building around God, Jesus and faith. I had a minister who encouraged me to use feminine language for God, and I am often the only person in my church singing to Mother (rather than Father) God!

One of the great blessings of the internet is how it helps me connect with and hear other feminists and queer people of faith and their stories, and having the opportunity to lift those up. The real tension is not between faith and feminism – the real tension is between people, and between those who see the patriarchy as something man made (one of the ‘traditions of men’), and those who think of it as something God ordained.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

To me, activism isn’t something which is separate from life: for many cis and trans women, simply surviving from day to day is activism, in defiance of the systems of power which silence or dismiss their existence. There have been campaigns which I have been involved in online by re-tweeting, doing something to lift up the voices of those who society wants to hear from the least. As someone who does not seek a media platform, my contribution to that is small but it matters that we all do what we can.  

Locally I am working to grow and raise awareness in my own community: talking to people, raising the issues, and recently I organised a prayer service for victims of abuse. That required working with my vicar, talking through reasons and issues, understandings of power and boundaries and so on. It’s small scale stuff but change happens from the ground up, not the other way round: like the mustard seed, it’s a tiny amount in the scheme of things, but big things come from that tiny seed. I am currently working on a new blog that will focus entirely on forgiveness – the theology of forgiveness is so riddled with victim blaming and its something I have been thinking, praying and meditating on a lot for the last several months.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Violence against women, rape and abuse, the inclusion of LBT women, racism, poverty, and disability and the intersections of those. These are where the patriarchy’s abuses of its corrupted power are most evident. As a survivor of domestic and psychological abuse and rape, as someone who is bisexual and who has struggled with mental health issues for most of my life, raising my voices with others to challenge the prevalence of rape culture (outside and inside the church) matters very much.

There is always a tension between the church and those whose sexuality does not conform to the patriarchal norm and even within the LGBTQ community, those of us who are bi experience a lot of erasure, and for my trans and non binary sisters the situation is often much worse – especially when whiteness so is completely centred in everything.  Secular feminism struggles with queer theory and theology easily as much as Christian feminism does so it matters to me very much that this is better understood. Feminists (both secular and of faith) are often uncomfortable around queer theology and theory, and this impacts the trans and non binary community particularly. I know there is much argument around this, but sooner or later we are all going to have to grasp that that working for all women (including trans and non binary women) does not prevent my (or any other cisgender woman’s) liberation. Quite the opposite.  

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

My feminism has evolved very much and one of the great joys of Twitter and social media is how it’s given me the opportunity to hear and learn from a multiplicity of voices. But I have also learned to be comfortable and welcoming of being unwelcomed even within feminist circles: I was never popular with the other feminists when I was younger, because I questioned why we were so white, so awful to trans women, so focused on getting the same jobs and power as the patriarchy, so willing to throw single mothers under a bus and so critical of women who wanted to stay at home to raise their children – in short, so eager to replicate the very patriarchy we were supposedly wanting to dismantle (I was 40 years old before another feminist called me sister!).

Being an outsider is something that has both deepened my faith – I think of how unpopular Christ was in His day – and offers a certain kind of freedom, as I am an introvert by inclination anyway.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

In scripture, I love Esther and Mary Magdalene, and Mary (Jesus’ mother) – in their own ways they were all outsiders, not popular, willing to take risks for what they believed in and always always full of faith.  In life the women in my family each inspire in their own way: I am blessed that the generations before me have each been sources of strength and inspiration in different ways. And in my life (online and offline) there are so many women, each with their own gifts and stories to tell.  

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

Honestly, I am more likely to be dismissed for being trans inclusive than for being a Christian feminist. My experience overall has been incredibly positive.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Sometimes I think people in the church treat it like a hobby, and there’s a huge misunderstanding from a lot of people that I put feminism before my faith. In some ways this is easier to cope with though than the rather patronising one, that I call  the ‘there there’ attitude: when someone responds as though they are patting you on the head like you are a cute, but slightly silly, child. In many ways I’m lucky that the leadership in my parish is open: generally my vicar is brilliant and even if he doesn’t understand the thing I’m banging on about he is always willing to listen and learn. I just wish this wasn’t the exception that proved the rule though!

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

There is a lot to be celebrated, and feminism is at its best when it is celebratory: but there is much that feminism still needs to do, particularly concerning race and our trans sisters. There are strong voices within feminism generally and Christian feminism that actively call for the de-centring of white, heteronormative voices and yet the media (Christian and secular) still give prevalence to those voices over women of colour and trans women.  It would be great if a black woman said something about racism and we listed to her instead of waiting for the white person to say before taking it on board. 

Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church-based feminist or equality-minded groups, projects or organisations?

I stay plugged in to various groups via newsletters, Twitter and so forth and much of my activism happens via social media – I think the reason some people don’t understand or value online activism is that they don’t understand that for many people, it’s something they can actually access because financial/physical/mental health/safety issues might otherwise prevent more conventional involvement.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The Church has to get to grips with its failure to deal with abuse, and its failure to properly address the needs of victims, and the C of E would do well to look to how the Methodist church have modelled submitting themselves to an independent enquiry in a spirit of humble penitence. I also think that the language we use about God, liturgically and theologically, has to change. Not to stop calling God ‘he’ or ‘father’ but to learn to use ‘her’ and ‘mother’ and ‘they’ just as frequently.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

My personal experience has been really positive – some people look askance at the whole ‘Christian feminist’ thing of course, and there are those who instantly dismiss me because of my faith. If I were honest, I would say that secular feminism is more welcoming than the Church.

Ali Wilkin lives in Colchester. She blogs at incarnationalrelational.wordpress.com and tweets as @AliWilkin.

Christian Feminist Q & A -Hannah Barr

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a postgraduate student in Theology at Oxford University, specialising in Christian Ethics. I was once described as ‘if Tina Fey did moral theology…’ which I’m taking as a compliment!  When I’m not in a library, I work part-time for an organisation which seeks to equip Christian postgrads to integrate their faith and their studies.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I grew up in a Church of England-Baptist church plant which was a bit of an ecumenical headache, but somehow it worked. At 12, I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit which brought home to be the full realness of Jesus and what it meant to be in relationship with him. Since leaving home for university, I’ve stayed in the Church of England, first in a conservative evangelical church and now in a charismatic evangelical church. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, but there’s something so special about the Church of England, for me at least.

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I went to a church which didn’t have women in any leadership roles that weren’t for leading other women or children whilst doing my undergrad and the reality of encountering people stopping me and other women from doing things just because we were women seemed ludicrous. The attitude of a couple of dominant churches in the city had pervaded the Christian Union so women weren’t allowed to speak there or be in roles on the committee such as President and that made no sense either. Plus, I found myself in lectures where women outnumbered men considerably but men dominated all the conversations, and then I was introduced to feminist theology.

On the whole, I have several theological issues with the dominant thinkers and strands within feminist theology, but there was a perfect storm in what I felt as oppressive in my church and CU and lectures, and then what I saw these women theologians had stood for. It was like a lightbulb when on and I realised the effect my church, CU, and some people on my course was having on me – the crushing effect they were having on me – and I realised it was time to find my voice amongst all that.

It took a while to identify explicitly as a feminist because I certainly fell prey to the negative stereotypes around the word, but it’s the word which sums up best what I stand for when it comes to gender equality.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

For me, the two have always come together. I read the Bible and I study theology and I’m struck by a God who thinks women are great – and great sinners who’ve thought women aren’t so great. But whose opinion ultimately matters more: God’s or the guy who said that women are the devil’s gateway? (Yes, Tertullian, I am throwing shade at you!)

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I’ve been involved in setting up an equality and diversity forum, and I’m in talks at the moment about setting up a group which will help support Christian women in academia, which I’m excited about.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

I am really passionate at the moment about sexual consent because the sheer amount of violence against women is utterly intolerable. So often, the issue seems pushed under the carpet, but violence against women is not confined to a class or a culture, it has permeated the whole world and we still seem to lack concrete solutions for ending it. I think if we actually think about and interrogate what sexual consent should be like, it would go a long way to helping tackling the issue of violence against women.

On a more micro level, I think it would be great to see more feminist engagement in pedagogy at all levels, not just in higher education where the most number of studies seem to have been done. We need to socialise girls out of tentativeness in the classroom or lecture theatre.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

It definitely has changed, I think for the better! When I was younger, if I didn’t see satisfactory answers within Christianity for certain issues, I held to a singularly feminist view on them. Possibly as I’ve developed as a theologian, I now don’t feel the need to do that. As a Christian, my commitment will always be to God first, and because of that, I will be committed to the church over secular feminism, and I do think that theology can be of real value to secular feminism. I think my feminist views contain much more nuance and I’m able to see where its methods and ideologies are flawed. Above all, I hope my feminism has changed in a way which makes me much more charitable.

As a young feminist which coincided with being an idealistic undergraduate, I was great at being passionate and headstrong, but was often too quick to respond to being hurt by being angry, and if there is one thing I have learnt as a theologian, it’s that theology done from anger is not the best theology a person can do. And in terms of being a Christian feminist, my emphasis has shifted from being quite selfish and focusing on women in church leadership, whereas now, I hope I follow much better the call to love my neighbour and am far more evangelical about the issues which transcend the church such as violence against women and poor maternal health.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

I grew up going to Soul Survivor which has always had a plethora of great, fearless, and honest women speaking and leading, so they’ve always been an inspiration. I do love women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer for their boldness in their work and how unapologetic they are about being feminists, as well as how honest they are about being imperfect people. I was also so fortunate in my undergrad institution that the female academics in my department were awesome! I learnt so much from them, not just academically, but in how to be an adult woman, a good colleague, and how to combat the voices which tell you to be silent when there’s no need for you to be.

And I will always adore the women in the Bible who sing: Hannah and Mary. They got on with things quietly and faithfully and with far more obedience to God than I have ever or will ever manage. I should also mention Phoebe as she gets pulled up in so many debates on women in church leadership without people (on either side) really stopping to contemplate just how extraordinary she was.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

In the things I’ve been involved in, I don’t feel like I’m wanted as a Christian feminist, and certainly online have encountered abuse for being a Christian and had my feminism summarily dismissed. I can understand secular feminism’s wariness of religious institutions because it’s wary of powerful institutions in general, but no-one and especially no women benefit, if we try to shut people out just because of another identity they may have.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

A mixed bag! Feminism is as misunderstood as Christianity can be. And Christians do love getting their knickers in a twist about things and blocking out ‘dissenting’ voices. Most of the criticism I’ve encountered from within the church has usually been based on negative stereotypes of feminism. Just last week, someone at college actually asked me why I was a feminist and what it meant to me and he was (pleasantly) surprised by my answer, so if only we could just have more conversations where we actually listen to each other. In church, we love our binaries, and the ‘complementarian versus egalitarian’ debate is emblematic of that. We just need a call for calm, nuance, and actually listening to one another.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think my generation has tried to re-brand feminism in a way which has been disrespectful to the earlier feminists who really rocked the boat. And then there’s fashionable feminism. Bluntly, you can wear as many ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ shirts as you like, but if you’re not including sanitary towels in your foodbank donation, or if you’re ignoring homeless people on the streets, or if your first response to a girl who’s been sexually assaulted is ‘what were you wearing?’, or if you think that the ‘home’ in ‘charity begins at home’ doesn’t mean the world, then you may look like a feminist, but you don’t act like one. I’m not a feminist because it’s fashionable; I’m not a feminist because a media-darling celebrity has made it palatable; I’m a feminist because Jesus knew and demonstrated that the inferior treatment of women was unacceptable.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The church needs to be more realistic about the extent of suffering which women face on a quotidian basis from the parish to the world. Personally, I’d also love it if the church could cease with the extrapolation that just because God is King, that makes all girls and women princesses. There are so many extraordinary things God calls us and names us, and yet we think Disney-fied theology is the way forward! I’d also love the church to quit with the terms ‘women vicar’ or ‘women bishop’ unless we’re going to start calling the others ‘man vicar’ and ‘man bishop.’

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Remember the aim: women and men are equal. It’s seeing others as inferior which led to this mess in the first place. The othering and dehumanisation of others is insidious – women as weak, refugees as cockroaches – as soon as you start to think of someone as less than all you’ve done is perpetuated the cycle of human beings being terrible beings.

Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to say!

I’m only starting to appreciate now just how important my church leaders were growing up. The fact that a vicar took a chance on a teenage me and let me preach meant the world, so that when I was later told by others I had no right to speak or lead, I had that confirmation from another person (who I assume was listening to Jesus) to hold onto.

If churches really want to do their bit for gender equality, regardless of where you stand on the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum, look at the young women in your church and invest in them. Because for the ones who are a bit bossy, are a bit feisty, are a bit fed up with the injustices they see in the world, the encouragement you give them as teenagers may just be what gets them through their early twenties.

IMG_0422Hannah Barr is a postgraduate student in Theology at Oxford University, specialising in Christian Ethics.

Twitter: @HannahE27