Sam Hailes meets prolific academic and Christian feminist, Dr Elaine Storkey


Dr Elaine Storkey’s CV is as impressive as it is lengthy. She has worked at Oxford University, lectured at King’s College London and was president of Tearfund for 16 years. In 1992 she succeeded John Stott as executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The prominent sociologist has published many books on feminism and theology, her latest being Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women (SPCK). And she is no stranger to the media, having been a columnist for The Independent and a contributor to the BBC’s Thought for the Day.

Despite her impressive credentials and wealth of experience, Elaine is modest, even self-effacing, about her influence. She is often humorous, describing her 28 years on the Church of England’s General Synod as a ‘life sentence’.

The mother of three is polite and personable, but she isn’t a pushover. Behind her gentle demeanour is a first-rate intellect.

Now in her 70s, the theologian shows few signs of slowing down and answers my questions with great gusto and energy. When I cautiously bring up the question of retirement, she laughs. ‘I’m a working person and I think I will carry on being a working person,’ she says.

What was life like growing up?

I was born in Yorkshire and that predisposed my identity in a huge way. I learned before the age of four that it was very rude indeed to allow anyone to finish a sentence. You had to interrupt just to show that you were listening! I loved my Yorkshire upbringing, but it wasn’t the way the rest of the world is and I had to learn that a lot later.

When did you become a Christian?

When I was 16 I heard the real gospel for the first time. It wasn’t just about spirituality or finding God in places, although that was important. It was also about recognising that the mess you’ve made of your life could be forgiven and [that] you could have a new start.

Did faith come easily after that or were there battles?

Oh, huge battles! I think the first ones were at university. I wanted to study philosophy because someone told me philosophy was a real challenge for Christians. In my second year I really went under massively. I didn’t find out until years later that the chap who had caused the pain was determined to take a young Christian to the lions. He was there to sabotage my faith and he pretty much did.

I couldn’t sleep at night. I was struggling with where God was. It was a profound period of intense depression and inability to pray. The way I came out of that was not by philosophical reasoning. It was by a bunch of girls every night tucking me in and saying, ‘You’ll be fine, we’re praying for you.’ One night they were very confident I was going to be an all-right-Christian very soon. As they left I said, ‘Please switch the light off’ and they did so as they left. [Yet, at the same time] I had a sense of being surrounded by light; it’s very difficult to describe. I still haven’t got any understanding of what happened. But I slept peacefully that night and the next morning I felt absolutely fine and started going back to lectures. Then I heard the assumptions the lecturers were making. It was like scales falling from my eyes and I realised how strong the Christian faith is – so much stronger than I’d thought before.

You married Alan, who is also a sociologist, in 1968. Was it easy to balance work and having a family?

I had imbibed a very conservative view of gender when I got married. I really felt I ought to be obedient to my husband. So I got him to agree to me promising to obey him in the marriage service! He thought this was very wet and he couldn’t figure out why I wanted to do this since I was a person of obvious intelligence and had my own mind. I forced him to allow me to submit!

It was years later that I realised we had a partnership and not a hierarchy in the marriage. Once I’d sorted that out (Alan always had that view) the rest was much easier.

When family came along I really wanted to spend time at home. Not because I had a conservative view of gender any more, but because I adore small people. They were very happy years of my life.

You have worked with a huge number of Christian charities and organisations at the highest level. What do you make of the influence you’ve had?

It’s very difficult to gauge one’s own influence. Looking back, my question is, ‘Did I make a big difference to anything?’ I think it’s very difficult. I am surprised if I made any big difference. I’m not sure.

That’s quite a pessimistic outlook, isn’t it?

It’s probably pessimistic at one level. But I think it’s realistic at another level. Tony Campolo once advised not to get too precious about yourself because in a few years’ time people won’t even remember your name.

Your background is in philosophy, and you say the subject should go hand in hand with theology. Why is that?

Philosophy invites you to ask fundamental questions about the nature of being. It’s asking you to question the assumptions you bring to a text, a relationship or a view of the world. Are we getting our assumptions from the text, or are we bringing them? If it’s the latter we’ll read the text from our own point of view, culture, and we might get it wrong. So philosophical enquiry is an aid to every single subject.

You’re known as a Christian feminist. Some say the Church has a very poor record on equality and point to how long it took for women priests and bishops to be permitted.

Yes, and in some denominations they still don’t have women bishops and priests. I accept that. There has been patriarchy in the Church since the early days, but probably not the earliest days. Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ is a wonderful image, where people come together with psalms, spiritual songs and prophecy. You get a sense of mutuality. Men and women bring the spiritual gifts to the Church in worship. There’s no kind of gender hierarchy there or patriarchy at all. St Paul gives a radical picture of equality between men and women in marriage. But we have distorted that to talk about a hierarchy as though somehow the man is the boss or the authority of the woman. The picture in Ephesians 4 is of man and woman in unity in marriage. The woman is to respect her husband. The man is to love his wife. Some people say to me, ‘He never tells men to submit to wives. He does tell wives to submit to husbands.’ But he never tells women to love their husbands! Does that mean we don’t want them to do that? So you can’t argue from silence.

You’ve worn the ‘evangelical’ label quite comfortably when you’ve made appearances in the mainstream media. What does that word mean to you?

A fundamental respect for the Bible as the word of God. Not a kind of fundamentalism about the Bible. The Bible is a library full of different kinds of literature and you’ve got to understand those different kinds of literature in the way they were written.

An evangelical means a person who is committed to recognising that people can be converted. They need a relationship with God and that’s the mainstay of life. But I also enormously respect other people’s traditions. I don’t think I feel evangelicalism is better. It’s just where I come from.

You were on the BBC’s The Big Questions programme recently. The topic was supposed to be: ‘Is atheism rational?’ But Nicky Campbell instead went on the attack and asked how you could believe in the Bible when it depicts talking donkeys. Does this confrontational tone frustrate you?

Oh, constantly. And usually you can’t do anything about it because you’re watching it and you haven’t got a voice. Fortunately, I happened to be on that programme so I could tell him he was a complete twerp – in different words. It irritates me to death. I know why they do it because the media like to polarise and they like to debate and create cut-throat journalism. But it is tedious and you miss the real issues. 

Elaine’s best books

What’s Right With Feminism

(SPCK, 1989)

Elaine identifies three main secular positions: liberal feminism, Marxist feminism and radical feminism. She then turns to some Christian responses, focusing particularly on women who deny that feminism has any Christian case, and those who, on the contrary, have found in feminism a sharpening of their own identity and a new awareness of their spirituality.

The Search for Intimacy

(Hodder & Stoughton, 1995)

Drawing on a rich diversity of sociological and biblical perspectives, Elaine explores the meaning of intimacy. She looks at childhood and adult relationships, friendship, marriage and differences in outlook between men and women, maintaining that barriers to intimacy can be surmounted. She writes that God is the ‘source of intimacy which will sustain us and take us into deeper relationships with others’.

Conversations on Christian Feminism

Co-authored with Margaret Hebblethwaite (Fount, 1999)

This book aims to get to the heart of issues including women priests, female representations of Christ and same-sex relationships. Implicit throughout is a feeling that women’s ministry may be able to transcend the theological divide. Despite their differing traditions (Catholic and evangelical), the authors see their dialogue as an exercise in reconciliation. 

Was it hard to sit there and remain composed?

No, because I’ve been around for a long time. I sit and pray an awful lot, just asking God to hold my tongue when it needs to be held so I don’t say things, then free my tongue when it needs to be freed.

When everyone else is shouting at each other, that’s the time to be silent. Why join in? It just brings disrespect to the gospel. But there are times when they’ve stopped shouting where you can say something. 

Most people do not understand academic christians

You’re one of a small number of Christians who have had the chance to debate with Richard Dawkins. What was your impression of him?

He was a fighter and he wanted to win the debate. I thought we had a sensible discussion. At the end I went over to him and said, ‘No hard feelings, Richard.’ He didn’t shake my hand. He just turned around and walked off. He was really annoyed with me.

I thought a lot about it afterwards. Did I cause offence? Was I wrong in what I did? I don’t think so. I think he was just annoyed and couldn’t handle it. He’s got a thing about religion; he thinks it’s harmful for humankind. There’s lots of evidence he can pull on to show how bad religion has been. So one has to respect that and pray for him. I pray for nearly all the atheists I know.

You’ve travelled and seen Christianity outworked all over the world in different cultures. What have you learned?

When I was president of Tearfund I travelled quite a lot to Africa, Asia and Latin America. I was bowled over by the integrity of Christianity in places where people were making huge sacrifices just to be Christians.

Let me tell you a story about the Congo. It was war-torn for years. We closed several of our compounds and mission areas down. We had these very expensive, armoured, landmine-proofed trucks. The driver of one of these trucks dug a very deep pit and hid it so when the militia came and stormed the place they didn’t find it.

He could have sold it to the militia and got a large amount of money. But it was a Tearfund truck. So he worked out which was likely to be the nearest Tearfund compound. He drove it all the way there. He drove over 300 miles to deliver this truck and walked all the way back.

That struck me as incredible from a man who had nothing. But he had the integrity of the gospel. It wasn’t his truck and he wasn’t going to use it that way. That kind of commitment is just extraordinary and I found it over and over again in women and men right across the world. It’s just wonderful to behold.

A lot of people say the Church in this country is declining. What’s your view?

Yes, mainstream churches are declining. I think Stuart Murray puts it well when he says what we’re seeing is the end of Christendom. There isn’t the respect for Christian leaders that there used to be.

We don’t need bishops to pontificate on issues. We won’t get that back. Secularisation has taken us there. We have fewer evangelistic opportunities. Most of my opportunities come when I’ve been involved in climate change issues, women’s aid issues, debt release and the Jubilee campaign. Far, far more than when I’ve been preaching in a church or on the street corner – on the rare occasions I’ve done that.

Is it difficult to be a Christian in academia? It’s enormously difficult. Not because of what you’re studying but because of the attitudes about Christianity that colleagues will have.      

The start of apologetics is asking questions of the other person  

When the media come to the academic world and they want an opinion on something, they always choose non-Christians. There are very few Christian academics on the box and few doing documentary programmes. We are marginalised in academic life, just as everywhere else.

Most people do not understand academic Christians. They think somehow we do a flip somewhere from normal academic discourse into something that’s just weird: the idea there’s a divine entity called God. That’s why apologetics is very important. Apologetics isn’t just making arguments for God in the public sphere and scoring points, because that doesn’t win anyone over. It’s much more personal than that. 

Do we need to reclaim apologetics and make it something every Christian can engage in, not just those who are academically minded?

Yes, and I think the start of apologetics is asking questions of the other person. Most Christians can do that, whatever their level of education. If someone is holding forth against Christianity, start asking questions about where they’re coming from. You can soon find yourself in quite a useful discussion. 

Elaine Storkey writes a column in every issue of Premier Woman Alive magazine. Find out more here