Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a lay free church chaplain, a mother, a wife. I’m also a Methodist lay preacher. My husband happens to be f to m trans & I happen to identify as queer. Beyond all those labels I’m an avid reader who loves wandering around art galleries.
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’ve been a Christian since I was a child, although I grew up in a house which was not at all religious and my parents didn’t go to church. When I was quite little a neighbour took me to an Anglican Church; by the time I was 9 or 10 I’d decided to go to the local Baptist Church that had really good youth facilities. I moved from Baptist to Methodist in the late noughties when I moved to Durham and needed a church within easy reach of public transport links. I’ve been going to Methodist Churches ever since, although a couple of them have been URC/ Methodist combined and because of my husband’s studies I live in an ecumenical Christian college.
Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.
I came to identify as a feminist when I was a teenager. It was when I read Elaine Storkey’s What’s Right with Feminism I began to identify as a Christian feminist. I am not sure how I first came to own the general feminist label. I think it may well have been because growing up I supported the aims of the women at Greenham and I knew they were feminists.
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 think certainly since I was in my early twenties, the two have naturally sat together. Whilst I had gone to evangelical Baptist churches the first one had women acting as deacons and the second had a female minister and so the leadership question was never a big one for me.
Also Elaine Storkey’s work had been such a big influence on me whilst I was studying sociology at university and so I could articulate why I identified as a Christian feminist as opposed to any of the other strands. For me it was to do with holding with the idea that men and women were of equal worth because of what the bible and my faith said not in spite of that.
Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?
I’ve never been heavily involved in feminist/ gender equality activism or initiatives but I have been more on the edge of those things. I have attended various demos and conferences and when I did a M Lit study into single parents in churches I tried to take some of the findings of that (which said the experience of single parents actually had to do with views of women in leadership more broadly as well as a few other reasons) into the public sphere, by occasionally preaching on Hagar for example.
With regard to gender equality more broadly I have been involved in helping support Trans Day of Remembrance events and so on. One issue I do fight for which is not gender specific but is more likely to impact women is trying to get people to identify the impact of loss and grief on the cis partners of trans people who are transitioning. So far that’s just involved giving some conference papers and writing on my blog.
Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?
The key issues for me are to do with recognising the way in which churches particularly often exploit the unpaid labour of women when paying men for their involvement and talk about the Sabbath but often add demands on to women doing the “triple shift” already. I feel passionate about this because what the most recent stats are saying but also the number of women I know basically being exploited by the church.
The other key focus for me at the moment as I say is the recognition of invisibility in relation to cis women, particularly, whose partners are transitioning. Part of this comes from personal experience but also because I think there is a whole set of support starting to be put in place for people who are transitioning but not for their partners.
Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?
I have become far less militant as I have got older and more aware of how men suffer too, often because of the same root causes as women. When I was younger, patriarchy was the obvious cause of gender injustices to me but now I am more sympathetic to the impact which wider structural issues related to the economy and environment have. Whilst still taking a Christian perspective I have read more womanist material and am much more conscious of the role of intersectionality.
Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?
Hagar was a huge inspiration to me when I was a single parent, and became a central figure when I was doing my theology research. I think the way white majority churches particularly make her invisible through not including her in lectionary readings is absolutely awful.
The other big influence for me has been Antoinette Brown-Blackwell who was the first female ordained by a mainstream denomination in America. She was a feminist who felt herself to be a stranger in a strange land. I can really relate to the way she felt that she didn’t fit into the secular liberation movement or the church fully.
What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?
I think that my being a feminist is just viewed as part of the mix which is me. In some churches it was just one part of my faith mix which was probably viewed as a bit dodgy but nobody really referred to. More recently I’ve been in churches which have encouraged engagement with feminist thinking.
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 has been a lot of really, really good stuff happening in Christian Feminism through the work Natalie Collins, Kristin Aune and others have been doing and in secular feminism through the Everyday Sexism projects. There has been the development of activism which has sought to deal with the variety of problems that women are suffering with.
To be honest for me that has been a relief after the focus within Christian feminism seemed to be middle-class women going on about leadership in the Anglican church whilst ignoring the experience of women for whom that wasn’t a calling.
I do worry about the rise of the feminists who are seeking to undermine trans rights by their insistence on using biological understandings of what it means to be male or female based on similar understandings as the most Conservative Christians, where it’s all linked to genitals and reproductive ability. For me those feminists are dangerous and reinforcing binaries.
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?
As I’ve already indicated I think the way women are being exploited and working “triple shifts” or even “quadruple shifts” where they often work, do household chores and have primary carer responsibilities for children or elderly relatives and then do a lot of unpaid work for churches without being able to take a Sabbath themselves as an area the church could do so much better on. I was really interested in the gender breakdowns linked to fresh expressions in the recent Church Growth data. For me that really highlighted a lot of the problem.
I’d also like to see churches engaging with trans issues fully and coming up with ways for the cis parents or partners of trans people (often women) to acknowledge their feelings of loss.
Finally with regard to domestic abuse churches are getting so much more right but I think they still have some way to go.
Sally Rush lives in Birmingham and works as a lay free church chaplain.