Navelgazing

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

I was chatting to a friend on Twitter the other day about my post on the script we use when we do vulnerability online and we ended up talking about writing in general. I mentioned that these days, I worry that anything I publish will just be awful navelgazing. I joked then that actually, when I look at my navel it reminds me that there’s a story there. Even gazing at my own navel is a storytelling opportunity. See, I am a storyteller after all.

When I look at my navel, there’s a funny little line inside it and only I can really tell that it’s a little misshapen compared to how it used to be. It’s the only visible evidence of a laparoscopy I had done at the beginning of 2013; one of the three incisions the doctors made right before they removed one of my ovaries, the associated Fallopian tube and something else - something hidden.

I

It’s about 1994 or 1995, I think, one morning at Sunday School and we are talking about ‘gifts’. We are asked to draw something depicting what we are good at. I set to work with my sheet on paper, drawing something or another to show that I am ‘good at writing’. Imagine my horror, when we have to explain to the rest of the group, what we’ve drawn and the girl sitting next to me - my age, the sort of girl who everyone thinks is good and kind and sweet - stands up and presents her piece of paper that explains that she is ‘good at helping’. Why didn’t I think of that? ‘Helping’ is nice. Helping is thoughtful. Maybe my admission that I’m good at writing is big-headed and not particularly holy. And so I feel a little bit envious and also, as if I’ve done something wrong, even though no-one gives me that impression.

II

It’s 2011, I’m 20 weeks pregnant and I’m lying down with my midriff exposed watching my baby on a screen across the room; arms, legs, organs, brain all looking healthy. The sonographer moves the probe to the right as he finishes up. He looks more closely. “Do you have endometriosis?” he asks. I don't.“Have you ever noticed a lump in your abdomen?” I haven’t.

“I can see a mass to the right of your womb,” he says. He leaves the room and comes back with someone else who has another look. It looks like some sort of cyst, they say, but a solid one, a big one. It’s the size of my fist - my actual fist. It might be growing. It might cause problems for the baby in the third trimester. I might have to have an operation to remove it and there’s a chance that this would bring on premature labour.

Over the course of the next few weeks, it's determined that this uninvited guest is a dermoid cyst, that it isn’t growing, that it’s not malignant and that it’s so snugly tucked away inside me that nothing needs to be done about it until after I’ve given birth. I’m told that its size coupled with the fact it hasn’t grown in the time we’ve known about it means it may well have been camping out on my right ovary since before I was born, carefully hidden yet growing ever more significant.

III

It’s 2015 and I’m going to a Christian festival. I’m going with no expectations. I’m over the hype, the anticipation that it’s going to be the week that God does something amazing because we’re all a bit jaded with expecting that much of festivals, relying on the ‘high’ they provide and besides, I’m working there so any sort of experience will be a bonus. On my first afternoon off I head to a seminar and at the end, I stay for the ministry because the seminar is about juggling all life’s demands as a woman and what I really want to know, what I’ve really been praying about, is whether I should give up my responsibilities at church and maybe even step back from church for a while because all it does it make me anxious and cross.

A woman comes to pray for me and as she finishes, she tells me about a word she has for me. Later that day I excitedly message a friend from church because just a couple of weeks earlier, she’d told me the very same thing that this woman has just said. It’s a picture so specific and detailed that there’s no way anyone can say it’s just a coincidence - but I have no idea what it means. 


Several weeks later I was talking to another friend about a mission trip she was going on. She was talking about what she feels is her calling in life and all of a sudden, the words of two different women, one of whom didn’t even know me, made sense.

My tale of that day at Sunday School when I didn’t feel I’d said the right thing was something I’d forgotten about for years until fairly recently, when it suddenly came back to me as I was trying to plan a devotional about God-given gifts. It was probably a jolt I needed, because it helped me to start making sense of something I’ve always struggled with - accepting and embracing what I can do rather than feeling shame about the things I’m not so good at.

As I’ve often shared in the past, much of my time in the church has been characterised by the sneaking suspicion that I don’t really fit in anywhere, with my distinct lack of characteristics I’ve always felt you’re supposed to have as a Christian and particularly a Christian woman. I read this piece the other day and it made me laugh because I recognised myself in it - particularly over the last couple of years, as I’ve struggled more and more with writing for an audience, impostor syndrome a constant presence. 

Yes, I could do writing and speaking and presenting and creativity and ideas, but I didn’t know what all that was for outside of work. It's been like a mantra that I have work skills, not church skills. I’ve also come to realise that even I still have a bit of discomfort with being open about what I’m good at because I’m a woman. So many people unfortunately see women who can talk and women who can write as having an agenda, as pushy, putting themselves out there for the sake of it. 

It’s a problem in society as a whole but never more evident than in the church, where it often feels as if speaking, writing and having opinions must come with a caveat that you don’t hate men of course, obviously, you don’t have an agenda, you’re not one of those angry or controlling women. The temptation is to minimise yourself, to become small enough to fit into the box of others’ expectations. It’s embarrassing admitting that you’ve fallen prey to that, really, but it’s no wonder.

The words from the two women - my friend and the stranger - both mentioned a gift from God in a box that doesn’t look very exciting or attractive, to the extent that I disregard it and keep on looking for something that I perceive to be ‘better’. All the while, it’s the gift in the less attractive box that’s important - a gift hidden in plain sight, a gift that’s always been there.

Now here’s where my analogy goes slightly awry, because in 2013, that thing that had been hidden away inside me since goodness knows when (growing teeth, just so you know - because dermoid cysts are a fascinating yet slightly terrifying example of the things our bodies can do) was whipped out and disposed of. I never knew it was there before and I can’t tell that it’s gone now. But this is a story about the significance of things unseen, the importance of the things we don’t notice and pay no attention to even though they’re definitely there and have been for a very long time. It's a story about never listening to the people close to us when they affirm us, mentally stamping every positive statement with 'Not good enough, though' until God probably, finally, gets so sick of it that He gives us a smack round the head.

I have a voice that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with or accepting of. And I’m still not entirely sure what it means to embrace it and what that means outside of work these days with blogging having changed the way it has and a busy life and having recently started attending a different church where I’m only just starting to consider how I might be involved. But what I do know is that it no longer means silencing myself and dismissing my voice because somewhere, there must be a pretty box filled with the gifts I think I’m supposed to have, rather than the ones I’ve always had.

Scripted vulnerability

Wednesday, 1 June 2016


Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. 

It’s probably a product of the boom in confessional journalism and its Christian equivalent, the storytelling boom. We’re all storytellers now and perhaps we’ve internalised the idea that every significant event in our lives must be presented as a carefully-structured essay, a sermon of sorts, or like so many sermons a list of points that speak of the learning and practical application that have come out of our pain. 

We hold off writing about things, not simply until we’ve got our thoughts on the subject organised, but also until we’ve got a structured message, some clear takeaways for our readers and an opportunity to be inspirational - perhaps with a few key ‘shareables’ highlighted specifically for that purpose. 

This week a friend shared a lengthy update on social media, informing people of the tough year they’ve been having and being thankful that things have turned out ok, even though they still have a lot to work through. As people commented with love and support, expressing admiration for how open and ‘real’ my friend had been, it struck me that much of the post's perceived ‘realness’ lay in the fact it didn’t follow what I’m now recognising as the script we, as Christians, often follow (consciously, unconsciously, who knows?) when reflecting on difficult times. 

We describe the difficulties and pain; we bring the focus back to God; we give thanks and count our blessings; we move into reflecting on any positives that have come out of the situation and our lessons learned. We can hit ‘publish’ safe in the knowledge that we’ve followed the approved framework for dealing with life’s knocks and that people will like it. 

Don’t misunderstand me: this ‘script’ isn’t wrong. It’s helpful sometimes and yes, it can be inspirational. It’s quite natural for many people and in many circumstances - but sometimes it’s hard to get there. Sometimes it feels like we’re never going to get there at all. Our feelings aren’t so neatly organised and I wonder if we’ve perhaps lost something in shying away from sharing the messiness of our thought processes, preferring instead, by the time we’re ready to share on our blogs or on Facebook, to tie it all up neatly into a set of inspirational learning points that make us seem like real writers, or teachers, or ‘thought leaders’. Or at least the right sort of Christian. 

We should be able to write about our struggles - if we want to - without waiting for the perfect time to share, when our attitudes are right and we can say all the ‘right’ things. We should understand that praising people and telling them how inspirational they are when they describe their pain using the ‘right’ narrative isn’t always helpful. We pick up on what we see and keep quiet accordingly when our emotions and thoughts and questions don’t follow the approved script because we worry what people might think. Our thoughts aren’t for everyone to see unless they’re ordered correctly. That's something I've been guilty of in recent times, my head a swirling mess of half written essays not considered well-formed enough to be shared because there's no teachable moment for you, or because things are still difficult, or because I can't look at them objectively and give you some life application fat to chew on.

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. When being ‘real’ becomes scripted, it doesn’t seem so authentic any more. We can share our truths without completing a checklist of themes and words. And the difference will show, as it did for me this week when I read my friend's Facebook post and as it does always when I think about the stories that have stayed with me the most.

Three years of Project 3:28

Wednesday, 24 February 2016



This week, the Project 3:28 report on the numbers of men and women speaking at Christian conferences and events in 2015 was released - the third annual report produced since a small group of people got together - first in conversations on Twitter, and then over dinner - to talk about the way platforms are dominated by male speakers. All of us were interested in the issue of gender justice in the church; all of us were concerned that Christian organisations were not doing enough to represent a diverse range of speakers, gifting and expertise.

Three years on, I'm really encouraged by the conversations that Project 3:28 has started. I'm particularly encouraged by the organisations that have contacted the working group to let us know that they're being proactive about finding more women to speak at their events. It's clear to see that effort is being made, because these are the organisations appearing in the top half of all those ranked. One of our longterm aims for Project 3:28 is to be able to set up a database of women speakers, listing areas of expertise and experience, so we'll no longer hear that 'we didn't know any women to ask' or 'we couldn't find anyone' - but in the meantime, seeing that certain organisations are committed to a more equal balance of speakers is a really positive step.

Last year, I talked about some of the common objections to the project and why we still believe it's a valuable source of information. The fact remains that it is produced by volunteers, in our free time, completely unfunded. So this year I thought I'd talk about some observations I've had about this year's statistics and questions people have asked on social media.



Yes, the events ranking lowest for gender balance of speakers are the ones that are openly more conservative

It's clear, that despite small increases in the number of women speakers, that they're probably going to continue to rank lowest because of their beliefs about the circumstances in which women are permitted to teach - even as some streams become more proactive about recognising the gifting of women and more open to them preaching and teaching.

But the events ranking not far above them are officially egalitarian - so what gives?

Some organisations have some catching up to do. This was something that particularly stood out for me when analysing the data from the Hillsong, HTB Leadership and Focus conferences. Having a basis of faith that says women can lead and teach doesn't always translate to women actually doing these things. Sometimes that's down to historical patterns of appointing leadership, how people are noticed and given prominence. Sometimes it's because of old boy's networks that rely heavily on in-crowds of people who socialise together, speak at events together, and are all on the same committees together. Sometimes it's because of events looking for the biggest names on the Christian festival circuit to sell their programme to prospective attendees - names that are more likely to be male, because that's how conference culture works. What's clear is that those organisations whose theology is essentially egalitarian, but are low ranking, could do much better.

What about other elements of diversity?

Project 3:28 looks at the balance of men and women speakers. Someone asked us this week whether or not we know anyone specifically doing work on racial diversity at these events. We don't - but we think it's a really important thing to think about. We've explained that because of the way we compile the data, it would be more difficult to look at racial diversity because it's much less easy to make a judgement about someone's race from looking at their name on a programme. Just as the majority of conferences are male-dominated, they are also dominated by white speakers - that's clear. They're dominated by middle class speakers and able bodied speakers. So there is much work to be done in achieving diversity that reflects the church as a whole.

We haven't covered every single event and conference here

That's true. When we looked at the data for 2013, we started with a group of events based on what we could find at the time. We have stuck with this list to enable better comparison year on year. But we know there are numerous events that we have left out. Some people have already made suggestions of others we could look at next year. If you can see any we've obviously missed out, let us know!

What about the balance of men and women on the main stage versus seminars and smaller talks?

We chose not to include this data, again because so far we've stuck with what we can compare year on year. However, my counts differentiated between main stage speakers and other speakers and I can confirm what some people have asked: male speakers dominate 'main stage' sessions at festivals. At many events, women are also more likely to show up as speakers at sessions focused on subjects that have more traditionally been considered a woman's domain - marriage, children's work, family life, mental and emotional wellbeing. It's not problematic in itself to see women speaking about these topics, but just as many women are gifted teachers on other subjects that are more likely to be seen as the preserve of male speakers.

The knotty problem of wives

Something we have looked at informally, and something people have asked us about, is the number of women present at festivals only as a 'husband and wife act'. This varies quite a bit between the events, but we felt it was difficult to represent these numbers with integrity. Some women have a ministry with their husbands, some independent of their husbands. Some speak in their capacity as a 'leader's wife'. It's difficult to make judgements about the data here without seeming critical about the women involved - and that's not what we would want to do, at all, because we know they are gifted teachers and leaders in their own right. Our general feeling is that many events could be more committed to finding single women speakers, women who lead churches on their own and women whose husbands are not in ministry.

Things are improving...but there's still some way to go

Women have the knowledge and the gifts. Organisations need to be more intentional about seeking them out and inviting them to speak.

Three conclusions from 2015, a year of shifting faith

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A photo posted by Hannah Elizabeth Rose Mudge (@boudledidge) on

I'm not particularly proud of quite a few of the blog posts I've written over the years; some of them show me at my absolute worst: enjoying drama, taking mocking things and trying to be clever with it a bit too far, being full-on cynical all day every day. One post I am particularly proud of, however, is the one I wrote about my journey with motherhood, faith and church in May last year. It meant a lot to me to finally be able to write about something that had been plaguing me for so long - and as I was to discover, it meant a lot to other people too - people who could identify with what I was saying. People who, in a couple of cases, had never felt about to vocalise what they were feeling before.

After the post, 2015 continued in much the same way. Pieces about millennials and the church were still being written on probably a weekly basis. The Evangelical Alliance even surveyed UK millennials for a fascinating report, Building tomorrow's church today, which is great, because we hear an awful lot about Christian and post-Christian millennials in the USA, but there are some enormous differences that mean we can't assume too many similarities.

After another few months of reading all the open letters, all the hot takes on why people who have issues with church are just consumer Christians and selfish babies, having all the thoughts, being able to reel off all the buzzwords and stock phrases about my generation and church, and developing a bit of an obsession with pieces about Hillsong churches (and how they square with current popular narrative that young people are leaving flashy megachurches and discovering tradition and liturgy), 2015 ended up being all about coming to some realisations and making some decisions.

1. God is not some disappointed performance manager

I've struggled to work out where it came from, but pretty much ever since I've been a Christian, I've tended to see myself as a bit of a disappointment. I feel as if it's most likely that it started from a place of low self-esteem and perfectionism, and that it was made worse by pressured Christian contexts, anxiety, together with a combination of not having fully taken on board key bits of scripture and, let's be real here, snobbishness about a lot of what I've always seen as saccharine, self-helpy, feelgood rubbish that seems to quite often be delivered as part of cringey women's events that I wouldn't normally touch with a bargepole.

I'm talking about stuff like God's love, acceptance and grace. And also the fact that actually, I'm not a terrible person because I didn't want to get 'on board' at the vision meeting and my anxiety went off the scale every time there was a call for people to serve on more teams and all I could feel was dread when I got an email about 'events you may be planning in your area'.

I have this story that I tell for laughs; it's about the time I listened to a sermon about 'giving yourself a spiritual healthcheck' and we were all encouraged to think about being in a car, and whether we would say that God was in the driver's seat or the passenger seat, or sitting in the back (or tied up and stuffed in the boot, I thought, because that's genuinely how I felt about my relationship with God and church at that time, a couple of years ago). And of course behind many of the stories that we tell for laughs, there's a lot of pain. For me, it was a pain that grew until I couldn't cope with the incessant Sunday morning calls-to-action to join up, get better, commit to improving x and y - so I had to tune them out. I had a coping strategy for the anxiety caused by feeling like an awful person at church. It may not have been a very sophisticated coping strategy (effectively, it involved just not listening), but that's what I was doing.

I was talking to someone about it last autumn and she told me I didn't need to feel guilty. It was hard for her to see how I could beat myself up - a full-time-working, mothering, writing, household-running person. I told her that around the time of the spiritual health check incident, I'd heard a church leader tell people like me - 30-somethings balancing careers and young children - not to get 'complacent' about the Kingdom and about getting involved in church stuff. As an exhausted, recently-returned-to-work, toddler-parenting Christian, I was pretty ready to let him have it over that comment (but I didn't, because I was too cross). However well these comments are meant, they can cause deep hurt. And it still burns, but I know God knows. He sees. And I don't believe He's shaking His head and tutting at what my life looks like now.

2. He also has a sense of humour 

The perfectionist in me doesn't like those words like 'consumer Christian' and 'complacent'. So in 2015, having felt I'd retrieved some of the headspace I'd lost in the baby and toddler years, I set about making sure no-one could accuse me of being either, thank you very much. This involved improving my prayer life (and because I like peace and quiet and nobody being up in my space, that means walks on my lunch break), getting back into reading again, and visiting some different churches. Excitingly, I have even managed to listen to a few sermons online (only a few, mind you - there are only 24 hours in a day). Related to this, because it's not easy to claw back time from my day to do it, I also spent a good few days on Twitter, on and off, having a ranty discussion about full time pastors and academics being snobby about people who don't have the time or enegry to constantly read and learn and expand their minds. I attended my first ever New Wine summer event, my first ever Youthwork Summit, and as always the Gathering of Women Leaders. And I've been talking to people at church about what's been going on.

Most of this has been great, and it's led to some serious moments of realisation that have cleared up stuff I've been agonising over for years. Giftings and callings, for one. I know I've written before about my ever-present anxiety that I have nothing to offer the church. Ask me what I'm good at, as a woman in a seminar at New Wine did, during one of those often-awkward 'discuss with the person next to you' moments, and I've always been able to tell you, but never have I thought these things have anything to do with my place in the church.

Thanks to two identical words at two different times from two different people, one of whom I had never met before and have never seen since, and several weeks of trying to figure out what on earth they meant, now I know that they do. And when I announced this to my husband, he reminded me that he's only been telling me the same thing for the past few years. 2015 has taught me that I am truly terrible at believing anything anyone says about me unless I've had a personal revelation of it - which brings me on to my decade-long suspicion of saccharine, cringeworthy platitudes aimed at Christian women to make them feel good about themselves.

I remain a truly humorless feminist killjoy on this point: if you're telling women they're precious princesses to try to combat structural oppression without critiquing patriarchy...just don't. But last year, I read an old post that Glen Scrivener shared, and by the end I was basically cheering at my desk. Then I had a conversation with Glen that started with me grumbling about my long-held dislike of 'princess' terminology and ended with him saying 'The Prince totally loves us. But He doesn't leave us in the chamber. He calls us to the throne.' By this point, I was basically channeling a little bit of fandom that really shows my age ( "Damn straight, you tell ’em Albus, testify!", snap snap snap etc.). It's ridiculous how you can be blinkered to something for so long. Especially when God further rubs it in via a prayer-ministry based moment several months later.

3. The church could take some tips from the charity sector

You're probably really concerned about what I'm going to suggest at this point, given the picture of charities that the media has been working hard to paint in recent months. Over the last three years, my day job, coupled with my status as a millennial who's suspicious of being sold things and marketed to and just wants, like, authenticity, has left me beyond disillusioned with megachurch culture, the marketing and strategising and branding and careful curation of a presence and, as I would refer to them when at work, the donor journeys. I'm talking about the 'journeys' that, in the church, can put members on a sort of treadmill of predictable topics and lead-ups and build-ups to courses and initiatives with the idea that they will take certain steps.

At this point, feel free to call me hypocritical, because in my working life, this is essentially what I do, day in day out. It's also probably the reason I would quite like a break from it on a Sunday. I'm not alone - in recent months I've read umpteen pieces expressing the same sentiments (they are, after all, a key point in this debate on millennials). Pictured at the top of this post is how Sarah Bessey put it very neatly in the excellent Out of Sorts

Now, I'm not stupid. I know that a lot of this is key to the running of churches and that it's not necessarily a bad thing. Recently it occurred to me, however, that one of the current major concerns fof the third sector needs to be a key consideration for churches too. You can't have the strategy and the marketing and the journeys without focusing just as much on retention, in a way that is authentic and is meaningful and genuinely communicates that you care, that you're appreciative. Openness and honesty are important, because they build trust.

If you can't give a member of your church a straight answer on what the church believes about a particular issue when the member can see from your practice that it's obvious you have a definite opinion, that's not honesty. If being part of the body of Christ is very much about community, what happens when people feel like little more than another resource to be exploited? If you talk the talk on diversity but who gets to 'play' on a Sunday shows you don't walk the walk, how are those whose faces (or bodies) don't fit going to feel?

When care, community, openness, trust, and the idea that members can play a meaningful part in something important are deprioritised, there will be a problem with retention. Call me a lazy consumer if you like but my work and my eperience tells me it can't all go one way for too long without people becoming disillusioned. And this isn't confined to certain types of churches  or denominations (although I do believe size is a major factor). It shouldn't be ignored. I know that churches do think about turnover, but despite sometimes being tackled with the best intentions, it's sometimes misguided.

The end of 2015 saw us make some exciting decisions, and the first months of 2016 will see us exploring our options as a result. Things haven't been easy, but change is coming.

Theological conferences and inclusivity: a conversation

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Earlier this week I received a comment on a post written four years ago - part of a conversation that sparked a huge debate and, I believe, was a catalyst for a strengthening of women's voices in the Christian blogosphere. At the time I wrote Female Christian bloggers: a rare breed? it was frequently assumed that any Christian blogger worth reading was a man. Men wrote about serious and meaty topics; women's blogs didn't really count as Christian blogs when the rankings of 'top bloggers' got published because they tended to write more about daily life and stay away from heated theological debates.

In 2011 I argued that the voices of Christian women were not absent online, but marginalised. Regarded as less serious than their male counterparts, often lacking in confidence about their knowledge and gifts, and - thanks to online abuse towards women and the unpleasant atmosphere below the line - less willing to engage in debate, Christian women were certainly writing, but were overlooked.

Looking back, I'm proud that the conversations sparked by my post and by Lesley's contributed to many more women beginning to make their voices heard and particularly to speak out against misogyny in the church. Just this week I saw Rachel Held Evans referred to as the 'leader' of progressive Christians online. While I don't really know what I think of that statement, it's evident that four years on from my observation that just 19 out of 122 blogs on a particular Christian blog aggregator were written by women, things have changed - and that's a good thing.

Make no mistake, however - the digital world may be somewhat more inclusive than in 2011, but the church has a long way to go. This week, Christian leaders and teachers have gathered in Bedford for the THINK conference, an opportunity to work through 1 Corinthians in depth in the company of like-minded individuals. I'd seen the conference advertised earlier in the year and while it looked interesting, I had assumed that as someone not in formal church leadership, it was not 'for me'. It was a shame, I thought, because there are so very few conferences that do that sort of work.

On seeing a picture of the first day of the conference posted on Twitter, and what appeared to be a room full of white male delegates, I asked whether anyone I knew was attending, and if so, were any women present? Over the last two years I've been involved in an initiative raising awareness of the way Christian conferences exclude women both as speakers and as delegates. Project 3:28 has led to some helpful and productive conversations with event organisers who are open to understanding how conferences exclude women and who want to set a positive example. I did not believe that the THINK conference would explicitly be off limits to women, but as a conference out of the NewFrontiers stable, I was interested to see if women were involved.

Another friend of mine confirmed that she had attended THINK in 2014 and that she was the only woman there.
To many, this could seem strange. If a person is treated in a kind and friendly way when attending an event even as an outsider, what's the problem? The problem is the insecurity that comes with being a woman in an all-male space, coupled with (generally) differing ways of engagement, which is often down to socialisation. Women tend to learn from a young age that they're expected to be quiet and take a back seat while men dominate in group settings. It's the reason why women only space is so valuable, and it's one of the key things men can work on in terms of being more inclusive.

We've had a number of years now to observe, in the digital realm, the combative way that men often engage with theology and their opinions about the church. In an atmosphere that is frequently not a safe space for women thanks to theological and/or cultural beliefs that mark us out as somehow inferior, and considering the struggles with impostor syndrome and lack of confidence that women often face, it's no wonder that somewhere like the THINK conference could make a woman feel uncomfortable. Particularly - as Hannah pointed out - when the conference is hosted by a group of churches known for making complementarianism a distinctive.

The challenge for the organisers of events such as THINK is to make them inclusive. I was intrigued to learn that as a small group leader, as someone who works for a Christian organisation, the conference would not have been off limits to me. Hannah and I agreed that it would be encouraging to go to such an event knowing that other women would be there - knowing, as a result, that the organisers saw it as more than a boys' get-together, a meeting of an inner circle. As part of Project 3:28 I have discussed the practical ways organisers can make conferences accessible to women - inviting women who they feel would benefit from an event, being understanding about childcare arrangements and facilities, and making clear that when 'leaders' are mentioned that this means women too.

David Capener, who has only recently become an acquaintance of mine on Twitter, was quite right to point out that the photo we'd seen of the event gave the impression everyone in attendance was white. It's all too easy for church leadership to remain homogeneous as people of influence  - unintentionally or otherwise - seek out and raise up others who are just like them. Together with Phil Whittall we agreed that diversity must be aimed for, but David suggested that he believed things are unlikely to change within the next decade.

David, Phil and I have agreed to continue a blog conversation about this, and I'm excited and thankful that they've been open to engagement on how conferences like THINK can be more accessible and open to those who may genuinely benefit, even though they don't fit the 'mold' of a traditional elder.

Searching for Sunday: motherhood, guilt and disillusionment

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

via Wikimedia Commons
I spent my teenage years dedicated to the music department at my Fenland comprehensive school. Choir, orchestra, string quartet, vocal ensemble, recorder group. Local music festivals, county-wide choir days, youth orchestra every Saturday and umpteen church fêtes. We were a partner school of Cambridge University, and so it happened that every December, we'd pile into a minibus and he'd drive us to Cambridge, the Head of Music leading a gaggle of girls over the Backs and to King's College chapel, where we'd sit, awestruck, alongside fellow music geeks of Cambridgeshire, and listen to a special performance of Carols from King's; without the TV cameras, without the crowds of people queuing from breakfast time to try to get a seat. Just 20 or so teenage girls high on sugar from vending machine sweets, on the lookout for nice male undergraduates in the choir, with a slightly harassed middle-aged man known as 'Mr C'.

I'd sit and listen to those performances absolutely rapt. The hush, the stillness and sense of anticipation in the chapel always contrasting with the grey murkiness of the December day as we stepped back outside shrieking once more and looking about, furtively, for attractive men (think of my choir, circa 1999, a bit like Alan Warner's Sopranos - minus the nuns and delinquency, instead intensely bothered about their GCSE results). Something got to me every time and it's something that's always happened with old churches and chapels, something I ceased to think about very much as I moved into adulthood, attending church in a school hall, a football stadium, a tent, a conference centre and finding that God could show up in any of them, as well as in seminars on Celtic mysticism, in halls of residence at one in the morning, in fields at dusk and on a mountain in a hailstorm.

I recently finished reading Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans' new book about 'loving, leaving and finding the church'. As I read the final chapters, highlighting paragraphs and having laughed, cried and nodded along with Evans' experiences as a member of a most difficult generation, - a generation that's the subject of research and anguish and umpteen thinkpieces - I felt as if I'd reached a turning point and was ready to do something I haven't been able to do for three years. I say I haven't been able to do it - I've alluded to it and vaguely explored it - but have intentionally refrained from writing because the reality has been something I've been wrestling with, and all along I've felt as if this isn't something I could write about in the midst of so much turmoil.

And so instead, I've emailed people. I've engaged in lengthy Twitter conversations and poured my heart out to friends. I've been angry and I've felt full of shame and I've felt relief and happiness when people have said 'Me too'. Because for three years I've been searching for Sunday, and I've come to the conclusion that right now it's probably not what I should be doing, nor is it what's most helpful.

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I'd left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn't zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you're insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn't mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it. 

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I've had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert's brain doesn't do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I've longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I've been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I've felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I'd stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn't the right thing to do. But I've still expected something - and when I've failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I've felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I'm not 'on board' and don't even want to be, apprehensive because I've been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman. The fear of raising issues with church is real. The fear of raising issues with church as a woman takes things up a level because you know that somewhere, someone will listen to you pour your heart out and then put you in a box marked 'women's issues', 'over-emotional', 'Jezebel spirit'.

via cassidy @ Flickr
On Christmas Eve last year the three of us went to the afternoon service of lessons and carols at the cathedral. Arriving with half an hour to spare, the building was already packed and we ended up sitting off to one side, behind a pillar. A hush fell over the congregation as the lone voice began to sing, the long wait of Advent reaching its end. After the first carol, the choir sang This Is The Truth Sent From Above, something I hadn't heard for years. For a moment I remembered a bleak day and King's College Chapel, and as I sat and watched I felt, for the first time in a long time, what it is like to worship. At the close of the service, as we sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing, I wanted to raise my hands rather than sit down and sigh, disengaged again.

Traditional forms of church aren't new to me; I grew up in the Church of England. Rachel Held Evans and others have written of a 'trend' that's being observed, of millennials rejecting new churches and falling in love with liturgy. Some people are regarding this with a bit of cynicism: is it truly a trend, or the confirmation bias of a few bloggers with book deals in their sights? Maybe, and yet when Evans writes "All I wanted from church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be," I get it. Last summer, I felt as if I was about to become a 'done', but I wasn't sure. My faith hasn't gone anywhere, and deep down, I knew that become a 'done' wasn't the answer.

 
A couple of weeks ago when I was discussing all this with friends on Twitter, I said I was finally ready to write about it - this internal battle that's hindered my writing about faith for at least two years now. I wanted to write about it because I know that at the start of all this, I felt so alone. I felt as if I knew what would happen if I ever broached the subject. In early 2014 I wrote an impassioned response to a pastor who had blogged about what he thought were 'five really bad reasons to leave a church'. "Put away the shopping cart and pick up a shovel," he admonished Christians, accusing those who have struggles with the church of being lazy consumerists. That post came out of my fear of raising those same issues and getting those same, dismissive answers - or as Rachel Held Evans described in Searching for Sunday, a desire to find a quick fix and restore everything to the joyful, smiling norm:

"...what they find is when they bring their pain or their doubt or their uncomfortable truth to church, someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try to fix it, to try and make it go away. Bible verses are quoted. Assurances are given. Plans with ten steps and measurable results are made. With good intentions tinged with fear, Christians scour their inventory for a cure.

But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another's pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome."

And so, over the past couple of years, I've been thankful for those who have come not with an answer but who have said "I know" or "My wife felt exactly the same" or "Me too" and made me realise I wasn't alone. I don't think we talk about it enough; we keep quiet because it rocks the boat and upsets people and makes us seem selfish and complaining.

What do I think churches can do? You can support mothers of young children but not just mothers of young children, really - the disillusioned and the anxious and the people who have big plans that don't fit with your vision. Look out for the people who are just standing there on a Sunday, zoned out, looking uncomfortable, not looking joyful like I know you want them to. You can remember that we don't have the time and the headspace to give you more and more and buy into your latest strategy, but also that we still exist and that we want opportunities and role models - and that we are still striving to grow in our faith. You can provide pastoral support that makes people feel they can be open, not apprehensive about speaking up. You can refrain from publishing blog posts that call people who have issues with the church selfish consumer Christians.

And what if you're reading this and thinking "This is me"? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you're at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn't mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

Click here for my Storify of a conversation on Twitter mentioned in this post

The nagging wife: symptom or cause?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The 'nagging wife' is a centuries-old stereotype that refuses to die. She's the subject of eye-rolling banter between men, the warning from the pulpit and the marriage guidance book, the defence of countless men who have committed murder. In recent weeks, she has resurfaced as a truly 21st century reminder to women that there's something else they're probably not doing well enough at - in the form of a piece entitled 'I wasn't treating my husband fairly, and it wasn't fair'.

The post, which appears to have gone viral in the grand tradition of 'pseudo-meaningful revelations about my relationship that easily translate into clickbait' (247,000 shares on Facebook), details a wife's realisation that her controlling and obsessive attitude to household matters was belittling her husband and buying into another hard-to-stamp-out stereotype - that of the 'useless' husband who can't be trusted to do a thing around the house.

Thousands upon thousands of women have apparently recognised themselves in this tale and I don't think she's entirely wrong. I've heard her tale in conversations in the office or on nights out with friends. 'Wife always knows best' - 'happy wife, happy life' - I've heard people say it and I've most definitely seen them post it on Facebook (there is a theme here. Facebook has a lot to answer for). And I don't buy into it because, really, what does it say when the only words that come out of your mouth regarding your partner, your husband, the father of your children - are about how 'useless' he is and how you won't 'let' him do things?

This works both ways. It's clear that men and women are called to respect and honour each other and sickly relationship-themed clickbait is, for all its faults, reasonably good at pointing this out. However what's often noticeable is the way this point is made differently, depending on whether the post in question is primarily about, or written by, a man or a woman. A key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from men (particularly of the loosely Christian variety): 'You'll be bawling your eyes out when you read about the amazing thing this guy did for his wife'. Conversely, a key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from women: 'The one thing I realised I needed to do more of/less of as a wife and mother'. As ever, identifying our inadequacies and how we must 'do better' defines us as women.

In writing about her tendency to take control and insist that things are done 'her way' - the purchasing of meat, the sorting of laundry - one woman has identified a key way that power struggles between couples often play out. She mentions that she doesn't believe men act in the same way towards women, referencing the fact her husband is 'just not as concerned with some of the minutiae as I am'. But what she doesn't identify is what is so often the reason for this, and the reason for the way women frequently feel compelled to assert power.

I don't know many women who are comfortable with simply doing nothing. Relaxing, chilling out, whatever you prefer to call it. I'm one of them. I've had countless conversations with friends where we've discussed our discomfort with sitting still. There are, quite simply, always things that must be done, whether that means housework or running errands or getting through our 'to read' list or writing another blog post. Not for nothing do we talk about the 'second shift' or the 'double burden' - the fact that women's increased entry into the workplace has not resulted, in the majority of cases, in an egalitarian set-up when it comes to housework, childcare, and the general organisation of family life. 

Even women who do enjoy a more equal partnership struggle to allow themselves downtime, knowing at the same time that their partners have no such qualms about relaxing - and for many it's learned from childhood in the way they've seen the household roles their parents have played.

The curse of modern womanhood, as we all know too well, is that whatever you do and however you do it, feelings of guilt and inadequacy will snap at your heels like an angry terrier. The majority of society, from politicians to journalists, to people on parenting forums and your own relatives have a wealth of opinions on what constitutes acceptable womanhood and unfortunately, most of us socialised to care a whole lot about what others think about us and out lifestyle choices.

This, of course, happens in different ways. I enjoy a pretty egalitarian marriage and couldn't care less if I haven't dusted my mantelpieces in living memory, but I've certainly considered myself a bit of a let-down for sitting on the sofa watching television when emails have languished in my inbox and projects haven't moved forward as quickly as I would have liked (and those are personal emails and personal projects, not even work-related ones).

Even today, especially today, the running of the home and of family life inevitably falls on the shoulders of women. Even if it doesn't, in theory - for those in equal partnerships for example - we still consider it our responsibility, berating ourselves internally when they let something slip. The minutiae of daily life all too easily becomes a source of anxiety - I know I've had to remind myself that I am, in fact, allowed to relax and that this is not the same thing as laziness. And for many women, the efficiency and performance of the minutiae of daily life is one of the few areas in which they can exert power and control.

Guarding against a hunger for power and control is something all humans must do. A toxic force within relationships and families, it often manifests in differing ways because of the ways men and women are brought up to behave and to gain power, and the ways society considers it acceptable for them to do so. Discouraged from speaking our minds and pursuing confrontation or appearing to 'dominate' a relationship, women are encouraged instead to resort to manipulation and only ever to demonstrate indirectly that they might 'know best', or indeed have feelings about anything at all. It's even a tactic that's encouraged by numerous Christian books on marriage: upholding traditional gender roles means subtly manipulating and influencing your husband rather than asking him or telling him. That would, of course, be 'nagging', or assuming a dominant role.

'Nagging', and the range of emotions and issues it encompasses - the wrong meat purchased, the blue sock accidentally included in the white wash, the fact that somehow, people do things differently to you and that's just not right - must therefore be looked at as part of the wider picture of how women are permitted to exercise control over their own lives and the lives of others. 

The key sphere in which women are permitted by society to exercise authority is the home. In a world of judgement, anxiety and the feeling that whatever you do will somehow be not good enough and that there are countless factors in your life that you can't control, household tasks are one of things that you can. Whereas men are allowed to assert authority in the public sphere and as the 'head of the household', women remain largely responsible for all that lies beneath, and even today, they know that their worth as women is often judged by it.

Men have - usually - not been brought up to notice the minutiae of the home and family life. They haven't had to, because, historically, it's always been women's work. It's something that's been done for them and they've often never really had to think about it - yet many (not all) expect it to somehow get done anyway. Even in relationships where both partners truly don't care about crumbs on the floor and the correct brand of mayonnaise being purchased, women feel compelled to set standards lest they be judged by society, their friends, their mother-in-law - and found wanting in a way that men never will. 

In a world where this burden still inevitably falls to women, in a world where humans want control and power, the woman whose anxiety and anger over things not being done 'her way' can be seen as a symptom, not just a cause, of gender relations that need restoration. Perhaps a more balanced and egalitarian approach to home life - where tasks and responsibilities are not gendered - might alleviate the need to control and 'take charge' over simple household tasks.
 

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