Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Growing up in Anglican, Baptist and Pentecostal churches, women popped up in positions of leadership frequently. The Sunday Schools I attended were run by women, who were incredible, and to whom I owe a lot in all kinds of ways, but women were not confined solely to the leadership of children. No, I remember female curates, female vicars, female missionaries, female elders speaking, teaching, preaching from the front. Perhaps not as frequently as their male counterparts, but they were a visible presence when I was a child, and I never heard mention of this being strange or rare or wrong.
My oldest friends are those I made at Secondary school - we banded together aged eleven, an unlikely group of girls, nicknamed the Weirdos (or, Weirdoz, cos it was the '90s). We had fights, we fell out, but we always made up (eventually), and we had each other's backs. We shared secrets, like most girls, but what strikes me when I look back now is how much we trusted each other with our identities as they were forming. We all dreamed different dreams, but our differences did not divide us - we did not feel any need to be the same as one another on the inside or the outside. I was one of the quiet ones, but my friends could be loud, outspoken, rebellious, controversial. They were not ashamed to be who they were, they did not let people tell them who (or what) they should be, and their defiance made me less afraid. I am so proud to be their friends today, this bunch of women who are just as wonderful as they ever were, just as feisty, just as strong. And just as diverse: within the seven of us, we include a consultant, an astrophysicist, a vicar, an analyst, a manager, a biochemist, an economist, a mother, wives, girlfriends, mentors, a church leader, an artist, a youth minister, a couple of world-travellers, a musician, a vegan (and several lapsed vegetarians). I say this not to boast (I'm well aware of how that may read!), but because I am so incredibly thankful that I got to grow up with these women, and because, clichéd as it sounds, them being them allowed me to be me.
In my twenties I started to attend a teeny tiny church in North London, and it is this church that, eight and a half years later, I'm about to leave. It is here that I found family for the first time within church. It is here where I have grown to inhabit my faith more than any other community. It is here I met my husband, here we got married, here we had our first child (well, we had him in the hospital, but you know what I mean). It is here where I've laughed and sung and bellowed 'happy birthday' a million times; where I've wept and cursed and mourned; where I've served countless cups of teas, laid hands on people dear to me in prayer, witnessed miracles and wonders, spoken in tongues, found peace, experienced healing, met with God. And it is also here that I first spoke from the front and discovered a love for teaching - and did not even consider that it might be something unusual or different or untoward or just plain wrong, because this church has a history of women in leadership roles, and because no one - at all - indicated that it might be a big deal.
But in my twenties I also encountered some places of scarcity. I discovered the the Christian Union would not invite women to teach in case this caused offence to members of denominations that taught it to be wrong. I met a visiting missionary/prophet who, when introduced to me amongst a bunch of people at church, did not say hello, or engage with me as he had with the men in the group, but instead remarked to his neighbour that there sure were some pretty girls at this church, before moving on to the next person (I did not take this as a compliment). I spoke to a confused friend who'd joined a vibrant church, a church which served and loved and wept over the community, and yet refused to allow women to have authority to speak. I began to read blogs, and discovered women fighting for opportunities to serve in church, opportunities to use their God-given gifts, and being denied, turned away, even threatened with hell.
I am so thankful for my places of plenty, but I suppose it took my encounters with scarcity to truly make me realise how fortunate I am, and to truly declare myself a Jesus Feminist. And I declare this not because I need to in my current community, because there I'm pretty sure we're all Jesus Feminists, so why say it?
No, I declare it because I am growing more aware that not everyone gets to be somewhere where this is taken for granted. I say it to stand with the women and men across the world who believe that women have voices and gifts and character and blessings that must be shared because just as men can be gifted with such things, well, shockingly, so can women. I declare it because it hurts my heart to think of women who feel trapped or confined or rejected or not good enough because people will not look beyond their gender.
And I declare it with a thankful heart for all the women and men who fought for my places of plenty, and I declare it because I long to create more such places, to spread the plenty further.
Today I'm linking up with Sarah Bessey, celebrating the launch of her book, Jesus Feminist.