Churches accused of ‘institutional sexism’ on International Women’s Day

09 March 2018

Eva’s Call, the community artwork that has been on show at Ripon College, Cuddesdon

Eva’s Call, the community artwork that has been on show at Ripon College, Cuddesdon

“DAUGHTER of Satan” was one phrase displayed at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, this month, in an artwork largely composed of remarks that women say have been made to them while they were pursuing ordained ministry.

Their testimony was echoed in research published on International Women’s Day on Thursday, which speaks of institutional sexism within the Churches, as well as the persistence of women in pursuing their sense of a vocation to ministry.

Eva’s Call, the artwork shown at the theological college in Cuddesdon, near Oxford, was explained by Alice Watson, an ordinand, in a blog. “Each word you read has been said to or about women, and is reported without exaggeration or editing,” she wrote. “The central idea was to take these experiences and to transfigure them, through prayer and resistance. Looking directly at institutional and institutionalised, sin, it responds in grace, seeking to transform structures and not participating within them.”

One woman reported being told “Your miscarriage is probably a blessing, given your job.” Comments about appearance, including sexual remarks, feature frequently in the speech bubbles. Women reported being asked about their menstrual cycle, told that they would go to hell, and sworn at. One had been told that she would neglect her children, “and then it’s your fault they’ll go to hell”. One woman said that someone had spat in her face while she was walking in a procession.

Other quotations from the display were read out in the House of Lords on Thursday, at the launch of Mind the Gap, a report from the Sophia Network. The charity’s survey, carried out online in May and June last year and completed by 1211 self-selected respondents, elicited “a joy, and a heartbreak”, the Revd Vicky Thompson, a Baptist minister who chairs the charity, said.

Eighty-six per cent of the respondents said that they felt “like valued members of their church”, and 89 per cent agreed that women were encouraged to use all their gifts in their church. Sixty-two per cent, however, said that they had experienced sexism in the Church. Asked to select the top barriers to women’s leadership, they were most likely to select “institutional sexism”.

One participant had been told that her infertility was due to her grandmother’s sin, whereas in fact she had been raped. Another reported that she had been consistently bullied by a male elder, who had gone unchallenged. “Inequality in employment” was raised consistently in responses, Ms Thompson said. One older woman wrote that “tears are falling down my face” as she read the survey questions: “I felt a call to ministry so many years ago, and I was put off.”

Three-quarters of the respondents were aged between 25 and 54, and nearly half (48 per cent) were Anglicans. Three-quarters of respondents described themselves as egalitarians, and 85 per cent were in leadership in the Church, paid or voluntary. Twenty per cent were ministers or pastors, and 59 per cent were in a church that employed a female minister.

A Church’s advocacy of egalitarian theology did not guarantee equal treatment of men and women, respondents suggested. One, who noted “abusive” treatment of women, described such advocacy as “a completely empty claim” in her church. Nine per cent said that a woman had never taught at their church — the same per centage as agreed that “the Church is too feminine.”

Respondents gave many examples of encouragement for their ministry from men. “All the key people who encouraged and supported me into ordination were men,” one wrote.

“This is about structures, principalities and powers,” the Revd Dr Steve Holmes, a Baptist minister and senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews, said. “This is about naming and confronting structures with prayer and prophecy, as well as action and words.”

The network has produced an eight-point manifesto. It includes a pledge to “call out everyday sexism in our church” and to “tell stories of the female heroes on the faith”.

The audience, which included Baroness Richardson of Calow, a minister who was the first female President of the Methodist Conference, also heard from the creators of a new database that is designed to bring together women with gifts in public speaking and organisers of Christian events. This has been a long-term goal of Project 3:28, which, since 2013, has been gathering data on the number of women and men speaking on the national Christian platform (News, 26 January). It is now live online.

On Wednesday, one of the project leaders, Natalie Collins, said that she had been encouraged by “incremental increases” in the ratio of male to female speakers over the past five years. She noted as examples the events Spring Harvest, New Wine, and Greenbelt. She expressed concern, however, that youth events such as Soul Survivor had been “much less inclined to invest in this stuff than adult events”, where “adults are holding adults accountable.”

The database has received financial support from an anonymous American donor and through crowdfunding. Any Christian woman can sign up and create a profile on the database, which events organisers can then search. Within hours of its going live, dozens of women had signed up.

“Nobody has to sign up to a creed or any particular theological position,” Ms Collins said. “If you are gifted at communication, and a Christian, we want you to speak up.”

Around the country, churches marked the day. In St Davids Cathedral library, the first woman bishop in the Church in Wales, the Bishop of St Davids, the Rt Revd Joanna Penberthy, opened an exhibition to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage.

It features a Visitors’ Book from July 1908 which includes the signatures of Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, and Mary Blathwayt, who visited the cathedral during a break in campaigning in a parliamentary by-election. “We hope they found peace and comfort in this special place in the midst of what was so often very tough treatment as they strove for justice and fairness,” the Bishop said.

CHARLOTTE MORTIMER-TALMANGodolphin Vocal Ensemble, directed by Olivia Sparkhall, with Katie Salomon, harp, giving the premiere performance of ‘Our Endless Day’ by Hilary Campbell, at St Thomas’s, Salisbury, on Thursday. The anthem is part of the Multitude of Voyces’ ‘Women in Church Music’ series of commissions, based on texts by the medieval mystic Dame Julian of Norwich, of which the final anthem in this series will be composed by Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s MusicSt Thomas’s, Salisbury, hosted the first public performance of Cleeton St Mary, a hymn composed by Rachel Hewitt, which was the winning entry in a competition launched by the church last year. The words are “Sing a new church” by Sister Delores Dufner OSB. Composed, written, performed, and led exclusively by women, the service included an anthem on a text by Julian of Norwich, composed for women’s voices and harp by Hilary Campbell, and a setting of Lux Aeterna by Olivia Sparkhall. It is part of a project by Multiutude of Voyces to encourage works for traditional Anglican and ecumenical worship written by women.

Charities looked beyond British shores. Christian Aid issued a statement in support of the women who are standing for election this week in Sierra Leone, where 13 per cent of the country’s MPs are women. Working with partners SEND, Sierra Leone, and the Network Movement for Justice and Development, the charity has been seeking to increase these numbers through the Power to Women project.

One candidate, Iye E.B. Mustapha, who is standing as a local councillor in Kailahun district, spoke this week of her motivation: “I have suffered a lot, I dropped out of school, I didn’t get a good education and I see others suffering. I don’t want [women and girls] to suffer like I did.”

The ceremony for the confirmation of the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally’s election as Bishop of London was also held on Thursday, at the City church St Mary-le-Bow.

“I am reminded that as women we have many opportunities today because of the women of the past, but there continues to be unequal treatment for women across the world,” Bishop Mullaly wrote in a blog. “More progress is needed.”

Acknowledging the theological position of those who could not accept the ordained ministry of women, she said that women of this tradition “need to be able to flourish”, and that, within the rest of the Church, “women need to be equally represented in leadership roles so that the Church reflects the nature of God. With only 15 per cent of priests being women in the Diocese of London, we need to ensure that they and those from BAME groups are enabled to find their vocation.”

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