I’ve been pondering for a while how best to address my “allies” on the topic of women preaching, when the issue is inevitably personal, for me at least! And can therefore be ‘sensitive’.
By “allies” I mean those other Evangelicals who believe that the male leadership of a church can sanction a woman to preach to a mixed congregation under their authority. I name this group in particular because I too am in Evangelical circles who believe in male leadership of the local church, and many of those in our circles view the public ministry of women as a threat to that authority. I don’t, but this isn’t actually the topic of this post (and if it’s not the position you hold, that’s fine, but I’m not going to discuss that here, and maybe this whole post will therefore either be irrevlant or annoying to you, so, feel free to stop reading now).
What I want to do is talk to those men in power who believe this also (that it’s ok for women to preach to mixed congregations under the authority of the local male leadership), but are doing very little about it. I want to raise my specific concerns about this inactivity, of course with the hope that some will change their actions, but frankly not with much optimism about that.
In order to do this, and to “de-personalise” the conversation as much as possible, I’m going to talk about a meeting I was in almost 10 years ago, where my concerns and objections were on the public record (so to speak) and therefore have not been a matter of discord in a current personal relationship for some time (I think I’m still friends with the former Rector of Barneys, and I’m pretty sure that after this I still will be!).
St Barnabas’ Anglican Church, Broadway, had sanctioned the preaching of women to mixed congregations, but on the particular occasion I’m recalling, there was a congregational meeting of the evening service held because some concerns were raised on the topic. For you see, even though as a church we “endorsed” women preaching, it happened so infrequently that at a church with a high turnover at least in its student population, people could be a ‘member’ of Barneys for some time before such an atrocity took place in the pulpit, thus leading, almost every time, to people walking out during the sermon, or at least some concern afterwards and intense conversations with staff. I was sick of this response, and so attended the meeting to hear what the staff had to say and to speak to the issue.
Barneys had several habits at that time, which I think created some really negative impressions in a place that was supposed to support women preaching. Barneys was by no means alone in these habits among those who think it’s ok for women to preach, I’ve seen them over and over again. Each of these habits were raised and discussed, little resolution or change was found however. The story is different at Barneys now, and I’d love the same elsewhere.
Habit 1 – infrequency. As I’ve said, women took the pulpit so infrequently, it raised controversy every time. Most men in ministry I’ve spoken to who think it’s ok for women to preach to mixed congregations say they don’t push it cos they don’t want to cause controversy. Well, more on that in a moment, but, certainly, infrequency doesn’t help with this problem. It just makes it a constant controversy every time.
Habit 2 – “avoiding” controversy. “Our focus is the gospel!” We say, “this is a secondary issue! And I don’t want to cause unnecessary controversy and distract from the gospel.” I broadly agree with this, which is why I remain in fellowship with those who baptise children for example, despite my having strong theological objections to it, but it doesn’t mean I never discuss the issue altogether. More important though, this habit makes me think, “what other topics are you avoiding? Do you not want to talk about money or sexuality because they’re controversial? Hmmm, nope, most of you seem quite happy to address those topics. Liturgy, baptism, politics, all these and more make it habitually into the actions and topics addressed at church. All are controversial. Are you so worried about the discomfort of some that you’re happy to lay aside a entire sphere of women’s ministry?” Furthermore, I often see this habit resting entirely on assumption rather than discussion, an assumption that those who would be disgruntled are a) a significant proportion and b) would leave because of it. Rarely though, in my experience, has anyone actually spoken to these supposed injured parties. At Barneys, these injured parties often made themselves identifiable, so, it was raised, what should our leaderships response to their distress be? What would our response be if they were offended by the style of music, content of prayers, type of preaching? “Simply” avoiding controversy isn’t a good reason to me to avoid acting on principle.
Habit 3 – only preaching to the “special” congregations. You don’t want women in your main pulpit (cos you mostly want it?) but you think it’s ok for woman to preach, so they can! To the international student congregation, or the young adult group, or the “special friends” congregation. This is so problematic to me. What are you saying, “so long as they’re not white people, or are disabled, it’s fine”?! I’m glad that such congregations often get a greater variety and richness in their preaching program, but it does stick in my gullet a bit. Doesn’t it in yours?
Habit 4 – they have to be excellent, over qualified and perfect every time. You’ve let student ministers take the main pulpit, and deliver sermons of questionable quality and orthodoxy, but it’s ok, cos they’re learning. I agree! But why let them take the pulpit, but not a trained, qualified female? Furthermore, why hold her to a higher standard? Every time I preach as a woman, I feel like my entire sex and our future qualification to preach is on trial. No pressure anyone!
Habit 5 – if he’s a guy, he can preach. You’re in a congregation of people who you think will only allow men to preach to them because the local authority of the church should be men, and therefore they should exercise that authority by being the ones in the pulpit. So, why do you have male guest speakers? Doesn’t this reinforce the idea that it’s maleness rather than local authority that divinely sanctions a man to preach? We had more male guest speakers in our pulpit than our own female staff. What’s their qualification? Their gender? Or that they’re sanctioned by the leadership? And if they’re sanctioned by the leadership, why is it not ok to sanction the women? Your congreagation will happily sit under the teaching of a male who’s a stranger to them because you’ve said it’s ok, would it not be a double standard if you said, “I’ve given this woman permission to preach today”, whether a guest or congregant, and the same people objected?
These habits altogether, and our avoidance of putting our principles into practise are what keep reinforcing the idea that all true Evangelicals think women should NEVER preach to mixed congregation, a perception held by thousands, unaware that there is reasonable Biblical and theological justification for allowing women to do so. And they rarely see it happen, so why should they ever question that belief?
I’m a woman. I can preach (ability, and I think also gift), I believe I can preach to mixed congregations (and lots of you do to), and yet I find myself very very rarely preaching, even to single sex congregations. Even a lot of the preaching done at youth specific camps is done by men, when supposedly almost all Evangelicals believe it’s ok for women to teach children!
What I’d love is to see men in power who also think it’s ok for women to preach to actually make it happen!
Otherwise, because of the terrible impressions given by the above habits, I’d be happier to not be allowed to at all. To be forced to neglect the gift I’ve been given, than to continue to give the impression that it’s something so borderline wrong it should only be done rarely, behind closed doors, or to “special” groups of people.
To use a somewhat crude but typically Australian expression, I’d prefer for you either to poo or to get off the pot.
These concerns and more were raised at that Barneys meeting. The conversation remained civil, and Barneys continued to be a place which supported women preaching (though infrequent at that time). Nowadays at Barneys, when they advertise for female staff, they have to be able to preach, and share the pulpit as frequently as the other assistant ministers. Some people might not come to Barneys because of it, but at least we don’t give the impression we think it’s dirty. Furthermore, I think it aids us in spreading the gospel in a culture which has perhaps recognised God’s perception of the equality of men and women more than His church has.
You will of course all do what you think is right. And because I share the desire to build up the kingdom, I’m happy to sit under leaders who think it’s not ok for me to preach and will never invite me to. I can’t help however my frustration with those who think it’s ok but never make it happen. I’ll happily sit under your leadership too, I do. But I’m the one who bears the personal brunt of your actions. I’m the one they’re talking about when they say “some selfish women want the authority for themselves” and compare women preaching to gay marriage as “things that are totally wrong”. I’m the one who has to comfort myself with the knowledge that other people do agree with me, they just don’t want anyone else to know that. I’m the one who has to watch student ministers, guest preachers, laymen and everyone but a woman like me take the pulpit. I’m the one, who, when I’m finally asked, finds myself preaching to the “other” congregation, plugging a desperate hole, or preaching to the holiday congregation of four people and one baby. That’s why it’s hard for me to cope with these habits among my “allies” and why I therefore continue to make myself odious to many by mentioning the subject at all.