Flower arranging. Singing in the choir. Making endless cups of tea. Organising, oh so much organising – of fêtes, rotas, trips to the seaside and cream teas. And keeping the Sunday school going, of course.
It’s such a lazy and old-fashioned caricature of British women in church that it’s come full circle and now sits in the ‘so bad it’s good’ school of TV dramas. Midsomer Murders does it best, with its busybody ladies poking their noses everywhere and either being murdered for their trouble, or being the poor, traumatised discoverer of the body.
Or compare those with the archetypes from 1970s nonconformist churches: the endless cups of tea made the transition from liturgical to low churches, but many other activities were replaced with tambourine routines (with ribbons and stickers), ladies’ prayer circles – women are particularly good at intercession, apparently – and helping in the church office. And the children’s ministry vocation is here too: the holiday clubs and after-school activities of 40 years ago developed into the more sophisticated homework clubs and antisocial behaviour prevention projects many churches run today.
Data gathered by Pew Research Center shows that women are consistently more ‘religious’ than men. When examining religious practice, including prayer, attendance at services and importance of faith in people’s lives, women in predominantly Christian countries consistently demonstrate higher levels of activity than men do. In the UK, ComRes polling for Tearfund recently found that women are more likely to say they ever pray (56 per cent) compared to men (46 per cent).
But British women’s lives have changed drastically in the last generation or two, outside the Church at least.
Seventy-one per cent of working Society’s age women in the UK are in paid employment and their pay scales have attracted a great deal of attention. According to The Guardian’s analysis of published figures, of 10,000 companies employing 250 or more people, only 842 pay men and women equally. The level of media attention which surrounds the gender pay gap debate indicates the expectations we have for women in the 21st century. They work, either because they choose to or because they have to, and they expect to be paid the going rate.
Compared to 50 years ago, women in Britain can earn more, speak out more, participate more and lead more than we ever have before. We’re not yet as well-remunerated or represented at a senior level as men are, but there is no shortage of ideas, initiatives and projects to address that gap. It’s a major reputational risk for an employer to be found denying opportunities to women. A lot has changed.
But one thing hasn’t changed: the words on the pages of the Bible. And, as the Church watches the changes in culture and practice in wider society, it faces the challenge of contextualising a gospel of eternity into a rapidly shifting social environment.
Christians don’t only go to church. They go to school, work, the shops, the gym and to book groups. They watch football, spend time on social media and interact with people who do not share their faith. It’s inevitable that the conversations in wider society will be reflected in the Church.
The church does not keep up with the times; it judges the times
Those conversations haven’t been easy, and the Church is in no way in agreement on the role of women in ministry.
Some churches have recognised female leadership at all levels for a long time. The Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, said in 1908: “I insist on the equality of women with men. Every [Salvation Army] officer and soldier should insist upon the truth that woman is as important, as valuable, as capable and as necessary to the progress and happiness of the world as man.”
Other denominations have insisted that because the Bible teaches that men and women are equal and different, senior leadership roles in church should be reserved for men.
The first women were ordained in the Church of England in 1994, after a long and painful debate, which was then repeated before the decision in 2014 to open all orders of ministry to both men and women. Thirteen female bishops serve in the C of E today, and the role of Bishop of London – the third most senior position in the Church – is now held by Sarah Mullally, the first woman to operate at this level.
Is this an inevitable journey? Will all British churches eventually announce that women can hold the same roles that men do? Should we adopt those societal assumptions within the Church?
The argument that the Church should ‘keep up’ with society is controversial in some quarters. When Philip North was nominated to become Bishop of Sheffield last year, local MP Louise Haigh wrote to request a meeting on the grounds that she found his views on women in leadership “troubling”. The whole situation was messy and painful, and North withdrew his nomination following dissent from various people, including the MP.
Complicated as the relationship between the Church of England and the legislature is, Haigh’s belief that she was entitled to intervene was telling. Just as secretary of state for education, Justine Greening, did on same-sex marriage, Haigh holds up an ideal from wider society as a prompt for the Church to follow suit.
Greening’s efforts to do so didn’t go down well with Christians.
Journalist Mark Woods wrote for Christian Today at the time: “The Church does not keep up with the times; it judges the times, and it’s the times that are found wanting. If we are to be judged on whether we’re willing to ‘keep up with modern attitudes’, so be it; most of us are happy to be out of step, because we’re marching to the beat of a different drum. Of course people of faith are affected by wider currents of opinion and belief, but there is a root of faith from which all our convictions spring – and none of us care remotely about being ‘part of a modern country’, as if that were something that should trump those beliefs.”
The curse of the all-male panel
There’s a growing expectation across most sectors that public events will include both women and men on the platform. When there’s an all-male line-up at a political party conference, an academic seminar or a think-tank event, there are usually some searching questions and a lot of chatter on social media. It’s not considered acceptable at all, on the grounds that on every topic there are women who have expertise and insight to offer and that an all-male discussion reinforces messages that men are the only authoritative voices.
It can be a tough challenge for some Christian events. If you’re a complementarian organisation running a teaching conference, you may well have a theological objection to including women on the stage. But most major Christian events want to include women on the speaking line up.
To help event organisers find Christian women who are willing to speak publicly, the Project 3:28 database (project328.info) offers a list of hundreds of female speakers. Complementarian women who are available to speak at women’s events are listed, alongside women who offer themselves for small or large mixed-sex events, and the accompanying guidance urges speakers to be clear about their offer and event organisers to assess carefully which of the available speakers might fit best.
To an extent, some may argue it doesn’t matter what society thinks and does. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and God’s word doesn’t change.
Broadly, there are two core theological approaches to women and church leadership most often adopted in churches in Britain. Both rely heavily on scripture and both follow the same narrative arc, but each reaches a very different conclusion to the other.
Robin Weekes, vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, traces the outline of his argument for complementarianism – the belief that men and women’s separate and very different giftings complement each other – back to the very beginning: “It begins in creation, with an understanding of men and women being equal and different rooted in creation, in the image of God, and our worth and value comes from that.”
Using the same passages from the Bible, Jenny Baker, author of Equals (SPCK), points to creation as the model for an equal partnership: “It wasn’t good that man was on his own. Ezer [the word used to describe Eve as Adam’s helper] is often translated as helpmeet. Here, a helper is an equal partner, not a secretary or housekeeper: a partner in the fullest sense of the word.”
Using the same scripture, both schools of thought interpret the ‘helpmeet’ concept very differently and each holds their understanding of the early chapters of Genesis as the ideal which is broken in the Fall.
Weekes describes women’s desire for headship as a consequence of the Fall, while Baker believes male dominance is a symptom of the brokenness of our world.
Both models point to Jesus and the redemption his death and resurrection makes possible as an invitation to live in the way originally intended, and acknowledge that while we wait for Jesus’ return our efforts to do this well are inevitably thwarted – in part, at least – by the tension of living godly lives in a messy and hurting world.
Weekes says that God gives “word gifts” – teaching and preaching the scripture to others – to both men and women. “Men and women are wonderfully equal and different. We try to stress both those things: the equality and the difference. The Bible teaches that local churches should be led by men, and Bible teaching in mixed congregations should be led by men. My women’s ministry colleague doesn’t want to – and doesn’t – teach on a Sunday to mixed groups. Women bring word ministry to other women and to children. We are both equal and different.”
The Bible verse around which much of the debate hangs is Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” This is interpreted unequivocally by complementarians as a direct instruction which holds in all contexts and remains in place today.
Others argue that the use of “authority” is an ineffective translation from the original Greek which, they claim, might be better translated as “misuse of authority”. Pointing to other comments in the same passage, such as “women will be saved through childbearing” (2:15), they take a dim view of this one verse being elevated by complementarians over others in the same passage without consistent analysis throughout.
Those who champion women in teaching ministry suggest that Paul was writing to Timothy about a specific issue he was facing and that his guidance, along with a translation interpretation of “misuse of authority”, was for a specific context about which today’s readers are not informed.
Baker also points to the women who worked alongside the apostle Paul: “He had women who partnered with him in his ministry...he names Junia as an apostle. Previously the scholars assumed Junia must be a man because they thought there was no way a woman would do that, but now the scholarship indicates that Junia would have been a woman, and so women were leading and teaching as were the men.”
If we are going to do different well, we need to do equal well
In practice, where churches hold to this interpretation, women are mandated into leadership at every level, says Andy Chapman, senior pastor of Riverside Vineyard Church in Feltham: “We’re very clear that women and men can operate in all ministries within the church and in the wider community and workplace. We see no gender restriction on the call of God, and we would be wrong to stop someone from doing something at which they’re gifted and which God appears to be anointing, on the grounds that they’re a woman.”
Why I believe that women are equal and different
From the creation account in Genesis to the New Testament where male and female relationships mirror the Godhead, it’s very clear that men and women are equal and different.
I believe God is good and unchanging, and his ways are good, even when living them out is a challenge. God is who he is, regardless of how I might feel. My beliefs are based on what God says in his word, rather than my own feelings, so my experience doesn’t define why I believe something. Otherwise on a good day I would believe one thing, and on a bad day something else.
It is countercultural to state that it’s OK for there to be differences between men and women and it is an extraordinary challenge for us not to define ourselves by what we do, but who we are in Christ; not by our role, but by our relationship with Christ; not by our status but in Christlikeness, bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
I’m not defined by what I do. If I were, my identity would not be in Christ. I am much freer to be who I am, the more my identity is in Christ. If I’m with someone in our church who has a disability, I don’t say they’re less because they’re not able to do something I, or a male church leader, can do. There are many opportunities to serve Christ, not only practically, but in word ministry, training and pastoral care.
Of course, as we are all sinners, the differences between us have been abused and used as an excuse to treat women (and sometimes men) poorly; all the more appalling when Bible texts are used as an excuse or justification. Male and female Christians must stand up against these kinds of abuses. Ultimately it’s a great reassurance to know that God sees all and will judge all rightly.
His ways are good and perfect, and in Christ he has rescued us all, equally, no matter the differences.
Annabel Heywood is an associate minister at St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford
The Church has been wrestling with this for the last two or three generations. Whichever approach you take, the consensus has been building for the last 20 years that women are important to the life of the Church and have a vital role to play. But what is it exactly, and where do churches – especially those who haven’t publicly recognised their contributions – start? One approach has been to recognise the role of women who are married to pastors and leaders. In churches where couples minister together, naming both of them as leaders was an effort to honour the contributions those women were making. They were often given room to lead and teach, and were included in decisions about the governance and strategy of the church. The reasoning was that they had in fact been doing many of these things for years, and that naming both partners recognised the ministries of each of them.
But for some women growing up in those churches, the effect was counterproductive.
“The only women I would see on a platform would be someone’s wife,” says 29-year-old Ruth Awogbade, who runs Magnify magazine and events for millennial women.
“That kind of visibility told me that you only have opportunities when you’re married, and married to a particular kind of person. If you want to be a leader, you have to marry one. But you see plenty of single guys doing lots in churches and that’s not a problem.”
The complementarian approach is a long-held one, but its practice is shifting. Women’s lives and expectations are changing rapidly, here as everywhere else. Elisabeth Smyth, women’s ministry coordinator for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), all of which are complementarian churches, says: “Traditionally there would have been a women’s fellowship meeting in a lot of our churches; that’s starting to die out now. More women are going out to work, maintaining professional careers, going back to work after having children. They’re not so much around for weekday activities.
“What we’re seeing more regularly are more intentional Bible studies among women. It’s not so much about having someone standing at the front, it’s much more interactive now.” This shift means there is more demand for Smyth and others to train and equip women to lead those discussions.
The only women I would see on a platform would be someone’s wife
Weekes, who reports to complementarian bishop Rt Rev Rod Thomas of Maidstone as part of a Church of England provision for clergy who have theological objections to female bishops, says the practical outworkings of complementarian theology is an ongoing conversation in his staff leadership team, which includes a woman employed to develop women’s ministries. The intensity of recent debates inside and outside of the Church has prompted self-reflection.
“In the last year or two, churches like ours are trying to work out ‘are we over-applying our complementarian thinking?’ For example, in our church we don’t have women leading services. What does it mean to lead a service? Are they actually bringing teaching? Probably not. So does having a woman bring instruction about the service apply here? We are trying to ask those questions. If we are going to do different well, we need to do equal well.”
Weekes’ honesty in leading his church to address this question demonstrates that there remain areas which are unclear. Women in his church are in highly professional jobs, in meetings and conferences where an all-male line-up would be frowned upon. While those women know they’re in a complementarian church, the experience of seeing only men at the front of church will jar with their expectations for the rest of the week. In scrutinising the Sunday services in this way, Weekes is opening up a conversation about the levels of authority required to lead the service. Does introducing a speaker and commending him to the church count as ‘teaching’? How about announcing a Bible study programme and exhorting people to participate, or interviewing a church member about their experience in order to bring wisdom to the wider body?
Whether or not the Church is at the mercy of society’s whims, concerns remain that failing to release women into leadership will stymie the growth of the Church. Some people worry that we’ll miss the opportunity to reach an emerging generation.
Baker believes this could be a deal-breaker issue for women trying to find a church home: “The default in church was that women weren’t allowed to do stuff and we had to argue that we were allowed. I hope that the default is changing as we see women with amazing natural leadership gifting stepping up and being entrepreneurial. Why would women join somewhere that doesn’t make room for them to express their gifts?”
Katie Harrison is director of ComRes Faith Research Centre and a writer and commentator on religion and on international affairs