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.

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