From disagreements about women’s ordination, to what St Paul really meant when he told women to keep silent in church, the debate about the role of women in churches is complex, emotive and contested. It’s too massive to be covered in a single blog post.
But I trust readers will be familiar with claims that the churches have side-lined and in some cases even oppressed women by prescribing strict gender roles in the life of the church and in the home.
Most notably, demands that women ‘submit’ to men (especially their husbands) under almost all circumstances can in some instances lead to abuse; while restrictions on what women may and may not do in church may limit them from exercising the full range of their gifts.
Readers from evangelical backgrounds may be familiar with debates between ‘complementarians’ and ‘egalitarians.’ Both claim to promote a ‘biblical’ view of womanhood.
Complementarians restrict women from leadership in the church, and identify specific tasks women can perform so that they may ‘complement’ the work of men without seriously questioning their overall authority. Egalitarians, on the other hand, claim that there are no biblical gender-based restrictions on serving in the church.
Kellie Turtle, a founder of the Belfast Feminist Network (BFN), was one of the speakers at Ikonbelt, a Belfast-based alternative Greenbelt organised by the Ikon collective. Turtle had been a part of Ikon’s ‘syndicate’ (planning group) for a number of years before leaving to focus on feminist political activism.
Turtle’s talk was a mixture of personal reflection on her own journey towards deeper involvement with feminism – at the expense, it seems, of involvement in churches.
Turtle related a few stories familiar to those who had also come from churches with ‘complementarian’ approaches, and explained that those churches had not really contributed to her full development as a woman.
Turtle also said that while feminism had sparked one of the largest, most significant social revolutions in history, women still had not achieved full equality with men in a number of spheres. Many issues remain that need to be taken up by ‘third wave’ feminists, which in part motivated her to instigate the BFN.
According to its website, the BFN has around 500 online members and has organised:
… political panel discussions on the subjects of the sex industry and violence against women, pre-election hustings, public awareness raising events during the 16 Days of Activism on Violence Against Women, lobbying political representatives, publicly challenging sexism in the media and advertising, organising feminist community events such as “Building Herstory”, “FemFest”, and “The Carnival for Sexual Rights and Freedom”, and speaking out about rape culture including hosting a candlelight vigil and demanding an end to victim blaming by public bodies.
Turtle said she was keen to keep the online nature of the BFN from reverting to ‘slacktivism’ and thought that community-based education was key to keeping women’s issues at the forefront of public awareness.
Turtle also told a story about speaking on a panel at the Summer Madness festival. She said that the remarks of another woman on the panel who attempted to interpret the bible in a more woman-friendly, empowering way were met with enthusiasm by the audience. But her own assertion that it was too difficult to rescue the bible from its inherent patriarchy was not well-received.
I can sympathise with Turtle’s weariness with the ‘biblical gymnastics’ of people who try and use the bible to make one point or another. But at the same time, I was troubled by what seemed to me to be a major theme of her talk:
That the churches – and the bible that they supposedly use to guide them – are not really equipped to contribute to the liberation and empowerment of women, wherever and whenever it may be needed.
Some feminists, it seems, have simply given up on the churches.
That’s why I would remain interested in more conversation around egalitarians’ interpretations of the bible, more considered reflections on the way that Jesus treated women in the Gospels, and keeping communication channels open between churches and the feminists who find it hard to believe that they could be allies.
(Image from the BFN website)