“I CAN see that you are expecting!” These are words that no woman who is not expecting wishes to hear. It happened to me when I was visiting another church on holiday. The words were spoken by someone who should have known better: the Vicar’s wife.
I wish that I could say that a hasty apology ensued, but she continued to justify her assumption, despite the fact that the look on my face must have conveyed nothing less than all the wrath the Almighty himself could muster. A colossal faux pas? Certainly. But it was one that is indicative of assumptions about women in church and the parts that they are implicitly expected to play.
Regularly attending church and having grown up in vicarages in the Church of England, I am no stranger to the foibles of the Church. In recent times, however, it seems that something has changed. I am 31 and, like many other people, I would like to be a bit slimmer. Yet my figure was not cause for comment before the addition of a ring to my finger. Nowadays, I rarely leave church with any sense of spiritual uplift or peace, but with a sense of deflation: body-shamed (once, for having a biscuit with my cup of tea), and feeling like my husband’s support act rather than a person in my own right. To date, no one has commented on my husband’s physique.
OFTEN, the parts that women are implicitly expected to assume in a church context are very different from the positions that we inhabit in our professional lives.
One woman recently commented to me that all the women in her family have Ph.D.s, including hers and that she is surrounded by brilliant women in academia. She feels incredibly repressed to have to assume a different posture in certain church contexts. Another said that she felt that she had to “put my faith on hold” when her choir would no longer accommodate her toddler’s sitting in the stalls with her, which meant that she had to stop singing, which was an important expression of her faith. A friend, on moving into a vicarage, received an anonymous note: “Finally, we have a vicar’s wife!” Far from being an idle observation, it indicated an expectation of a job to be fulfilled.
These experiences form a tapestry of church experiences that leave women feeling inadequate and judged. Men do not escape this unscathed: the situation is only exacerbated by jokes about impending disaster when it is their turn to provide the refreshments, or when they are denigrated to their children’s “babysitters”.
These experiences cause some women to turn away from an institution that should be a lifeline, because it does not offer them what they need, recognise what they need from worship, or what they may be able to contribute.
Kristin Aune has noted that women in the age group of 15 to 44 accounted for the largest percentage loss in church attendance (Comment, 20 August 2008): a trend that is still current. Yet the overall attendance of women is higher than men, which means that the gap in this age range must be profound.
Perhaps women return to the Church when it is too late to judge their choices, when they will be seen as quirky rather than “unwomanly”.
The problem extends to the clergy: 30 per cent of those currently in ordained ministry are women, and yet the Church of England’s statistics reveal that 73 per cent of those ordained for stipendiary ministry last year under the age of 35 were men (News, 6 September). This raises the question why women feel unable to begin ministry training at a younger age, as their male counterparts do, and the effects that this will have on women’s preferment within the Church.
DESPITE the Church’s efforts to achieve female inclusion, and the great strides made in female ministry, a distinct strain of what popular culture would term “internalised misogyny” — unconscious misogynistic behaviour displayed by women themselves — is still evident and active in congregations. I am not suggesting that this is intentional, but it reveals latent expectations of women which the modern Church has not managed to address, and which, in turn, cause women’s experience of church and their faith to suffer. The “normative ideal” of marriage and children may still be an expectation within the Church, and is one that “the women who stay” are challenging (Features, 30 September 2016). We have so much more potential than that of our bodies — more complicated spiritual needs, more to give than nurture, different callings to follow.
Churches need to respond to the cultural context of the 21st century. Regardless of demographics, a culture of welcome, inclusivity, and non-judgement should be at the heart of any congregation’s ethos, and should guide its interactions with visitors and new members.
Dr Rachel White is a Research Associate in the School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics at Newcastle University.