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