November 13th, 2016
Women and church – lay women and the church – Jean Hope.
Well I am definitely a lay woman with a sense of God’s calling on my life and no desire to be ordained I actually love church, all different sizes and colours and denominations and although I have been attending a little village Anglican Church for the last 15 years, I am really not an Anglican just someone who loves God.
So my story. I was raised in a Christian home, Brethren. Chapel once or twice a Sunday and Sunday School on Sunday afternoons. That meant for the first fifteen years of my life I didn’t hear women speak in chapel. I saw them play the organ, take Sunday school, serve refreshments but only heard them sing or say amen. I saw them wear hats. The men took Paul’s admonitions about women covering their heads and not having authority or teaching at face value. Yet the fact that women clearly could be gifted as teachers or preachers, or could be leaders seemed to me self obvious.
And to be fair this would have been the same in most other denominations in the 1950s, including I expect Anglican. I didn’t actually step inside an Anglican Church til my late teens as the boundaries between different churches was very marked then.
How did that ‘women on mute’ make me feel? Well I come from a large, extended farming family, am the eldest of six siblings and five of us are female, and my mother was a strong character. And outside church, in schools, as well as at home and in my family I was surrounded by strong women. But they were silent in chapel. It felt false.
And I do bear in mind this is just after the wars, in the 50s, it was the general culture.
But I had also listened when women did talk – while washing up after the big chapel teas, or waiting in the car parks while men discussed men things, and heard the disrespect, sensed the despising some women carried for men and actually I felt sorry for the men. I sensed, saw, that women could cut men down in their spirits without saying a word to their faces and felt uncomfortable with that. I still do when I am around it.
A few decades later, God through the Holy Spirit helped me examine the consequences of some of the decisions I had reached from watching these men and women; he helped me unravel the baggage, and heal and bring my thinking more in line with his. I am very thankful now for the Brethren heritage that gave me such a love for and knowledge of scripture.
Then the 60s and views on women’s roles began to be challenged. There was the pill and feminist ideas to discuss late into the night. New ideas and fun, which chapel definitely wasn’t, so I went off to Teacher Training College and a new life and never wanted to open a bible again.
And for about 15 years I wasn’t interested in church at all, I married, started teaching, had 3 children.
But I was looking for something, I explored ideas from communism to astrology and read of the strange religions that came out of the travels east, the Beatles and other celebrities who went to India and were changed by ideas they picked up.
And Society and politics changed and moved on and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
And I who had married someone with no interest in faith, found I needed to work out what to say to my three young children as they began asking questions about life. And then while living in SE London, I met someone who was a vibrant example of what being a follower of Jesus could be and went to her church. It was exciting, the music was a band and singers were talented and I learnt how wonderful worshipping God could be; teaching was arresting and challenging and very bible based; prayers for healing and transformation were impassioned and people gave testimonies of answered prayer. I had stumbled into the House Church movement.
Charismatic churches like New Frontiers, Pioneer, Ichthus, Vineyard, then later the Toronto Blessing, it was colourful, exciting Christianity – and let me be honest and say in that in my little village church when the organ strikes up another dirge – like ancient Anglican song, or the priest races through the set prayers and there’s never an opportunity for extempore prayer or to share something wonderful that God has done that week, ….. I do miss it!
And where were women in the movement? Initially in the background just as before!
It took me a while to realise it as I was revelling in waking up spiritually. And because in the 80s, men – husbands and fathers – were still largely the wage earners and women looked after children and home. But I met with women to study the bible and pray and that was a rich blessing and a great growing time for me. A time of undoing and rebuilding. And in house groups there was a complete freedom to pray together, to study the bible and contribute on an equal basis.
Nevertheless women didn’t teach in general meetings, were still doing the children’s work, making tea, cleaning etc. This relaxed a little according to the thinking of the leadership and may have mellowed now, but it was noticeable that men were in leadership because they were men rather than the leadership being made up of those with leadership skills. And whereas women frequently led worship and were key in the music/worship groups, teaching was always a male prerogative.
So fast track forward and at the turn of the century, my husband retired and I semi retired, and we found ourselves moving to Devon, children having grown up, and I looked for a church – and decided to literally attend the nearest first and move out in non-denominational concentric circles until I found my next spiritual home.
So I started with an Anglican Church, in the nearest village, and got no further as the people were so friendly and welcoming. I soon discovered that it had been in a vacancy for ages and in fact in the 16 years I have been there we are just coming out of our third vacancy and have had more years without a priest than with one.
So what is it like for me being a lay woman in an Anglican setting? Well – What roles have I held in this church?
Children’s work, serving refreshments, cleaning…. plus ca change plus ca meme chose!
Also Church warden, deanery synod rep, leading intercessions, PCC member, currently also Lay Chair of the Deanery.
Does the church recognise and honour my gifting? Well one of the passions God has given me is for his word, for the bible and I love being involved in bible studies, house groups and … sharing, (preaching/teaching in any other church, but I can’t say that in an Anglican setting).
Anyway, a year or so before our last (female) vicar moved on she introduced a monthly lay planned service. It’s aim was for a more informal, usually non communion service that people on the fringe of church and families would be more comfortable with. I was part of the initial planning group and still am. We do get a few on the edge folk, but it has become a different and loved service for us as well. There is much more participation than is possible in the other sung Eucharist services, especially during the prayers, and our Open Doors service is very much part of our monthly calendar. Sometimes we have speakers to go with a theme, e.g. Tear Fund or Farm Crisis Network etc Mostly I give the talk, share.
But because I am just one of the congregation sharing at our Open Doors services, people always want to talk about it afterwards, my being an ordinary woman, just like them, and not having a theology degree isn’t a problem to them. In fact I think the ordinary-ness helps.
But in other Mission Communities in this Diocese, there are priests who email their sermons around and I would have to read them out and they see that as facilitating lay ministry. I wouldn’t be able to use my gifting there.
So does my church recognise my gifting? Probably, but by osmosis. No priest currently in the area has ever heard me talk, but they seem OK with it. Have I been offered any training to develop this? No. Have I been authorised or commissioned or anything? Again no. If I had been a man might this have been recognised and so on? Who knows? I can’t answer that.
Bearing in mind as a primary school teacher, I have spent just about all my life predominately in female company at work and home …. it’s a sad fact that I have seen many women use their gender as an excuse when they hit problems, when in fact it’s their manner, their behaviour that’s at fault. They can be confrontational and bossy when graciousness and a willingness to listen would be a better way. And I have met ordained women like that in the church, women who haven’t been willing to deal with their own baggage and prejudices.
With one exception all the lay readers I have met have been women. It wasn’t until putting this talk together I realised they weren’t clergy. They wear gowns to take part in a service so like everyone else in a congregation I thought they were a form of clergy. But I have found them most resistant to lay women taking bible studies or giving talks and even leading prayer times differently. They too have to accept that lay people, women and men, who don’t have a theology degree, can be called by God to play a part, not a lesser part, in the worship and growth of a church.
I am not sure if lay women have a tougher time than lay men. It feels as if this Diocese while enlarging the number of churches any one priest manages, has been very slow to put together a strategy for empowering lay leadership, lay pastoral care, lay worship leading, lay finance directing, lay teaching, lay anything. As if it hadn’t occurred to them that this would need some thought and planning.
I would like to know what the church hierarchy think the largely lay Church of the future would look like.
I want to be part of a church which doesn’t see ‘lay’ anything as second best, as if the best is to have a priest, and God’s calling on other people’s lives is not as important. God is so creative. How great it will be when the church honours those in business whose God given gift is to make money so that they can give it away and invest in the church of the future. Or when the church honours people’s work as their place of ministry whether it’s in a leisure centre or surgical ward and saw its role as equipping them to be all that they were created to be there. And the reason this is important is that most congregations have a higher proportion of women than men so it is actually lay women who are predominately knocking at the door of the future. Even authorising/commissioning
/acknowledging roles and gifts happens on an ad hoc basis or not at all from church to church.
And I would love to see the Anglican Church put greater emphasis on scripture and the Holy Spirit’s guidance today than it does on tradition, (which by its very nature is male tradition) and theology degrees. A church where women and men genuinely honoured other men and women simply because they too were created in the image of God. Where gender, status, race, professional and life experiences are all welcomed and the church finds creative ways of honouring and affirming them all.