“Mostly I dig being a man. It’s awesome. And being a middle class white man? Holy crap. I don’t need to buy a lottery ticket because I won all the things just by turning up.” John Birmingham
We had a female guest speaker at our church on Mothers Day. After the service, one of the mums came out to the crèche (I was looking after the kids that day, so had missed the talk) and told me she’d just heard her whole life described; she said that she’d never realised what a difference it could make hearing a sermon by a woman rather than a man. Her comments stuck with me because for the week or so beforehand my thoughts had repeatedly returned to this section of a blog post by Dianna Anderson (the emphasis is hers):
[W]hat does a heart attack look like?If you said pain radiating in the left arm, constriction in the chest, rapid or irregular heartbeat, fainting, you’re basically right...if you're describing the symptoms for heart attacks in… men. Women experience nausea, back and jaw pain, shortness of breath, and vomiting.You would think heart attack symptoms would be an objective science. That’s the narrative we’ve received for years and years – because the narrative has been dominated by supposedly “objective” white men. And because women were kept out of the sciences for centuries, and only relatively recently started becoming specialized doctors, study of female heart attack symptoms never really mattered because the men in charge of the studying didn’t think of how it might be different.This is the danger – literal and figurative – of equating a white, male dominated discourse with “objectivity”… even if you’re not trying to set it up as a hierarchy. Because of the patriarchal strictures within which we live and move, equating maleness with objectivity… demands that minorities drop their identities at the door and learn how to converse and discuss as white men in order to participate in “objective” discussion.
In a sermon a few weeks after that Sunday, our pastor was talking about God’s unconditional love for and acceptance of us. He said that knowing this allows us to talk to God even when we’re in our deepest sin, “whether it’s lust, whether it’s sex, whether it’s pornography, whether it’s, um, adultery, whether it’s… you know, whatever it is, whether it’s greed, whether it’s… anything,” he said. Although I could have dwelt on the greed one for a while, I found this skewed list distracting rather than convicting; it made me wonder how many in the congregation would come up with the same examples (or even just a couple of these) if they were put on the spot and asked to share their biggest struggles. How many of these would be men? And how many women?
One more example: A while ago I met with our minister to talk about a paper I’d written in response to a paper he’d written (and asked for my thoughts on) on women in the church. We’d been talking for a while when I surprised us both by bursting into tears while discussing the topic of God as ‘Father’ (I said something along the lines of, “God is genderless” and he said something along the lines of, “Wow, I’d never thought about ‘Father’ being a gendered term”). I realised at that moment that he was satisfied with the Father metaphor above others in the Bible mostly because it was one he could completely relate to. And yet the picture he’d always chosen for God highlighted the aspects of God that looked very much like him, and very little like me (or more than half of his congregation).
I say my minister ‘chose’ this picture because the Bible offers a range of metaphors for God, many of which are feminine. Yet, in the churches I’ve been a part of, God has only been “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9) and never also “the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18)*. The omission is innocent rather than intentional; the structure of most of the churches I know seems to be based on the assumption that the Bible is able to be interpreted and talked about and applied in an objective bubble, completely untainted by an individual’s background, so it doesn’t matter that the preacher and the leadership team are all males (and, in these parts, predominantly white and middle class) – they’re able to speak and decide for everyone. And yet, this bubble is a dream. No one comes to the Bible like that.
(I should clarify that I’m not suggesting that all men in a congregation are able to relate to a male preacher’s sermons or decisions, or that no women are able to; unlike my friend, I had no Killing Me Softly moment when I listened to the female speaker’s Mothers Day talk. Just as men and women can be different from each other, so are many women different from other women, and many men different from other men.**)
It strikes me as particularly odd that those who seem most convinced of the vast differences between men and women and the roles each should play have no problem with the fact that their congregations hear either mostly or only from men about what life, and God, is like. If both men and women are created in God’s image, as the first chapter of Genesis tells us we are, and men and women are so very different, as many complementarians tell us we are, then surely we’re leaving half of the picture unpainted in churches where only men are offered a chance to share their perspectives on Sundays? The ironic thing is that this is the ‘complementarian’ view, and yet we see very little complementarity played out when it’s one sex doing all of the talking in and for the church and the other doing all of the listening.
The week before last, Pru Goward, Minister for Women and former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, was on the radio talking about her desire to see more women in typically male-heavy careers, such as the military and trades, because she said that men who work alongside women in the same or similar roles are usually far less sexist than those who don’t. I noticed while reading How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership (compiled by Alan F. Johnson) how many of the men started rethinking their views on women in the church because their wives challenged them (often implicitly) to do so; working alongside a woman even in a marriage seems to have the same effect for many men. When I asked Alan about it, he admitted that if he were single, he probably wouldn’t have looked into the topic as much as he has done as a married man.
It seems that sympathy is a fundamental part of the way people relate to and love each other, and yet if there’s little to no space for the voices of women*** in our churches, how can our stories, our understanding of the Bible, the metaphors for God we latch onto as key ones, be heard and understood and therefore sympathised with? Can we as the church truly love one another if we don’t have the chance to truly sympathise with each other? And if we can’t and don’t truly love each other, how will others know that we’re Jesus’ disciples (John 13:34)? Can we truly be united as one redeemed and perfect body if so many members must repeatedly fight to balance what they know of God and the Bible with what’s implied in the structure and teaching of their church: “Because I’m not male, I don’t really belong to the body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). There’s no complementarity here; we’re all yin, no yang.
It breaks my heart.
** Though I’ve been talking specifically about men and women, if I was going to turn this from a lament into an argument, it wouldn’t be an argument for women preaching or leading as much as an argument for preaching or leadership teams, made up of a group of a people whose gifts and backgrounds and experiences and personalities and genders better display and represent the complementary variety of Christ’s body.
*** …or single people, or non-Caucasian people, or homosexual people, or refugees, or any other group whose voices are currently not heard (or not heard enough) in Anglican churches in this city…