God; She, He and everything in between – Church of England Newspaper Article Oct.2018

The conversation regarding the gender of God has been rekindled in the last few weeks with an article published by the Telegraph which included some quotations from the Bishop of Gloucester. Unfortunately, the Bishop then received some outraged trolling on the subject. Why is the idea of using female language and images about God so controversial? Why do we have a generation of Christians who are growing up with the idea that God is male even though this is a rather novel idea?

This is why our language is so important – it is completely orthodox and traditional to say that God is both male and female and beyond gender, but the language that we use to talk about God in church is majority male – he, him, Lord, King. In the past there was a lingering understanding that God can be spoken of in both male and female terms, but this is getting lost in the mists of time and with the majority male language used it is unsurprising that churchgoers are coming away with the impression that the Christian faith has a male God.

What does it matter? Well, this means that we can lose the rich imagery of God as a loving, strong and protective mother (for example) found throughout Scripture and that our picture of God becomes narrow and not as rounded as it might be. In our churches we need to have confidence to use these feminine images, as well as masculine images, in order to reclaim a more biblical understanding of God. Sadly, because gender has been a contested issue in church, people have felt that using these images or speaking of God using female pronouns, is controversial, it is not.

It is really important for us to recover this not only because we don’t want an impoverished view of God, but because it impacts the relationship between men and women – if God is seen as male then people can be forgiven for thinking that men are perhaps more important than women, for example. This then becomes part of the contemporary conversation about how women are treated in the church and in the world.

It also matters because of the current conversation regarding gender as a fluid concept. The increase of people questioning their gender in relation to their biological sex or finding themselves unable to fit binary concepts of gender that are part of the current norms in societal thinking, is rightly challenging us all to think through what gender means. What it means for us as individuals who have ‘sexed’ bodies and what it means about God. It raises the idea that we are all potentially ‘both male and female’, as it says in Genesis 1.27, in our gender even when our bodies have a biological sex; male, female or intersex. If this is the case, then the roles and stereotypes we attribute to the sexes, simply have no basis. Perhaps this is why it is so controversial? It threatens a status quo that we hold dear. Perhaps this is why the conversation regarding transgender people is one the church is struggling to have – their presence makes a nonsense of the kind of conversations we are having about LGB people. If gender is fluid, then the conversations around our sexed bodies and what we do with them, needs to be an entirely different conversation than the one which we are currently having.

As human beings made in the image of God, our collective bodies tell us something about God’s gender. And in return, as we contemplate God, perhaps we will recognise that we are all She, He and everything in between.

Jody Stowell

Pushing and pulling at the sticky door – Church of England Newspaper article July 2018

In the summer of 2012 I moved to North London to become the vicar of St Pancras Church. The parish is part of the Edmonton Area of the Diocese of London. Edmonton has over a hundred churches, and by then women had been priests for 18 years in the Church of England, yet I was only the second female vicar the Area had ever appointed. As we have seen in other long-established institutions – Parliament, the law, the City – changing the rules of admission doesn’t necessarily result in rapid and profound change.

Dame Minouche Shafik, formerly Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and now Director of the LSE, has been saying for a while that the image of the glass ceiling is unhelpful. ‘It implies that, if you could break through it, then everybody could get through and it is not quite that simple. In my experience it is more like a sticky door. In order to get through it, you have to give it a nudge because it won’t open automatically. And it helps a lot if you’ve got allies on the other side of the door giving it a pull.’ On Desert Island Discs earlier this year she took the image further: ‘Often even if you get through the door, the door shuts again, and it sticks again, and it takes another person to nudge it and someone else to pull it open for them before it stays open for everyone.’

These days, the situation in Edmonton is beginning to look and feel remarkably different. A number of factors underlie this. The following list may look obvious – many dioceses blazed these trails long ago – but it bears repeating for areas and dioceses that are still struggling with the sticky door. Senior staff were appointed in Edmonton who actively promoted women’s ministry and worked closely with parishes to help them feel confident about appointing women incumbents, team vicars and curates for the first time. All vacancies were openly advertised, and they made a point of saying that applications from under-represented groups would be welcome.

A Dean of Women’s Ministry and a Dean for Black and Minority Ethnic Affairs were appointed to offer pastoral care and support to those groups and to speak on their behalf in senior staff meetings. Some of the negative speech and behaviour that had previously gone unchallenged in the Area was publicly named and shamed. Most recently, as part of a diocesan initiative to help the leadership of our churches look more like the diverse city we serve, senior staff and all those involved in appointments panels have been undertaking unconscious bias training.

Some of these initiatives are easier than others. Some require a substantial investment of time and money. Others require uncomfortable truths to be named and addressed. All of them require an openness to the possibility of change, and a commitment to seeing that change come about. In an age where people outside the church often see it as a place of bigotry rather than love, it is a gospel statement. We live in a wonderfully diverse world, and the good news of Jesus Christ is still about setting people free and enabling them to be the people God made them to be.

A few years ago, keen to see more diversity in the scientific community, the Royal Society produced a brief animated video on Unconscious Bias which can easily be found on most internet search engines. It ends with the statement, ‘We can’t cure unconscious bias, but with self-awareness we can address it.’ In Edmonton we still have our biases, conscious and unconscious, and most of us remain firmly attached to them. But little by little we are being helped to understand them, and to suspend them where we can, tugging away at the door so that it can genuinely be open to all. And we are discovering that there are some amazingly talented people pushing on the other side, wanting to come and work here, sensing that it might be an inspiring and creative place to be. Coming from so far back, we are under no illusion that we still have a long way to go, but the door is definitely less sticky than it was.


The Rev’d Anne Stevens is Vicar of St Pancras Church and a Trustee of WATCH (Women and the Church)


25 Years on: Church of England Newspaper article, November 2017

25 years on.

On the 11th November 25 years ago I, along with many others, spent the day waiting. I did my waiting in London outside Church House Westminster. The day began with the singing of songs and the waving of banners as I joined other members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women greeting the members of General Synod as they went in to debate the Measure to allow women to be ordained as priests. Technology and social media were not in today’s league so, for much of the day, those of us outside had little sense of what was going on inside. Later we discovered that there was a video link from the chamber into a room in the basement and it was there that I watched the end of the debate and the voting.

We knew that it would be a tight vote. The measure needed two-thirds majority in each house. I was a young clergywoman, ordained deacon two years earlier, working as a curate in Bedford alongside my husband who a year after our ordination as deacon had been ordained priest; because he was a man. When the voting numbers were announced I was struggling to do the maths then someone called out ‘its passed.’ We ran out to join the crowds on the steps of Church House. There was joy, relief and celebration amongst those there. My friends and I moved on to a local pub where, much to our surprise, a group of men seeing our clerical collars bought us a bottle of champagne. This decision was received as good news by the wider public.

In the following days there was a coming down to earth. Amongst the wonderful messages sharing in the joy were those who felt this was the time to tell me why they would not be able to accept my ministry as a priest. We were told by our Bishops not to be ‘triumphalist’ and to remember the many who were hurting. The measure had to be sent to Parliament and we were told that Parliament might not think that enough was being done to support the opponents. There followed 18 months of waiting during which the controversial Act of Synod was passed creating ‘flying’ bishops. In the Spring of 1994, the first ordinations of women as priests in the Church of England happened. For me it was alongside 61 other women in St Albans Abbey on St Georges Day 1994.

It is now 25 years later, almost half of my life, and the young people I work with have never known a Church of England without women priests. Women vicars are part of culture appearing in TV, adverts, novels; both fictional and real examples. Yet, tensions over the role of women still continue in the church. There are still those who think for a variety of reasons that women should not be priests, church leaders or bishops. The debates around women bishops meant that the church’s continuing uncertainty about really welcoming women into all orders of ministry was played out for the wider world to see. Sadly, this means that many younger people think the church is out of step with gender equality.

25 years on I rejoice that the church has benefitted, and continues to benefit, from the priestly ministry of so many women. I rejoice in the ministry I have been able to have. I hope that we can continue to encourage women to serve in this way and that the Church of England will find ways to truly celebrate the momentous decision made 25 years ago.


Emma Percy

Chair of WATCH

When women talk to each other: Church of England Newspaper article, August 2017

When women talk to each other

The participation of women in Hollywood movies is sometimes measured by the Bechdel test. The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel who framed its three key questions in an ironic comic strip in 1985. Does the movie have at least two women in it? Do they talk to each other? And do they talk about anything other than a man?

Even though films that pass the Bechdel test tend to make more money, over 30% of all Hollywood movies continue to fail the test each year. This is rarely mentioned in reviews, and rarely noticed by most cinema goers – presumably because we are simply so used to it. And sadly what is true on a Saturday night at the movies is even more true on a Sunday morning at church. The books of Bible rate far lower than Hollywood on the Bechdel scale. Just 2 out of 66 (3%) feature an extended conversation between two women. Yet these conversations in the Book of Ruth and Luke’s gospel offer an incredible range of theological insights. If only there were more conversations like this.

The friendship between Ruth and Naomi offers an inspiring example of commitment: ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’ (Ruth 1.16). Ruth’s words echo the covenant promises that God made to Moses back in Exodus 6.7, and these promises continue to be fulfilled as Ruth and Naomi live out their commitment to each other and to God. Crucially, they safeguard the line of David, Ruth’s great-grandson, thus setting in train the next phase of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. When these two women talk together, they not only echo the promises of God; they actively help them come to pass.

Unlike Matthew, Luke names Boaz rather than Ruth in his genealogy of Jesus (Luke 4.32), but when it comes to the narratives of Jesus’ birth, the two evangelists effectively swap positions. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view, while Luke focuses instead on Mary. Mary’s response to Gabriel is a remarkable example of faith and obedience, and it is easy to understand how the annunciation has become such a focal point in our art galleries and carol services – yet it is the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth that reveals far more about the significance of Jesus’ birth.

The story begins with a dramatic moment of recognition as both Elizabeth and the child within her respond to Mary’s pregnancy. Elizabeth cries out, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1.42). The unqualified wife of a priest blesses a woman who has scandalously conceived a child out of wedlock. It is the first of many ironic celebrations in Luke’s gospel that the messianic promises of the scriptures are being fulfilled in surprising ways. Elizabeth then speaks prophetically, naming Mary as ‘the mother of my Lord,’ and proclaims a second blessing (this time using the Beatitude word makaria), ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

This theme of fulfilment dominates the rest of their encounter. Some early Latin versions of Luke’s gospel show Elizabeth rather than Mary speaking the words we know as the Magnificat. In a way it makes sense. The Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, and it is Elizabeth’s story that most closely resembles Hannah’s. Yet most texts attribute it to Mary. Is it too fanciful to imagine that they worked on the song together? When expectant mothers talk, they inevitably dream about their children, and about the world into which they will be born. Yet the dream that Mary and Elizabeth discover through their conversation is exceptional, in that it is not really about their own children at all – it is about the kingdom of God that they have sensed coming into being through everything that has happened to them. Scaling up their own experience, they foresee a world turned upside down, where the humble are exalted and the mighty brought low; where the hungry are fed and the rich sent empty away. This is the kingdom that their sons would eventually proclaim and enact. How much was their vision shaped by what their mothers discovered together in this conversation? We can never know, but this is exactly the kind of vision that can emerge when women talk to each other about their experiences of life and of God, and their dreams of a better world. If only there were more conversations like this.


Revd Anne Stevens, Vicar, St Pancras Church & Vice Chair of WATCH

Leading Like A Woman, Church of England Newspaper article, July 2017

Leading Like A Woman, Church of England Newspaper article, July 2017

by Jody Stowell

I recently heard someone say that they had never met a woman who could lead a church (cue an interesting conversation…)

It made me realise that this view is probably as much a part of the conversation on the ordination of women, as whether women ‘should’ lead a church. And this view is why women who lead churches have an extra layer of hard work to do.

It is true that some of the most frustrating comments I’ve heard about why someone doesn’t think women should be priests are more about peripheral fripperies or personal preferences, than theology. I have heard that our voices are annoying, we wear dangly earrings that are distracting, we are not authoritative enough, we are too bossy (authoritative?). And according to a recent blog (though not from an anti WO perspective), women even look ‘more’ silly than men when wearing a mitre.

The truth of course is this: that women lead in as many myriad ways as there are number of women leading. That for every crumpled checked shirt or T-shirt that a male Vicar is wearing, there is a blouse or dress that will annoy you. For every man who is bad at pastoral visiting there is a woman who prefers preaching too. And for every woman who wears her pastoral heart on her sleeve, there is a man who blubs at the drop of a hat. Gender is much less likely to affect the way we lead than our upbringing, our social experiences, our class, our education.

In fact evidence suggests that the most significant impact on the person we turn out to be, is our sibling position – whether we are only child, eldest, middle child or the ‘baby’. This may be a more helpful conversation at interview than whether you are planning on having any more children (an illegal question that women are still asked)

Am I suggesting that gender has no bearing on our particular style of leadership? Well, no, but perhaps not in the way you think. The stereotype that is often heard is that women will be more pastoral. We are envisaged to be ‘softer’ and so there are many projections about how much pastoral visiting we will do, what kind of authority we will have and whether we’ll be able to bring vision and lead.

The reality that I have found (and other women will have found different realities, because as I’ve mentioned, we’re not a monolithic group), regarding the way in which being a woman affects my leading, is that I ‘notice’ stuff.

I notice when I’m the only female voice in the room, I notice when I’m the only woman speaking at an event, I notice when there is no voice from a BAME background, or other lack of diversity, I notice when it is the women clergy who tidy up after a deanery lunch, I notice when something I say is dismissed only to be said again later by a man – and accepted, I notice when my opinion is grating – and wonder if I should try to say it in a ‘more acceptable’ way knowing that a man wouldn’t have that inner monologue, I notice when others are talked over, silent or invisible in a conversation.

Leading like a woman is often about having a set of ‘lenses’ which others don’t have, yes, because I’m a woman. Because I’ve had particular experiences. It is less about what I wear, the tone of my voice and the type of authority I inhabit.

Leading women will often be a jarring note, where the focus of a church community has been towards those with most visibility in our world.

She is a symbol for those with less visibility, she annoys us because her very presence is a question to our status quo.