I was discussing one of the posts from Rachel Held Evans's Week of Mutuality series with some friends on Twitter yesterday, when someone mentioned that the debate surrounding gender and the church isn't one that we hear a lot about in the UK. If you look at it in terms of the way the issue is discussed in the USA, this is certainly true. As another friend on Twitter, one from America, once said to me, "Over here, the evangelical voice is king." And when she said "evangelical", she meant it in the American sense - that of the Christian Right. It's the culture that I'm currently seeing a lot of younger bloggers reject as they explore whether it's possible to form Christian communities and "do church" in a different way. Evangelical yet more accepting, more open to questioning, more open to people who don't "fit the mold". More accepting of science, more accepting of women in leadership, less centred on condemnation and less intertwined with right-wing politics.
To the majority of people in the UK, you mention "women and the church" and they'll think of the current debates about women bishops. Others will think back 20 years, to the debates about women being ordained. For a lot of people, the idea of churches where a woman can't even read aloud from the Bible, or where a woman working outside the home would be an abomination, is quite odd. The church telling husbands and wives what they should and shouldn't do at home would be weird. A couple of years ago, the fact that a Church of England curate gave a Valentine's Day sermon urging women to "remain silent" and "submit" caused such outrage that it became a national news story (sorry - it's a Daily Mail link). Of course, if you read the comments, you'll see the nation's supporters of male headship coming out of the woodwork, but as a rule, it's not something that a lot of people see as a Big Deal.
1. It may not be a Big Deal for the UK church, but what about our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Unfortunately, not everyone is happy for things to stay that way. By and large, parachurch organisations and ecumenical bodies in the UK have a reasonably positive attitude - on paper - towards women and what they are "permitted" to do. But in recent years, groups and individuals with a more conservative and restrictive viewpoint have been aiming to exert more influence - in universities, through books, through insisting women are excluded to accommodate them, through having a personality that appeals to a certain type of Christian (Mark Driscoll; young men - I'm looking at you). As the church realises the amazing impact that raising up women and encouraging them to serve in whatever ways they are truly gifted to do can have, they wish instead for the tide to turn. People do leave churches because they refuse to call a woman "Pastor". They do walk out of services because they won't take communion from a woman. Teenage girls do attend seminars at summer camps and get told that any ambition to "lead" means they have "Jezebel spirits". Women do leave the church because of what they've been told about their gender. It's not just America's problem.
I believe that much of what is taught in the name of "distinct roles" is nothing more than 20th century gender stereotyping at best (and incredibly, some prominent theologians happily admit this, saying it's necessary to instruct people how to "fit in" with society's expectations of their gender), highly damaging and potentially abusive patriarchy at worst. In terms of theology, it's often a case of desperately clutching at straws (check out Rachel's posts from good analysis of the theological issues at stake). You might think that's me being overly dramatic, and I'm not suggesting for one moment that I think the "Biblical Patriarchy" movement could make significant inroads in the UK (it couldn't - I don't think even the most earnest British Christian could cope with the realities of Vision Forum), but just because it's not happening here doesn't mean it shouldn't matter to us, as part of the Body of Christ. Some of the posts written as part of Mutuality2012 make that abundantly clear when they describe the way their authors have been treated and made to feel in the name of a "plain reading of scripture".
2. On paper, we're there (depending on the denomination). In reality...
I mentioned above that "on paper", things look pretty good for women in the UK church. This gets to make people feel quite good about the situation. We're really positive about equality! We have a woman speaker sometimes! Women are the backbone of the church! You know how it goes. But if having a woman speaker sometimes, or admitting that women do all the support work behind the scenes and always serve the refreshments and always look after the children allows people to sit back and wash their hands of the whole issue of gender and the church, that's not good enough. We have to support those women who want to lead churches. We have to praise those women who want to head up organisations. We have to affirm those women who don't want to stay in the background but stand at the front with pride.
And this won't happen simply through praise and affirmation. It's got to happen through good employment practices like encouraging and supporting women who are mothers and want to work in full-time ministry, or not requiring that clergy wives forego a career. We need to talk about the women of the Bible and their stories on a Sunday, in the main service - not just as a part of women's Bible studies or women's retreat days. Churches should be discouraging sexist attitudes and showing that men and women can be a lot of different things, outside of stereotypes and expectations. They should be doing more to support single women and divorced women and childfree women and women who are survivors. It's not about "political correctness" as some would probably claim - there's nothing suspect about making "equality" a priority. It's not some woolly liberal concept to be treated with suspicion and laughed off as nothing to get too involved in or too serious about; it is, in fact, Biblical.
3. When people care, great things happen.
I'm thinking of the important work done by the Sophia Network and Women and the Church. By Soul Survivor's Equal conferences. By organisations like Restored, fighting gender inequality and violence against women. By all the people who have ever helped a woman see that she is not limited by her gender but free to make waves. It's our duty to educate ourselves and set an example for others. It's as simple as that.