Q & A

Christian Feminist Q & A – Margaret Pritchard Houston

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.

13254354_10154892214883508_2929228269960458709_nMargaret 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.

http://www.stalbanscme.com

@HoustonMargaret and @stalbanscme

 

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Christian Feminist Q & A – Kathleen Jowitt

Today we’re featuring the first in a series of interviews with UK-based Christian feminists about their lives, activism and faith. Our first interviewee is Kathleen Jowitt.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a 30-year-old woman, born in Winchester, brought up in the Welsh borders and, later, the Isle of Wight, and now resident in Cambridge. I work as administrator for a large trade union and write fiction in my spare time. I enjoy walking ­- when I was 21 I walked 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela from Saint­ Palais in France, and I’m planning to do a more full-time­ job ­friendly version next year, starting from Ferrol in the north of Spain.

2. 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 attended church all my life, gravitating most naturally to middle-of­-the­-road Anglican churches with a strong musical tradition, socially liberal values and intellectual preaching. As for when I became a Christian… somewhere between my baptism, a month old, and an abrupt awakening from depression in my first year at university. Over the last decade I’ve become increasingly aware that the Christian life feels, for me, like a constant process of growth in all directions, always discovering new dimensions, and so it feels apt that it all started with a tiny point so far back that I can’t even remember it.

3. Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

My mother has, since the early nineties, been very active in the normal childbirth movement, so the concepts of empowering women and restoring their bodily autonomy have always been an important theme in my life. Studying English Literature at university gave me an introduction to feminist theory and taught me how to question all sorts of assumptions ­ my own included.

4. 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?

They’ve always been part of the same thing for me. Recognising and celebrating the inherent and equal worth of all people seems to me to be a central part of the Gospel message, and correcting the imbalances of this world is implied in that. I’m just young enough for there to have been a female priest in every parish I’ve lived and worshipped in, and it always seemed ridiculous to question that when they were clearly doing such a good job.

5. Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I work for a trade union whose membership is 70% women. I say quite often that a trade union is very much like a Church ­ a group of all­too­fallible human beings doing their best to work together to make the world a better place, and the gender balance looks quite familiar too. Unlike the Church, however, my employer has acknowledged the fact that this, in fact, a problem; has recognised the fact that numbers alone won’t make for equality and has put a strategy in place to ensure that women are represented. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s a start.

6. Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

For me, it all springs from recognising a woman’s autonomy, whether that’s in the physical, mental, social or spiritual sphere. So I care a lot about a woman’s right to dictate what’s done to her body, and by whom, in labour and in general. I care about a woman’s right to education, her right to earn a living. But it all comes back to the fact that a woman is a person in her own right.

7. Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

It’s become much less prescriptive. I used to have an idea of what a ‘good feminist’ looked like. Not any more. I’ve come to believe that ideas about what women ‘should’ do are as pernicious coming from a ‘feminist’ perspective as from a ‘conservative’ one. I believe in the rights of women to make their own choices, even where those choices are not those that I would make myself. My Christianity has changed, too: these days I would identify as ‘radical’ rather than ‘liberal’.

8. Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

Lots. Say what you like about the internet, sometimes it’s easier to picture the Kingdom of Heaven online, and I’ve met some amazing women there, some Christian, some not. In scripture and church history ­ Mary the mother of Jesus, and her revolutionary Magnificat. Deborah, the Judge. I’m intrigued by the women Paul mentions, almost in passing, in his letters; I’d love to know what context we’re missing there. The female mystics of the Middle Ages, pursuing their own relationships with God in the face of a bemused and occasionally hostile male establishment. Julian of Norwich is my favourite.

9. 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 get the impression that there’s a default assumption that being Christian and being anything other than socially conservative are mutually exclusive. Non ­Christian friends and colleagues who have known me long enough to know that I’m Christian and a feminist seem to think of me as an exception to the rule. Which is depressing.

10. What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Varied! Sometimes, it’s a given: it’s accepted that the Church has failed women, and continues to fail women, and that this is something that should be addressed. Sometimes, I meet bewilderment, misunderstanding, a polite refusal to believe it’s necessary! I was driven to incoherent rage the other day by an article about abortion that blithely began ‘here are some things we can all agree on’. I agreed with none of it.

11. 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 feel as if we’re heading in the right direction, though there’s definitely a backlash. I think that more voices are making themselves heard. We need to hear them, because the more success we have the more tempted we’ll be to think the job’s done. It won’t be ­ not in my lifetime, and maybe not this side of the Second Coming. Which is not an excuse to stop trying ­- quite the reverse.

12. Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church­based feminist or equality-­minded groups, projects or organisations?

Yes – ­ largely groups working for greater LGBT acceptance. I’ve stepped back from many of those, though, having been frustrated by a) the continual bisexual erasure; b) the focus on ordination and marriage, to the exclusion of the lay experience and a more radical approach to sexuality. Sometimes it feels as if the so­-called LGBT Christian movement isn’t interested in you unless you’re a middle­-aged gay man who’s ordained, or wants to be. The conversations that I’m interested in having don’t seem to be happening, or, if they are, I haven’t found them yet.

13. 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?

At the moment, I’m immensely frustrated by the preoccupation with marriage and couplehood, both in the Church and in society. I’d like to see less of a focus on relationships and more acknowledgement of women as individuals. I’d like to see the Church admit to the damage that’s been done by its insistence on marriage as the only permissible sexual expression for women.

14. Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Yes, probably… but feminism is such a multiplicity of views that it’s a difficult question to answer. I think that all of us need to think harder, to move beyond the obvious narratives and see each other as fellow humans.

15. Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to say!

I’ll finish with a quotation from Helen Keller ­ an amazing woman, and so much more than an inspirational story.

‘Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.’

KJpicKathleen Jowitt is the author of Speak Its Name, a novel about student politics and reconciling religious and sexual identities. She lives in Cambridge.

www.kathleenjowitt.com

Twitter: @KathleenJowitt