IN HER 2004 bestseller Watching the English, the anthropologist Kate Fox stated that “participant observation” remained the best tool for exploring the complexities of human cultures. For Katie Gaddini, a postgraduate student in Cambridge University’s sociology department, it was women-only Bible studies that helped her to explore a group that, she believes, has remained largely invisible in academic circles: unmarried Evangelical Christian women.
”There can be negativity within feminist circles in academia towards religious women: this idea of them being passive, or duped, or brainwashed, or just feminism being incompatible with any sort of religion, let alone a conservative one,” she says. “I wanted to show a different side of that story.”
Telling this story has involved many conversations. Besides attending Bible studies and other gatherings, she has conducted 31 “semi-structured” interviews with Christian women living in London, aged 23 to 38. All were unmarried, and all identified with the Charismatic tradition. No longer a churchgoer herself, her findings moved her.
”A lot of these women have been through really hard stuff,” she says. “The ways that they’ve dealt with that, the ways that they have reconciled, in some cases, being in an environment where they felt discriminated against for being a woman — and they have chosen to stay and they’ve seen it as a battle that they want to fight — have really impressed me.”
Struggle was a “huge theme” in these conversations. These are women who have stayed within the Church, but at no small cost. It was hard, Gaddini heard, to be outside the “normative ideal” of being married and having children. “Having a certain personality that’s not too dominant” was also, to some degree, a challenge. Many women had been told that they were “too strong” or “too much”. It’s similar in mainstream society, she suggests, but “intensified in the Christian environment”.
A STARTING point for the research was the work of Dr Kristin Aune, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, and author of books including Single Women: Challenge to the Church? Dr Aune’s research explored the factors behind the loss of women from the Church, including fertility levels, feminist values, paid employment, family diversity, and sexuality (Comment, 20 August 2008).
Between 1998 and 2005, 51,000 women were lost every year, two-thirds of those leaving the Church. The percentage loss of women was greatest in the 15-44 age range. Gaddini wants to tell “the story of the women who stayed”.
One of the findings that surprised her was the variation in answers. Growing up in the United States, she sensed “a lot less margin for ways to believe and to express your beliefs as a Christian woman. What I found in this sample was a huge diversity of ways to live out your faith, which in a lot of ways is a beautiful thing.” This is “testament to women’s agency and complexity”, she thinks, and it gives the lie to a “very secular feminist idea of religious women being duped and passive. It’s not a sort of clear transmission of norms; there’s a push-back and resistance, and also a kind of a re-articulation of norms.”
ATTITUDES to dating and relationships were instructive. While interviewees in their twenties hoped to meet a Christian partner, those in their thirties were more prepared to date outside the Church. The gender disparity in churches was brought up. Interviewees were aware of the expectation that they would marry a Christian man, and yet several described a frustrating scenario in which women outnumbered men, and felt unable to take the initiative in asking a man out.
Despite external pressure, many of her interviewees were happy with their single status: “They weren’t married, but they were OK with that. They felt that they had really full lives.”
Feminism came up, too, prompting questions about definitions. “In a lot of cases, their Christian faith was what influenced their feminism, or is what made them a feminist in the first place,” she says. “Their interpretation of the Bible, of Christian teachings, was one of equality and emancipation, and treating women equally.”
A discovery that she wants to explore further is that interviewees who had the most high-powered careers outside the Church held the most conservative beliefs. “They didn’t believe that women should be in leadership, or they wanted to have a man or a husband who could ‘lead them’, and they felt that the church sphere and the workplace sphere were completely different, and they wanted to be able to move between the two and have a different role in each.”
WHILE it is clear that a struggle exists, Gaddini does not want to give the impression that her interviewees were denigrating the Church. She heard “a lot of beautiful things” expressed, including descriptions of the community it provided, particularly for those new to the city. Causes of dissatisfaction included the lack of women in leadership, “but it wasn’t enough to make them leave”. Her subjects were frustrated by aspects of the Church, but were “working to change that, finding ways to make that work for them”.
Gaddini’s desire is not to produce a prescription for the Church, but to hand the research back to women as a “tool” so that they can “see themselves reflected back, to understand their own faith better, to understand other women’s faith, to connect with one another. If they see this as something that ignites them to change something in the Church, then that would be beautiful; but my primary audience is them: what they would get out of it, rather than changing the Church.”
Her findings will challenge preconceptions in academic circles, she thinks, where there is an idea that conservative religious women are “weird or different. I want there to be some sort of face given to a population that’s not normally seen in the academic community, and, hopefully, I will describe that face accurately.”
Responding to the research
Vicky Walker, writer and speaker on faith and culture
“Churches that model faith in ways that women cannot relate to, or which actively limit or denigrate them, should cause a healthy struggle — a sign that change is needed. Women are often very unfairly blamed for ‘feminising’ the Church and turning men off attending, rather than their faithfulness being celebrated, and I think those who do still go feel strongly that it’s their best or only option for living out their faith.
“If they are also single, and isolated from the kind of lives their peers are living, it can also feel like there’s nothing for them outside of church; so they persevere. And there are some churches that do integrate their communities well; so everyone is equally welcome and valued. More of that approach — which may need to come from restructuring traditional models — would make a difference to women feeling understood and appreciated. If women really are the backbone of the Church, as I have heard said, their presence should be sought and encouraged, not overlooked.
“Christian teaching on relationships, in particular, varies so much, and has a huge impact on how Christian women interact with their faith and the wider world. The research I’ve done suggests that there are more women who are single, and don’t feel ‘called’ to be so, than there are those who are happy or at peace with pursuing Christian life without a partner — and that this is an area not well understood or responded to by the churches they attend.
“The majority of those responding to my survey [on relationships] do think churches should change, and my interpretation is that this is a pastoral issue that determines whether faithful Christian women can ever be in spiritual communities that they can also call home, or whether they will feel adrift because the changing dynamics of society aren’t reflected by their leaders. Listening would be a great first step. Women want to talk about this.”
Contribute to Vicky Walker's dating and relationships survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/RealLifeLoveBook
Chine McDonald, director of communications and membership at Evangelical Alliance
“As Evangelical Christians passionate about mission, we at the Evangelical Alliance are concerned about any research that might suggest that women are not finding churches they can call home, and instead are leaving churches. Christian women can often feel out of place, alone, ill-equipped, stressed, and lonely. Many of them are scratching their heads about how to fit the many pieces of their lives into the overall narrative of faith. These women currently make up the majority of members of Evangelical churches, but research suggests this might be changing, as an increasing number of women become dechurched.
“There are, on the other hand, many women in the Church who are doing amazing things in amazing places, choosing to stay and create the Church that Jesus prayed for — one in which all people are invited in to live life to the full.
“As a Christian and a feminist, I recognise that, so often, churches seem very different to the world we encounter and inhabit: a society which is increasingly celebrating women from all backgrounds, ages, and relationship statuses.
“I would hope that church leaders might listen more to the voices of the women in their congregations, find out about their lives, their priorities, their challenges, and their joys, and ensure that their churches are fully reflective of the wonderfully diverse body of Christ.”