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The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Part I – CS Lewis)

This is part of a series philospher Robin Bunce is writing about THINK Theology’s Future of Complementarity conference.  Read the Introduction HERE.

 

Previously on christianfeministnetwork.com I argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is one of the slogans to emerge from THINK 2018. Here I want to trace the phrase’s origins in the work of CS Lewis, and explore some of the ways that Lewis’s argument poses problems for contemporary evangelicals.

 

Lewis was the first writer to argue that men and women are not interchangeable. He made the claim in his 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’ Here, he argues,

 

. . . unless ‘equal’ means ‘interchangeable’, equality makes nothing of the priesthood for women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions . . .

 

At a basic level, Lewis argues that sexual equality does not imply that women should be priests unless we understand equality as interchangeability. For Lewis interchangeability means that men and women are basically the same, sexless and identical – a notion he rejects.

 

Lewis’s essential argument is clear enough, but his reasoning is complex, and to understand it, it is necessary to enter his intellectual world. Lewis’s rationale for this argument is bound up with the representative nature of the priesthood. ‘[A] priest’, he argues, ‘is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us.’From this, Lewis argues that only men can truly ‘represent the Lord to the Church.’Notably, although the priest is male, Lewis argues that the priest has a double gender identity. When standing before his congregation, or when standing before God as an individual, he is male. However, when standing before God as a Priest he is female, for he represents the Bride of Christ.

 

Significantly, Lewis does little to root his concept of non-interchangeability in the Bible. Indeed, he explicitly says that he has no intention of justifying his argument in this way. Rather, his ideas come from a range of Anglophone sources, which contain concepts which were unknown to the authors of the Bible.

 

The first key to understanding the roots of Lewis’s position is his reference to ‘legal fiction’. This concept, which cannot be found in the Bible, is the notion which helps him distinguish between the government, where men and women can ‘be treated as neuters’, and the church, where he argues they cannot.  The phrase ‘legal fiction’ was popularised by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his A Fragment on Government(1776), as part of his attack on Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published between 1765–1769. Blackstone’s view was that the legal system had to be based on certain fictions. For example, it made sense, Blackstone argued, to assume that government was based on an initial social contract, in which the people consented to being governed. Everyone knew, Blackstone argued, that this social contract was not real, but nonetheless, the law made more sense if we accept the fiction of an initial contract.

 

The second notion that Lewis’s argument rests on is that of representation, and dual identity. Again, this can’t be found in the Bible, because these concepts were not available to the authors of the Old or New Testament. Rather Lewis’s argument has its roots in mediaeval corporation theory, and early modern debates over the ‘Divine Right’ of Stuart Monarchs. It was in the mediaeval period that the idea that a person could have a dual identity entered anglophone discussion. Thomas Hobbes, for example, drew on these traditions when he argued that the King was both a natural person (for example Charles Stuart), and an artificial person (the person who can speak on behalf of the state).

 

But the story doesn’t end there. Behind Lewis’s essay is a specific legal fiction which tied notions of representation together with ideas of gender. I’m referring to the doctrine of coverture. Coverture was the legal fiction which described the legal relationship between husband and wife until the later Victorian period. It emerged in the eighteenth century in Britain and America, and at the same time analogous notions entered French law. The nineteenth century legal understanding of coverture, which found its way in to the legal systems of Britain’s colonies, comes from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which systematised the doctrine. Blackstone described coverture thus,

[b]y marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover[emphasis added], she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage.

Put simply, coverture was a legal fiction which embodied the principle that a husband was his wife’s sole legal representative. Consequently, coverture was the most controversial of the legal fictions essential to English law, as it was the basis on which married women were denied the right to vote, the right to own property, to seek divorce, or to make a will. It was the basis on which the first generation of campaigners for women’s suffrage claimed that women were legally enslaved. Therefore, when Lewis was developing a doctrine of gendered representation, thinking about gender equality, it was only natural that this Oxbridge Scholar should think in terms recognisable from the legal doctrine of coverture.

 

Before leaving Lewis, I want to draw out three points: first that his understanding of interchangeability is based on a notion of representation that comes not from the Bible but from medieval legal theory via Blackstone’s legal fictions. Second, it’s based on the notion of a representative priesthood which Evangelicals reject. Third, that the discussion of coverture is more relevant to the theology of Newfrontiers than it might initially seem. Kristin Aune’s excellent ethnography ‘Postfeminist Evangelicals: the construction of gender in the New Frontiers International churches’notes ‘The gendered concept of “covering” is important to NFI. When women are described as “covered” this means that they are under the (male) authority of their husband (if they are married) and/or their church leader.’ Aune argues that Newfrontiers’ theology of ‘covering’ read the English legal doctrine back into 1 Corinthians 11:4-15’s complex arguments about head covering, and that the article ‘Adjusting our Vocabulary: Covering’, which appeared in the 1983/4 Restoration magazine was crucial to the development of this aspect of Newfrontiers’ gender theology.

 

Wilson’s use of Lewis’s phrase is curious, because he disagrees so profoundly with the foundations of Lewis’s argument. Wilson does not believe in an Anglican view of priesthood; he does not believe that church leaders have a dual gender identity – far from it; and while Lewis councils us to turn our backs on legal fictions, Wilson is part of a church movement which has sought to revive the doctrine of coverture as a structuring principle of church life. What is more, it is peculiar in the extreme that Wilson, a writer who claims to set such store in the Bible, would borrow a concept from an essay which explicitly seeks to make an argument from the Anglican tradition rather than the Bible. Yet Wilson and Lewis are united in a common determination to exclude women from aspects of church leadership. And when it comes to complementarity perhaps that’s all that matters.

 

Part II will trace the idea of non-interchangeability through the 1960s and 1970s, where the phrase took on a series of new meanings, alien to both the Bible and Lewis’s original formulation.

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The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Introduction)

Philosopher Robin Bunce is back on the blog with some more insights about the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology earlier this year.  Robin is Director of Studies for Politics and Graduate Tutor at Homerton College, University of
Cambridge.  He is a historian of ideas and has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published about the conference can be found HERE

 

Complementarity is not merely a theology of gender, it’s an aesthetic: an understanding of beauty. According to several speakers at THINK 2018 women and men are not just different, that difference is beautiful. Surprisingly, for a theology which claims to be rooted an ancient text, this is a very modern aesthetic, perhaps even a post-modern one. For this ‘beautiful difference’ is a beautiful absence. The aesthetic of complementarity arises from what men and women are not: ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ This is the aesthetic of artists like Kazimir Malevich, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, or more recent practitioners of rigorous hard-core absence like Turner Prize winner Martin Creed.

 

‘Beautiful difference’ and ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ are the two slogans to emerge from THINK 2018, and it’s the second that concerns me here. As I’ve prowled moodily around Cambridge this autumn, I realised I’ve come across the phrase before. Not in the Bible of course – that goes without saying, but somewhere. It turns out that since the end of the Second World War a series of writers have used the phrase ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ Yet, even though the phrase occurs again and again in theological discussion it never means the same thing twice.  CS Lewis, then Karl Barth and latterly Tim and Kathy Keller have all argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ But for radically different, and often contradictory reasons. Advocates of complementarity are continuing this trajectory, repeating the same words, but meaning something new.

 

The story of how we get from CS Lewis’ view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ to Wilson and Alistair Robert’s radically different view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is a long one. Fearing history-of-ideas-fatigue or ‘annalist’s fever’ as its sometimes know, I’ve split it into three parts, which I’ll be publishing between now and Easter.

 

You can find Part I HERE.

Is “David’s Tent” Achieving Equality?

This post is from Becca Sillett about her experiences of attending the UK event “David’s Tent“, considering whether it practices gender equality,  She describes herself as “a daughter of God, student, worship leader, blogger, and songwriter (amongst other things)”. She is heading into her final year at Cambridge studying Biology, and is passionate to live an authentic life of worship, beckoning others to do the same. She says that, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and he is worthy of our every breath”.  You can check out her blog HERE.

 

David’s Tent is 72-hour festival of non-stop worship in a big, blue tent in a field near Brighton. It takes place over the August bank holiday weekend (24th-27ththis year). People from all over the world and from different church expressions gather to join in one song of praise to our King. The vision of David’s Tent is to restore the tent or tabernacle of David depicted in 1 Chronicles 16. King David dared to establish a tabernacle where all people could come to worship God without being separated from his presence by a veil. He boldly invited everyone into the Holy of Holies and declared the King of Kings accessible to all. For the 33 years that King David’s tent was established, musicians played before the Lord day and night without ceasing. This is the heart of David’s Tent – to once more prepare a holy place where only he is exalted and to pour out the praises that he deserves.

 

2018 marks the 7thyear that this family of extravagant worshippers has come together but is the first year that I was there to be part of it. I had heard a lot about the festival from various friends and had high expectations which were not disappointed. The sense of joy and excitement was tangible upon arrival as campers were pitching tents and unloading cars. The worship began at 2pm on Friday and continued without ceasing until 72 hours later. David’s Tent is fairly unique compared to other Christian festivals in that the main event is not teaching or sermons, but simply the presence of God in worship. A few large blue sheets and some metal scaffolding become a temple and God doesn’t hesitate to manifest his presence amongst his children.

 

The atmosphere of the whole festival truly is one of family. The team of volunteers (coordinated by the amazing Sarah Schrack) is just that, and from the moment each person enters the gates they are warmly welcomed as a brother or sister into the family party. ‘Family sustains revival’ #famsusrev is not just a catch phrase when it comes to the wonderful people working so hard behind the scenes; it’s the reality that they live out. This is what every single person is invited to come and be a part of at David’s Tent. Revival itself is not sought out, but it is expected out of the overflow as we seek God’s heart worship. He is a God of extravagance and abundance and as we pour ourselves out so does he – and revival rushes in.

 

There are many worshippers who have led sets at David’s Tent year after year and carry the vision in their hearts. Each brought something beautifully unique in their own expression of worship and many spontaneous songs were birthed. For me, the song of the weekend was Jason Upton’s ‘This Garden’s Gonna Grow’ which became somewhat of an anthem over the few days. Jason is a true father and worshipping heart and his authenticity radiates through his lyrics. Another new song that was shared was led first on guitar and then again on keys by the multitalented Molly Skaggs of the Cageless Birds. ‘There Ain’t No Grave’ is an old spiritual revamped by Molly with an original and powerful sound. There were also profound moments of breakthrough in the tent when the atmosphere tangibly changed as a refrain or song was sung out in the Spirit.

 

On the stage the equality between men and women was evident. It was a joy to see many women powerfully leading in their anointing and identity as a daughter of the King. Melissa Helser made it to the UK against the odds following a serious back injury and carried with her a spirit of perseverance and freedom. The way that she and Jonathan honour each other and mutually submit to the other’s anointing is beautiful to watch. In most sets there was a male and female vocal and the spirit of respect and equality was seen between them. Almost every male worship leader led with an instrument, whereas several women led solely with their voices. Those leading without an instrument have a greater physical freedom to move and dance, a freedom most definitely enjoyed by Steffany Gretzinger in particular.

 

As well as the main tent, there are other smaller tents dotted around the site. There is a breakout tent, where a few seminars are run, a community tent, a café, a market place and a prayer tent. There are also kids and youth tents where they get up to all kinds of exciting things including prophecy and their own exuberant worship. The atmosphere of the prayer tent was particularly peaceful as I frequented it at 7am each day. One morning prayer session I attended was led by a powerful daughter of God, Bobbi Kumari, around the topic of identity and sexual brokenness. Bobbi shared her story and declared the victory and blood of Jesus over all brokenness, shame and lies. The anointing over her life and ministry is evident. All through the day there are people on their knees before God praying and interceding for his world and his people. From peaceful soaking to passionate spiritual warfare, prayers of all kinds, of authority and of hope are lifted up in that small tent.

 

In every single tent, big and blue, medium and white, or the small multicoloured array down the hill, it is clear that David’s Tent is an event where Biblical gender equality is of the utmost priority. From those planning behind the scenes, to those volunteering on the doors and those leading on the stage, women and men are valued for their unique God-given identities. David’s Tent is a family that aims to release each individual into the fullness of their created potential and strives to see heavenly unity become our earthly reality. Equality isn’t an unobtainable ideal. It is a created reality which can and will be perfected once more. David’s Tent really seem to know this and live it out.

This Woman’s Journey – Sue Eldridge

Sue Eldridge is one of the Directors of Presence Ministries, Director of Alive and Kicking, and the School of Empowerment for woman. Together with her husband Tim she is co-directors of the annual European Leaders Advance conference, which from 2019 will become European Leaders Alliance. Whilst she would not describe herself as a feminist she is a champion of women in leadership and female empowerment. In this essay, she describes her journey.

 

I’m not a feminist, but I love being a woman.

I’m not a feminist, but I believe woman are capable of greatness.

I’m not a feminist but I don’t see a ceiling, glass or otherwise, that should prevent a woman from being who she is called to be. To me, character, gifting, integrity and ability are the factors that should determine who and what someone becomes or achieves, not their gender.

 

I love women. I love all their different facets and strengths. I love that women love so well, and that we are beginning to realise that vulnerability is not weakness but the kind of courage that will enable us, not just to survive, but to thrive and conquer.

 

Growing up as the youngest daughter of a Squadron Leader in the Air Force I was encouraged to be adventurous, determined and strong. I was what was affectionately known as a ‘Tom Boy’, up to the age of 11 … when I discovered the joy of ‘boys’ and Kiss Chase!! I know . . . Shoot me now! Rock climbing, hiking, fishing, swimming, snorkelling and diving were all part of my life growing up, but so were baby dolls and teddies. I would spend the day in the woods, making dens, climbing trees, stealing sweets (I’m sorry) and then come home to bath my dolls, wrap them in a blanket and feed them with a plastic bottle that never ran out of milk. I wore jeans, scruffy T- shirts, and shorts most days, but also loved dressing up in pretty things when the occasion arose. Life was good, and I believed I could be anything or anyone I wanted to be.

 

At the age of 13 we joined a church that had an interesting view of women. A view that said that woman could be a part of the Church Family, but not a ‘significant’ part. Woman could participate to an extent, but only if they honoured the angels by wearing a head covering. You could serve, and in some circumstances, lead small groups, but you could never hold any area of government. As a teenager, ‘the rules’ also looked like this: you had to be thin, feminine, quiet, have long straight hair and obviously an amazing singing voice. Ooops, I had no chance… I was NOT thin, not feminine, I was loud, I had wild curly hair and my voice was three octaves louder than anyone else, but not sweeter! I was doomed!

 

These ‘rules’ stayed with me for many years. I married a man from the church at the tender age of 21, after completing my Nursing training. Then, I took up the role I was born for, ‘keeping house’, and being a ‘Mummy’.  To be fair, I loved this role. However, I made a rod for my own back with regards to my hubby, because a warped sense of pride meant that I had to keep house as well as his mum had, and my mum had, and everyone else we met, ever had kept house. I had to be the best cook, homemaker, money-spinner, breast feeder, craft maker, and leader’s wife! I had to be better than anyone at anything to do with motherhood or housekeeping. It was exhausting. It was not empowering. It was competitive.

 

Fortunately, I grew up!

 

Well actually…I found myself at 38, having left Nursing, I was now a high-powered Sales Executive for a top Health-care company, working full time, being a mum and co-leading a church in Harrogate. I ran the children’s work, I led worship, I preached and I held dinner parties. I was super-mum. Until I wasn’t. Until the day I woke up and couldn’t move. Until the day that I sat sobbing in the doctors’ surgery while he told me I had had a breakdown and was clinically depressed.

 

I gave up my job…. I stayed alive. I ignored the jibes from colleagues, to ‘Pull myself together.’ I ignored the notes from Christians which said that I must have done something wrong for this to happen to me. I even managed to ignore the fear inside me that said I was never going to get better. And “better” I got, slowly, painfully I came back to being me.

 

Then God took me on the most amazing, sometimes painful, but beautifully liberating journey. A journey into who I am. I was in my 40s before I dared to believe I was worthy of anything. To believe that I was enough, just as I was. To believe that I didn’t have to do anything to ‘prove’ my worthiness to anyone, let alone God.  He then took me on the journey of who HE was. Not the judging tyrant I had tried hard not to believe all my life, but had always held onto. I found he was a loving, Grace-filled Father, who desired an intimate relationship with me, his daughter. I started to dare to believe what this loving God said about me, and everything changed.

 

You see I had believed I was fundamentally unworthy, that I was not good enough. So I had to spend my whole life proving that I was something I’m not. Brene Brown writes in her book I Thought it was Just Me, ‘You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.’ That’s what I was doing, in all my ‘busyness’ I was trying to earn my worthiness. My ‘worthiness’ for being a woman, for being a wife, a mother, even a Christian. So I have started to own my story. I now celebrate who I am, warts and all. I own my mistakes and I have grown because of them. This makes me the best me I can be. Not hiding. Not shame ridden, but 100% free.

 

This is what will make woman smash through the man-made ceilings. This is what will make top businesses fall over themselves to have woman on their boards. This is what will make Government sit up and take notice. This is what will make nations listen. Woman and men who are secure in their identity, who acknowledge their strengths and their weaknesses. Women who can celebrate the success of others, due to the confidence of their own self-worth. Woman whose worthiness is not reliant on being recognised by others.

 

Each of us has our very own part to play in this wonderful journey of life. Our part is to be the BEST us. Dr Caroline Leaf says in her book The Perfect You,‘God DOES understand you. He has placed significance in you-your “perfect you” – Your unique way of thinking. The blueprint of your identity is a brilliant design that unlocks something only you alone can do. As neuroscience shows us, every thought you think matters because it changes your brain. You create your unique reality and shape your brain with your thoughts.’

 

As women start to change the way we think about ourselves and the way we think about other women we will begin to believe that no one can be US better than WE can.

Gender at the UK Bethel ELA Conference

Today we have a post from Ella Green who is the Charity Officer for an ecumenical charity based in Harrogate. She studied English Literature at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge and is now studying a part-time course at Leeds School of Theology.

 

European Leaders Advance is a conference with the senior leaders of Bethel Church, Redding, California, that aims to equip churches in Europe. It ran from the 24th-26thJuly this year and has taken place in Harrogate or London every year since 2013.

 

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Bethel church over the years and so I confess I was both a little nervous and excited about attending the conference. Bethel has been hugely influential upon the worldwide Church and has received praise and criticism for its strongly revival-focused ministry. There was no doubt from the title on the event programme, ‘Heaven invading Europe’, that revival was going to be a key theme of the conference.

 

The sense of expectation on the first night was palpable, and it wasn’t just on the first night I felt this, but indeed at every session. There were five fairly chunky sessions each day, and that’s not to mention the other endless opportunities for spiritual nourishment. There were ‘vision’ lunches, an ‘Encounter’ space for worship and ministry, a ‘Transforming Arts’ exhibition and plenty of chances for deep conversation with fellow delegates over break-times. It was certainly a spiritually intense few days and left me with a lot of meaty truth and wisdom to chew over!

 

The line-up of speakers included Bill Johnson, the senior Pastor of Bethel, Eric and Candace Johnson (Son and Daughter-in-law to Bill), Danny and Sheri Silk, and Paul Manwaring. Sue Manwaring, along with Tim and Sue Eldridge (co-hosts of the conference) also played key roles throughout the week. When I saw the names in the programme, I wasn’t sure what to make of the strongly family-orientated structure of the Bethel leadership team. I have to admit that as a single Christian woman, I sometimes struggle to relate to this very couple-focused perspective of ministry. However, the content of the sessions actually provided a refreshingly broad perspective of church and mission, with a strong emphasis on seeking a revival that lasts through the years and across the generations.

 

It was this focus on successful ‘fathering and mothering’ in God’s kingdom that particularly struck me. Clearly, the leaders of Bethel realise the importance of both fathers and mothers within the church, and yet there was no sense that these roles needed any kind of differentiation. In fact, there was very little explicit teaching on gender at all. Perhaps the closest they got to a discussion of gender roles was in a session led by Candace and Eric Johnson where they talked about co-leadership. They stood either side of the podium and spoke for equal lengths in turn; it was certainly not a case of the man giving the main talk and the woman tagging on at the beginning and end. Interestingly, Candace actually spoke about how she used to face this issue in their church staff meetings. Eric would naturally leap to the role of leading the meeting, jumping between ideas and giving her little space to speak, until the very end of the meeting when he would ask her if she had anything to add, by which point she felt frustrated and had given up on having anything to say at all! Eric was completely oblivious to the effect his behaviour was having upon her until she spoke to him about it, and so they now plan the meetings beforehand to ensure that each of them gets a chance to speak and share their ideas.

 

Candace also talked about her frustration at being labelled the ‘pastor’s wife’ when she initially joined the Bethel staff team. Whilst she didn’t feel any great need to be constantly praised and acknowledged, she couldn’t help but notice that Eric was often given credit for the work that she had done. I loved the fact that Eric’s response to this was to start referring to himself as the ‘pastor’s husband’ in his conversations with people.

 

As well as a few joint slots where couples spoke together, each speaker also had their own slot. I found it interesting that both the main female speakers, Candace and Sheri, placed emphasis upon the importance of ‘shining’ in our culture and context. In our self-deprecating British culture, this kind of message is perhaps less commonly heard, but it was empowering to be reminded that God uses us to ‘call out the greatness’ in each other. Candace explained that “we are called to develop our own voice and story….when we shine, we give others permission to do the same.” These women certainly practice what they preach; in a context where they could have easily become stuck as ‘the pastor’s wife’, they have clearly developed their own voices (indeed they have quite literally practiced preaching!) and it gives me hope that they are influencing a new generation of Christian leaders, both female and male.

 

Bill and Danny particularly focused on the need to successfully grow and equip future leaders. In an exegesis on what might be called a rather ‘niche’ passage in 2 Kings, Bill identified Hezekiah’s lack of concern for the future of his children and grandchildren as a symptom of his distance from God towards the end of his life and a sign of his fall from greatness. Danny followed with a talk later in the week about the importance of giving over responsibility to younger leaders, however risky this might sometimes feel: “Our role is to protect the momentum, not our ministry.” This seems to me to be a vital message, not just in relation to the kind of multi-generational leadership that Danny was speaking about, but also in the context of seeking gender equality in the church.

 

If we are to be led by the Spirit, in all His power, creativity, and glorious mess (if I’m allowed to call God messy?!), we cannot afford to be protective of our own roles and ministries; to be competitive or self-seeking. I have been convinced again by many of the words spoken at ELA that selfless investment in others is a sure gateway to seeing more of heaven on earth, and that means mature leaders have to be ready to give leadership roles to the younger generation. And yes, I believe that that also means that men need to be secure enough in their own identities as God’s sons to let His daughters step out fully and freely into the gifts they have been given.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons that Bethel is known by many Christians as a place where God’s kingdom is breaking through onto earth is that this church is creating a culture where people are empowered and released into their giftings. I would say that my time at the ELA conference has given me a wider window through which to see God’s heart for His church, as expressed so beautifully in Acts 2:

 

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

 

It seems to me that the leaders of Bethel get this. The Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate. We get to see God’s power fully present and active in our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, in both men and women. And that is something that truly excites me.

 

The image on this post is of Candace Johnson speaking at the conference, courtesy of John Mudie.

Christian Feminist Q & A – Sally Rush

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.

FB_20151121_13_24_02_Saved_PictureSally Rush lives in Birmingham and works as a lay free church chaplain.

Blog: http://sallyrush.blogspot.co.uk/

Twitter: @Aston_Chaplain2

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