Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up in the USA – my dad was a civil servant, and my mum was the Children’s Minister at our church. I moved to London in 2005 and was a primary school teacher and theatre workshop leader for a while. The whole time, I was trying to avoid turning into my mum (especially as my older sister is a vicar), but God kept calling me into children’s ministry, so I eventually said, “oh, all right, I guess thy will be done …!” For six years, I was the Children and Families Worker at St. George’s Church in Campden Hill, London, and since January of this year, I’ve been Children’s Mission Enabler for the Diocese of St Albans. I’m also a novelist and writer, and a keen amdram enthusiast. I have one son, Isaac, who died at birth in 2015.
I’m divorced, and planning to have another child through fertility treatment, as a single woman, in the next year or two. Isaac was conceived via IVF. I’m open about all of this in church.
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 can’t remember not being a Christian. My own experience of faith as a child has been hugely influential on my work. I grew up in a very politically progressive Episcopal Church, which also had traditional-yet-innovative worship, so those elements have always struck me as “normal.” We also had infant communion.
Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.
I went to a very feminism-oriented all-girls boarding school from the age of 14, where I actively resisted the “feminist” label, because in the blinkered Utopian world I experienced in the safe environment of that school, where feminism was taken for granted, I thought the fight was over. And at that time, I thought being a feminist meant that thinking women hadn’t achieved anything before 1960, because they had been so oppressed, and I knew that history was richer than that, and women had done amazing things, even within traditional roles. I adopted the “feminist” label when I went to uni and found myself in a very laddish culture – and also developed a broader view of what feminism was.
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?
The two have always sat very naturally together for me, partly because of the faith community I grew up in. I remember hearing a sermon analysing the Fall and Eve’s curse specifically, which, with great Biblical and Scriptural understanding, argued that the writer of Genesis shows patriarchy – Eve’s curse – not as “ha ha, you got what you deserved!” but as a consequence of the Fall, which estranges us from God and from one another, and shows how Jesus’s relationships with women paint a radical alternative vision. I was about 13 when I heard this, and it was very formative. Women were in leadership roles in many of the churches I went to, and, given that I was in the Episcopal Church USA, they had been for my whole life, and in the House of Bishops since I was 7
Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?
Mostly, my activism is work-based – I wrote a cover article for Childrenswork magazine on gender issues in children’s ministry, and ran a holiday club on the theme of “Bible Heroines.” I ensure women in Scripture, and female saints, are included in the curriculum, and now as Diocesan Advisor, I plan to continue this on a larger platform – several colleagues and I worked together on putting together a CMD programme for the Diocese that includes feminism in faith as a central issue.
Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?
Globally, I’m concerned mostly with education and contraception – and all the associated issues, like forced marriage. Ensuring that women are educated and have control over when they have children is in many ways a silver bullet for so many other issues. Domestically, I’m concerned with poverty and the austerity agenda, which disproportionately affects women. I’m also extremely concerned about objectification, sexual bullying, and rape culture – I see this as an issue of great moral concern for Christians, as half of God’s children are being seen as objects, devoid of humanity, who exist for the use of others, not as people in their own right
Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?
I’ve become much more aware of the intersection of gender and other factors like ethnicity, religion, class, and so on.
Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?
Where do I start? I know so many wonderful, down-to-earth, witty, Jesus-like women who are ministers in a church that keeps taking them for granted, and their commitment is inspiring. (For example, the Reverend Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who once reminded the world that “when someone starts lecturing you about Biblical womanhood, remind them that seducing your enemies and driving a tent spike through their head is a viable option.”)
There are also women from history who inspire me on a daily basis – Dorothy Day, Nellie Bly, Harriet Tubman, Emma Willard, Dorothy L. Sayers, and so many more. Women who did their thing.
In Scripture, I love Mary Magdalene. I feel an affinity with her. She was unapologetically emotional, possibly overshared a bit at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and Jesus didn’t dismiss her as “just another hysterical woman.” In fact, he chose her to be the first one to be able to tell others about the Resurrection – a very priestly job to do, if you think about it! He honoured her heart.
I’m also inspired by the traditional feminine imagery of the ancient church, when virtues like wisdom and mercy were embodied as women, as was the church. I think we need to bring that back.
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’m not involved at the moment with any specific organizations, but many of my secular feminist friends are very sceptical about the idea that faith can be liberating for women – it’s seen as innately oppressive.
What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?
My experience is with the more Traditional wing of the church, not the Evangelical side. I’ve found that in general, people are receptive to many of the ideas, but are uncomfortable with the label of “feminism.” In my experience, the greatest resistance to my presence in leadership, and to the idea of female clergy, comes from the high-church Anglo-Catholic side of the church.
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 feminism is now at a crossroads – are we able to expand it beyond being something just for middle-class White women? That’s the big struggle now, and the long-term state of feminism, and of women, will depend on how well we do at that.
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 the church can do better at honouring the importance of what’s traditionally been women’s work. Work with children and young people is still often dismissed, un-funded, an afterthought, and the first thing to go when budget cuts hit. This is partly because children are in a position of weakness, and can’t advocate for themselves very well, but I think it’s also because work with children has been seen as “women’s work,” and therefore not as important as the “real work” of being a vicar.
I vividly remember being told by a FEMALE member of the clergy that as a woman, she felt expected to “just do the flowers and the Sunday School,” and while I understand her frustration, her dismissal of Sunday School was telling. Yes, it’s important to get women into formerly all-male spaces, but it’s also important to recognise the importance of what women have been doing for years. At the moment, you need a certificate from the Bishop in order to carry and give out the wine at communion, but children’s work can be done with no recognition, no training, and no oversight. Isn’t discipling children just as important as distributing communion?
Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?
Yeah, don’t loftily explain to us why our religions – which we know pretty well, actually – are really oppressive of us and we’ll only find freedom when we leave them. We’re on your side.
Margaret Pritchard Houston is the Children’s Mission Enabler for the Diocese of St Albans and the author of There is a Season: Celebrating the Church Year With Children.