Theological conferences and inclusivity: a conversation

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Earlier this week I received a comment on a post written four years ago - part of a conversation that sparked a huge debate and, I believe, was a catalyst for a strengthening of women's voices in the Christian blogosphere. At the time I wrote Female Christian bloggers: a rare breed? it was frequently assumed that any Christian blogger worth reading was a man. Men wrote about serious and meaty topics; women's blogs didn't really count as Christian blogs when the rankings of 'top bloggers' got published because they tended to write more about daily life and stay away from heated theological debates.

In 2011 I argued that the voices of Christian women were not absent online, but marginalised. Regarded as less serious than their male counterparts, often lacking in confidence about their knowledge and gifts, and - thanks to online abuse towards women and the unpleasant atmosphere below the line - less willing to engage in debate, Christian women were certainly writing, but were overlooked.

Looking back, I'm proud that the conversations sparked by my post and by Lesley's contributed to many more women beginning to make their voices heard and particularly to speak out against misogyny in the church. Just this week I saw Rachel Held Evans referred to as the 'leader' of progressive Christians online. While I don't really know what I think of that statement, it's evident that four years on from my observation that just 19 out of 122 blogs on a particular Christian blog aggregator were written by women, things have changed - and that's a good thing.

Make no mistake, however - the digital world may be somewhat more inclusive than in 2011, but the church has a long way to go. This week, Christian leaders and teachers have gathered in Bedford for the THINK conference, an opportunity to work through 1 Corinthians in depth in the company of like-minded individuals. I'd seen the conference advertised earlier in the year and while it looked interesting, I had assumed that as someone not in formal church leadership, it was not 'for me'. It was a shame, I thought, because there are so very few conferences that do that sort of work.

On seeing a picture of the first day of the conference posted on Twitter, and what appeared to be a room full of white male delegates, I asked whether anyone I knew was attending, and if so, were any women present? Over the last two years I've been involved in an initiative raising awareness of the way Christian conferences exclude women both as speakers and as delegates. Project 3:28 has led to some helpful and productive conversations with event organisers who are open to understanding how conferences exclude women and who want to set a positive example. I did not believe that the THINK conference would explicitly be off limits to women, but as a conference out of the NewFrontiers stable, I was interested to see if women were involved.

Another friend of mine confirmed that she had attended THINK in 2014 and that she was the only woman there.
To many, this could seem strange. If a person is treated in a kind and friendly way when attending an event even as an outsider, what's the problem? The problem is the insecurity that comes with being a woman in an all-male space, coupled with (generally) differing ways of engagement, which is often down to socialisation. Women tend to learn from a young age that they're expected to be quiet and take a back seat while men dominate in group settings. It's the reason why women only space is so valuable, and it's one of the key things men can work on in terms of being more inclusive.

We've had a number of years now to observe, in the digital realm, the combative way that men often engage with theology and their opinions about the church. In an atmosphere that is frequently not a safe space for women thanks to theological and/or cultural beliefs that mark us out as somehow inferior, and considering the struggles with impostor syndrome and lack of confidence that women often face, it's no wonder that somewhere like the THINK conference could make a woman feel uncomfortable. Particularly - as Hannah pointed out - when the conference is hosted by a group of churches known for making complementarianism a distinctive.

The challenge for the organisers of events such as THINK is to make them inclusive. I was intrigued to learn that as a small group leader, as someone who works for a Christian organisation, the conference would not have been off limits to me. Hannah and I agreed that it would be encouraging to go to such an event knowing that other women would be there - knowing, as a result, that the organisers saw it as more than a boys' get-together, a meeting of an inner circle. As part of Project 3:28 I have discussed the practical ways organisers can make conferences accessible to women - inviting women who they feel would benefit from an event, being understanding about childcare arrangements and facilities, and making clear that when 'leaders' are mentioned that this means women too.

David Capener, who has only recently become an acquaintance of mine on Twitter, was quite right to point out that the photo we'd seen of the event gave the impression everyone in attendance was white. It's all too easy for church leadership to remain homogeneous as people of influence  - unintentionally or otherwise - seek out and raise up others who are just like them. Together with Phil Whittall we agreed that diversity must be aimed for, but David suggested that he believed things are unlikely to change within the next decade.

David, Phil and I have agreed to continue a blog conversation about this, and I'm excited and thankful that they've been open to engagement on how conferences like THINK can be more accessible and open to those who may genuinely benefit, even though they don't fit the 'mold' of a traditional elder.

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