In a recent article on the Fulcrum website, Elisabeth Goddard, Chair of Awesome (‘Anglican Women Evangelicals: Supporting Our Ordained Ministry’) and a member of the leadership team of Fulcrum, expresses her anxieties about encouraging women’s ministry in evangelical churches. She observes their apparent difficulty in obtaining posts after a curacy, which may itself have taken place in a non-evangelical context:
They become reticent to apply for, or unable to get, an evangelical incumbency and are consistently viewed with doubt by their natural constituency.
Equally significant, in her view, is their absence from ‘senior’ evangelical positions:
There seems to be an unspoken assumption, even amongst those churches which would say that they were pro-women’s ordination, that somehow you need an Alpha male to lead a large Evangelical church [...].
In fact, Peter Brierley, of the Christian Research Association, observes that none of the large Anglican churches, of any theological tradition, has a woman incumbent, and it may also be added that despite their acceptance in the USA, New Zealand and now Australia, there are a tiny number of women bishops.
But the question must be asked, does the church really have a problem? If it does, it is a problem it shares with human society as a whole. In a recent article in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee comments on the continuing absence of women from leadership roles:
Only 24% of parliamentary seats [in the EU] are occupied by women, 20% in the UK (but celebrate Spain’s new 50% female cabinet); 90% of top EU company boards are men. Women dominate primary school teaching, men run universities.
This is undoubtedly disheartening given, as Toynbee observes, the enormous pressure to change which has existed since the late 1960s. Yet is it not obvious that the two issues are related? That is to say, underlying the position of women in Western society and in the Anglican church are the same fundamental social dynamics. Goddard writes,
In many ways [the agenda of] Awesome is not so much about women as about evangelicalism ... But maybe in our current climate we can’t separate the two?
This might suggest the issue is theological (and indeed most of the discussion on the Fulcrum forum has, predictably, been about the evils of Conservative evangelicalism in this regard). But as Toynbee points out, the same difficulties are evidently faced by women in the avowedly non-theological worlds of European politics, business and education. Indeed, Toynbee puts her finger on one obvious, non-theological, culprit at the beginning of her article:
... women in their 40s [in the UK] earn 20% less per hour than their male counterparts. This is the motherhood penalty — and the more children a woman has, the wider the gap. Young women start out earning almost the same, deluded by beating boys at exams. Motherhood knocks most out of the running.
Clearly motherhood is not something Toynbee regards as an unalloyed blessing. But, she says, the problem starts earlier than that:
... it begins in infancy, when little girls learn where they belong as soon as they draw their first breath. The pink disease is far worse than it was 20 years ago. ... It’s almost impossible to buy toys now that are not putridly pink branded or aggressively superhero male. Bikes, sleeping bags, lunch boxes, nothing is neutral now, everything Barbie and Bratz. Princess tiaras, fairy and ballerina dressing up, pink, pink everywhere — and it damages girls’ brains.
And here, Polly Toynbee and I are in rare agreement on one thing: boys and girls are different. Where we disagree is over what might be done about this. Toynbee she seems to think that different early ‘conditioning’ might produce the desired ‘end product’, namely adults who are interchangeable in the structures of society. Personally, I doubt this is either possible or desirable.
Meanwhile, it is clear that the challenge facing Elisabeth Goddard and others is the same as that which confronts human society as a whole. And it should be noted that this wider society, despite a systematic attempt to restructure itself, supported by much of the apparatus of the government, education and the media over the last forty years, is still defeated by social pressures generated from within.
The real challenge facing Awesome and similar organizations is to understand why this is so. What is it about human society, and human nature, that is so resistant to change? And is the change being attempted actually worth the effort? What would make the world (or the church) a better place in this regard, and by what measure would it be judged better?
Revd John P Richardson
17 April 2008