Tag Archives: Church

How does the church respond to #YesAllWomen?

I remember the conversation so vividly. I was seventeen, it was a Saturday morning in summer, and our youth group was clearing the garden of an elderly church member. Taking a break, I found myself sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass with five other young women around my age. I don’t remember how the conversation started, or who said something first. It wasn’t a topic we had talked about before, nor was it one we ever mentioned again. But someone was brave enough to share her experience of being groped by one of the guys in our group – not asked for, not consented to. Someone else told a similar story, then someone else. And for the first time in my life, I realised that this kind of thing wasn’t something that had just happened to me, or to a couple of us, or even to most of us. It was the experience of us all.

Every. Single. One.

So when #YesAllWomen started trending on twitter last weekend, I was immediately taken back to that conversation all those years ago. And I was reminded once again that my group of friends were not an anomaly, but that this is the common experience of everyone who grows up female in our society.

I realise that the immediate context for the twitter conversation was a specific instance of violence, and I realise that not all men are perpetrators of harassment and violence against women, but it exasperates me that I have to name those as caveats, because as far as I can tell, no one is suggesting otherwise. But too often this kind of conversation is derailed by those kinds of responses. No, not all men are like this. But when enough are to make this the experience of yes, all women, then surely it’s time to have an open conversation about it.

For Christians, it is easy to think these things happen to women “out there,” but not to the women in your church. That is a mistake. I could tell you story after story of women I know, but part of the point of #YesAllWomen was to hear women speak their own experiences. And so while I have hesitated to do so, for any number of reasons, let me tell you just a few of mine.

The guy in my youth group who repeatedly grabbed my breasts while playing rough games. The young man who heard me speak on a Christian radio program and emailed me to tell me what he would like to “do to me.” The man who got my number from the church bulletin and phoned me in the middle of the night with sexually explicit threats. The “sweet old man” at church who backed me into a corner and shared details of the dreams he had about me while stroking my hand.

I’ve never told anyone most of those stories before. They are awkward and embarrassing and to be honest there is still a part of me that feels like saying them out loud will make people think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. But the truth is my experience is the same as nearly every woman I know. This is the culture in which we live.

She's Someone

And all of these stories I told took place within the context of the church. The community called to model the Kingdom of God, where peace and justice and love are to be demonstrated. If anywhere should be a place safe from harassment and violation, surely it should be here.

So how does the church respond to the reality of a culture which is marked by everyday sexism and sexual harassment of women? Where all kinds of bad behaviour is minimised as “boys being boys” and women are expected to laugh it off or be flattered? Where many women, myself included, are afraid of being labelled strident trouble-makers for even mentioning this topic?

I’ll be honest. I’m a leader in the church and I struggle to know how to respond to this. I’m a woman in the church and most of the time I try to forget that this is how it is.

But maybe, like the twitter conversation, we need to start by being frank and open about this. How can we even begin to reach out to our community with a message of hope and healing, if we are not willing to name the reality of our experience? If we are not willing to call out what Tara Moss eloquently called the “toxic silence”? (for which she has since received rape threats).

I would say to pastors and preachers, leaders in the church, both men and women, read the #YesAllWomen conversation, and as you read, picture the women in your church speaking. How will that reshape the way we preach, teach, and care?

Beyond responding within our own community, I love the question Suzanne Burden concludes her excellent blog on this topic with:

“What if the Church started leading the way culturally in decrying injustice against women and raising them up as image-bearers of God for his good purposes?”

Let me end by saying I don’t know what happened to all of those girls in that circle that summer morning. I do know that by the time we were 20, one of the six had been raped and another physically assaulted, both by young men they met at church. The one in three statistic borne out in reality, not “out there,” but in our own community. How is the church responding to that?

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Am I a feminist?

“Feminist” is a label I have never been very comfortable with, even if I can understand why others may assume it is one that fits me. Partly it is because I don’t like any labels. Giving yourself a label, or being given one by someone else, seems to me to put a person in a box, assuming they hold a whole set of ideas, values and perspectives. But in my experience most people don’t come in such neat packages, and I know I certainly don’t. I can quite easily hold opinions and perspectives that might seem to others to be contradictory, belonging to two quite different boxes at the same time.

But I think perhaps another reason I haven’t liked “feminist” in particular is that others can see it as self-serving. I am a woman in a profession which was traditionally reserved for men, and so holding views usually associated with ‘women’s rights’ can be seen as having an agenda for myself, pushing myself forward, wanting to get ahead. I hope those who know me know that has never been my motivation for anything. But as a Christian, even the fear that other people would think I had that agenda has sometimes been enough to prevent me from speaking up about issues of gender inequality. I don’t want to be seen as ‘strident’ and I don’t want to be seen as concerned about one single issue when there is so much more to who I am.

I have also had the privilege of being treated equally to men in spaces where people might not have expected that to be the case, and so perhaps I haven’t always felt like I ‘needed’ feminism. But the older I get, and the more the internet and social media allow me glimpses into some of the attitudes others have, the more I have begun to wonder about this. Is it time to start calling myself a feminist?

Only if I get to define what that means to me, and not be judged by your expectations of what that word signifies!

One of the simplest definitions of feminism, oft quoted but apparently originally attributable to Marie Shear, is this:

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.”

Seems obvious and easy to assent to? I like it, but there is a second part needed, as Emer O’Toole points out with humour and punch in this article: feminism also involves the belief that there are systems and attitudes in our world which sometimes lead to women not being treated as such.

Now, as a Christian, I actually don’t think Shear’s definition goes far enough. I would say, “The gospel includes the radical notion that women are created in the image of God, called to play a vital part in God’s plan of redemption for the whole world, and co-heirs with Christ,” as of course men are too. But there have certainly been times, and systems and attitudes, in the church when the people who embody the Christian faith have not treated women as such.

I am thankful to be in a church context where women are accepted and affirmed as members and as ministers. That has not been my ‘fight’ and I’m humbly grateful, knowing that many others throughout history and around the world have not been so fortunate. But sometimes I wonder … does the fact that we can ‘tick the box’ that says women are allowed into ministry sometimes lead us to think that all issues are resolved and we can move on? And do we then fail to notice the more subtle ways in which women can be overlooked or looked down upon? Or the unspoken assumptions that unintentionally reinforce the message they have heard in so many other places, that they are not enough?

Perhaps here lies another reason I have been reluctant to name this issue as one I care about. It is subtle and can therefore seem less important, not worth making a big deal about, especially when there are bigger problems in the world. But we are allowed to care about more than one thing at a time. And given what I am seeing in our culture, this is something I believe the church needs to get right.

So, part of my thinking aloud includes commenting on some of the things I see in the church that can cause her daughters to feel less valued, less called, less gifted or less loved, simply because they are female. I want to use my voice, not because I have an agenda, but because I have an opportunity. I look at the young daughters my sister and my friends are raising in today’s culture and I hope and pray that in the church, of all places, they will know that they are loved and valued not for what they look like but simply because they are. If I can use my voice to play some small part in these young girls knowing and experiencing that they are equally valued and loved by God and are called to play a significant part in His plan, then I will take the opportunity to do that. And if that causes people to give me the label ‘feminist,’ whether as a positive or a negative … well, I guess I am okay with that.