Ten years of feminist activism

Tuesday 3 April 2018

I haven’t blogged for a long time because I was pregnant and then I had a baby and young babies take up all your time and energy. I keep thinking that I miss blogging as it was, before ‘influencers’ and #content, before feeling like each post had to be perfectly crafted and perfectly nuanced, for the book deal, for the brand, for guarding against the accusations of ‘ranting’ or ‘lacking grace’ or ‘not having researched the subject matter sufficiently’. Blogging as it was, then, when people made the leap from Livejournal et al to setting up public, personal blogs and things weren’t quite so strategic. I guess that’s got something to do with the fact I’ve hesitated once or twice while writing this and asked myself what the point of the post is and what it’s saying. But that’s not the blogging I miss.

It’s ten years since I attended my first feminist march* and first feminist conference. Ten years. I suddenly realised this one night a couple of months ago when I came across this piece by Jess McCabe, published in 2007 and looking at the resurgence of feminist activism around that time that included marches being revived and six new feminist publications launching in the space of 18 months. The same year, The Guardian profiled some of ‘the new feminists’ who were ‘trying to rebrand the f-word’ and feminist writing and journalism was very much on the agenda. It reminded me of my copies of Subtext magazine, still in a cupboard in my bedroom - and how excited I was to find out more about feminist media at FEM 08 in Sheffield, the aforementioned first feminist conference.

FEM 08 was the fourth FEM conference organised by a team including Kat Banyard, which grew from 90 attendees at its first event in 2004 to 500 attendees the year I went. I remember the excitement of being on the train and spotting women I recognised from their newspaper columns, women with banners from organisations I followed online. Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune were there that day handing out the surveys that would become the research behind Reclaiming the F Word. Three years later I would chat with Kristin over coffee at Watford railway station and discuss the need to bring Christian feminists together, an idea that eventually became the Christian Feminist Network, but in 2008 I don’t think I even really knew any other Christian feminists yet. I was still desperately in search of likeminded churchgoing women who didn’t believe their destiny lay in some heavily gender stereotyped ideal of ‘Biblical womanhood’.

Talks I attended at the conference included 'The Rape Conviction Rate Scandal', 'The Female Face of Poverty' and 'Challenging Destructive Masculinities', although, as my rather breathless Livejournal entry detailing the day explained, the highlight for me was the seminar entitled 'Grassroots Feminist Media' - it was 'so inspiring' to meet the women behind The F Word and Subtext magazine and I was beyond excited about the 'current explosion in feminist media'. Just two years previously I'd been immersed in the world of weekly women's magazines through work, seeing article upon article picking over celebrities' weight, clothes and relationships, 'scary skinny size 0’ celebrities on one page; on the next, shaming other celebrities for having cellulite. The state of my own body image at that time wasn't helped by the media I had consumed and the wounds were raw.

Today's plethora of feminist-flavoured online media outlets and coverage of marches and #MeToo in mainstream magazines means I often forget that the body-shaming, diet-obsessed side of women’s publishing still exists (although some magazines have closed now, as have the 'lad's mags' that were the focus of so much activism back then). Part of that, I guess, is a result of having hung out in the internet feminist bubble for so long. But really, perceptions of feminism in the mid-2000s were very different: we’d all read Female Chauvinist Pigs and its critique of ‘raunch culture’ - some of which now seems to recall almost ancient history in popular culture - Playboy merchandise, trucker hats, Paris Hilton, push up bras and thongs.

In the book, Ariel Levy argues that early noughties ‘raunch culture’ - ‘the emergence of a woman-backed trash culture’ is a ‘rebellion’ against second-wave feminism, the outworking of unresolved conflict between the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, yet also ‘a garbled attempt at continuing the work of the women’s movement’. In her conclusion, she wrote that ‘The proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it’. Explicitly feminist media, at the time, seemed like a breath of fresh air and for us as young women reacting against the imposition of ‘raunch culture’, crucially important.

It can certainly be argued now that once feminism began to have its cultural 'moment', at some point over the last few years, the movement started to become commercialised and exploited - for content, for developing celebrities' careers, for making money around International Women's Day. And more coverage and more hype sadly doesn’t mean that we’re any closer to getting rid of misogyny. But feminism wasn’t having that ‘moment’ yet and sitting in a student union building talking about subverting mainstream publishing with a more diverse range of articles and body positive messages seemed like revolution when you were 23 years old in 2008 and probably still does for young women, in other corners of the internet and other feminist get-togethers in 2018.

Some of the debates that would later bubble to the surface of the movement and cause pain, splintering groups and communities and friendships were only just developing among everyone involved. Germaine Greer gave the closing speech that day and received a standing ovation - let’s say no more. I also attended a talk on lapdancing clubs by Object. The following year - or maybe the same year - I'm not too sure - I remember the debates following Reclaim the Night London about the way some women had been chanting and booing outside Spearmint Rhino and how the women who worked there might feel about it. I observed the white, middle class profile of most of the attendees at the conference - people like me, it has to be said - who seemed a world apart from my work colleagues back at home. A re-reading of Female Chauvinist Pigs today throws up a host of assertions that would be seen as problematic now and online feminism itself has changed so much, particularly due to fallout caused by what’s often been referred to as call-out culture, where, as noted in this 2011 piece by Flavia Dzodan that always comes to mind when I think about the most toxic elements of call-out culture and ‘trashing’, ‘we all lose’.

In the years following 2008, discussion via Twitter and personal blogs came to define the feminist journey for so many of us, especially those not fortunate enough to live somewhere with feminist networks or groups or for those who met a lot of feminist friends online. I was continually offering to get involved in a magazine or blog that someone wanted to launch and sometimes writing several blog posts every week. Blogs felt like the resistance, the opposition to traditional, sexist media and much was being made of their democratising effect on whose voices had the potential to be heard (doesn't all this seem a bit quaint now?). Some time ago I really wanted to set up a website where women active in the movement at that time could submit pieces about their memories of what some call the beginnings of the Fourth Wave (and what some believe is still the Third Wave). I never got round to it and I worry about so many memories being lost as blogs disappear and websites close and some people take their activism offline and even ‘hashtag feminism’ has evolved.

Ten years since FEM 08, when I think of all the women I’ve met as a result of feminism and the women just starting out in activism at that time, our lives have moved on in so many ways. We’re mostly in our 30s and busy, busy, busy with work, or children, or work and children. Some have moved overseas. We still do activism and write and work with women’s organisations. We don’t always make it to things that happen in London any more because life gets in the way. We share each others’ projects and work and discuss motherhood as a feminist issue on Facebook and even celebrate each other’s books because things have moved onwards and upwards from those first blog posts and discussions on Twitter about sexism in the tabloids.

Things have also become more complicated. We learned that for all the talk of the internet promoting a more diverse range of voices, privileged voices were always favoured and promoted over more marginalised ones. Pushback against this has been vitally important but hard work; change has been slow; listening and addressing assumptions isn’t always easy. Online, people talk of moving on from being a ‘baby feminist’, learning much as they ‘grow up’. Sometimes we forget that everyone starts somewhere. For us, that somewhere was the mid Noughties, when social media was still a thing for ‘internet people’ - and it was life-changing.

*The very first Million Women Rise march. I didn't know anyone else who was going so I volunteered to be a steward. It rained quite a lot and I was posted at the door of the loos in Trafalgar Square during the rally so missed the speeches but the march itself was like nothing I'd ever experienced before.

On being one of the #hiddenhalf

Wednesday 19 July 2017


"Some professionals just ask are you coping, are you OK? And think that is all they need to ask but this is a very closed question and too easy for a woman just to say yes when she could be crying out for someone to notice her or help her." 

New research from the NCT has found that around half of new mothers' mental health issues don't get picked up by a healthcare professional. Consequently, the organisation has launched a new campaign - Hidden Half - to raise awareness and push for better postnatal care that will identify and treat more cases of postnatal depression (PND) and associated conditions. A key focus of the campaign is making sure the existing checkup that takes place six weeks after giving birth looks at the mental health of mothers - something that doesn't always currently happen. 

I want to talk about my own experiences in the wider context of postnatal mental health issues developing later on, after those first few weeks following the birth. I want to do this because I know from personal experience that it's easy to dismiss symptoms when they're not what you think PND looks like, when you're busy and when very few people take the time to ask. I've never written about this in detail before, but having done a lot of processing of my experiences over the past few years having come to the point of understanding much more about how to practice good self-care, I'm hoping it will be useful, in some way, to at least someone.

Many women surveyed by the NCT said they felt their six-week checkup was rushed, more of a 'box-ticking exercise' than anything else (blood pressure, weight, "Has your bleeding stopped?") and that they didn't feel it was the time to bring up mental health concerns. I remember the appointment, being asked if I'd been 'feeling down' and whether I was coping fine. Of course I was: my physical healing was good, we'd successfully established breastfeeding, I was getting out and about and eating normally and certainly not feeling tearful all the time, or feeling unable to bond with the baby, or anything like that. And besides, don't we always say that, when a complete stranger asks us how we're doing? "Oh yes, fine." "Not too bad."

It took me until I was at least 30 years old to stop pretending to all but a select few people (even myself, once upon a time; some of my teenage diaries are stubbornly upbeat and optimistic when I remember, actually, how miserable I was at the time) that everything was always fine, not too bad, no, I don't need any help, thanks. I had Sebastian when I was 27, so I hadn't got there yet. I always wonder if it's the sort of thing that comes from having been a 'high achiever' when younger, with a fear of not being able to do things and being seen to be incompetent or a failure. 

So yes, I was exhausted, but then it's totally normal for newborn babies to be up half the night feeding, isn't it? It's also totally normal for them to not want to be put down and only feel they can settle when they're on you. They're newborns. I'd read about the 'fourth trimester', frustrating as it sometimes was that other people's babies used to have three hour naps in moses baskets while, unless on the move in the pushchair, on a bus or in a car, mine would hold out, wide awake, until 4pm every day ("newborns can only stay awake for up to two hours at a time" said the books and the websites) when I would gingerly move him, on the breastfeeding pillow, across the bed slightly so I could have about 45 minutes to myself before he woke up again.

That was exactly how I wrote my very first blog post about being a mother - sat on the other side of the bed as he had his one and only little nap of the day, something he did for a good few weeks before I began instigating naptime in the pushchair or on the bus as we travelled somewhere. If you read that very first blog post about being a mother, it's actually pretty positive. And that was really how those early days were. An exhausting, life-changing learning curve, not without struggles, but not that bad. Because when you've got a newborn and you're adjusting to it all, that's how it is and to expect it to be a walk in the park would be ridiculous.


"I now always ask “How are you finding being a mum” and am amazed at how that helps them open up."

'Coping' is such a subjective word. When you read lists of symptoms associated with PND they often talk about not sleeping properly; not eating properly; struggling with caring for yourself; struggling with leaving the house or seeing people; having thoughts about harming the baby. I could have looked at a list of such symptoms in those early weeks and told you again and again that no, I was fine, because my life wasn't like that - and that's the truth. The slow creep of postnatal mental health issues came later.

Sleep was probably at the heart of it - mostly his, but by association, mine. As everyone jokingly says when you have a baby, "Well, they do use sleep deprivation as a form of torture". Of course, you get used to it, but then the baby ramps the night wakings up -  in our case with every development phase we experienced, with teething, with colds, with the classic sleep regression periods. And the baby doesn't necessarily sleep in the day either. So you find yourself doing what works, which is let him sleep on you after a feed in the morning. Then after lunch, walk and walk until he falls asleep in the pushchair, which can take up to an hour. Then stay out, walking, because you live in a flat with a flight of stairs directly inside the front door and to go home would involve dismantling the pushchair to take it up the stairs so you can't do that because it would wake the baby.

Eventually, when he was about six months old, I decided enough was enough and attempted putting him down for morning naps in his cot, which resulted in him getting more and more distressed. The health visitor thought that if I went back into the room every minute or so and soothed him, he would get the hang of it and nod off within ten minutes. I reported back that one day, I'd done this for two hours before giving up.

Finally, at seven months old, we did it: morning naps in the cot. The Holy Grail. A whole hour to get things done (or not). Afternoon naps still took place in the pushchair, because there was no way I was staying cooped up in the house all day. And that was the killer. The routine. Every day more or less the same: wake, feed, breakfast, play, feed, sleep, lunch, play, feed, walk and sleep, dinner, feed, bedtime. The occasional baby group or coffee with friends or trip into town, which were always good, but never quite seemed to break up the relentless repetition of everything else. It was winter and it was miserable. I became obsessed with the clock and its ridiculously slow progression, counting out the day in five minute slots and fifteen minute slots and hours until Luke would get home.

When I was pregnant, we used to joke about what on earth we'd do if we managed to produce a really extroverted child. Reader, it happened. And when Sebastian was an older baby, he didn't want to play with his toys or sit in his bouncy chair or sit in his cot and chat to himself. He wanted to interact with people. Everything I did that didn't involve him was an ordeal through which he would usually wail (showering, preparing dinner, catching up with social media). As I was to learn, there's evidence to suggest that mothers are wired to have a particular response to crying infants and if I've had one too many coffees I still find myself getting on edge at the noise of a crying baby in a supermarket. It's really not easy having it as an accompaniment to everything you do.

There was an interesting thread on Mumsnet some time ago, where women shared stories about not really enjoying stay-at-home parenthood. It's such a taboo subject - a lot of people can't comprehend it and a lot more people won't talk about it openly because to do so is so often to be judged. Numerous times, the words 'introvert' and 'perfectionist' popped up on the thread as women sought to describe themselves and explain why those years of having very young children felt so hard. Perhaps that had something to do with it; I could certainly identify.

I've noticed a tendency for more conservative writing on motherhood to lament the way that increasing gender equality and feminist values being more accepted have supposedly led to girls and women not being truly aware of the value and importance of being a stay at home mother. This has, in the eyes of some, led to women feeling unhappy, anxious and resentful about motherhood because they feel that their worth lies in working, in earning money, in being a 'valuable member of society'. It could be argued that capitalism needs just as much critique here and that society does not value caregiving roles, but I always think about how these conservative writers mustn't know many feminist mums because if they did, they'd realise what a straw (wo)man they've created.

For me I could never ascribe that unhappiness and anxiety to simply 'not being at work' or 'not seeing motherhood as valuable'. I saw it as incredibly valuable. At a time when I was finding it all particularly hard because I was used to doing so much that I was no longer doing and I just felt lost and alone, God actually told me as much. There was never any question of it not being valuable; the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion just got so relentless and made it hard to see a way out. It was also so lonely. I wanted to talk to people without having to make small talk about babies and feel like there was a subtle game of one-upmanship about child development being played. I was so immensely grateful if a friend ever 'checked in' to ask how I was or offered to help out in any way. 

Before I had Sebastian I didn't know anyone who had young children - something that's changed as he's grown older and more friends have become parents. I was so thankful to keep in touch with and see the other women from my NCT classes every week when we were on maternity leave. A very few other friends kept in touch and came to see us, but people are busy and they work. It's not their fault. And I know that if you don't say much about how you're really feeling, people won't assume you need support. We knew a lot of people who were particularly involved in church life - and we no longer were. The loneliness and sadness of a shifting relationship with church and church community that year have been very hard to deal with and this continues to be the case, highlighting the value of good support networks. Add a faith shift onto a huge life change and identity shift and you've got a whole load of issues.


"...around 30% of women diagnosed with postnatal depression still have depression beyond the first year after childbirth and a significant proportion of women who experience perinatal depression and/or anxiety will develop recurrent long-term mental health problems."

It happened that I went back to work, relieved and happy, after nine months at home. Things sort of got better. I still wouldn't have identified with having any postnatal mental health issues because I'd still never fitted the descriptions of PND that I read. I probably should have twigged, when I spent countless lunch breaks walking and trying to process it all, over and over, a neverending internal monologue about the relentlessness and the loneliness and the feeling of loss of self. I was very much in the midst of attempting to process my shifting relationship with church and had got to the point where I could barely go any more. The last couple of occasions we attended our former church, I had panic attacks after the service.

I started to experience a lot of anxiety about spending time on my own with Sebastian - flashbacks to maternity leave. How were we going to fill the time? Would I cope? When he was two I had a panic attack about the Christmas holiday period because I was going to be on my own with him for four days. In the end it turned out to be better than I had expected. We survived. But it took me a very long time to stop watching the clock, trying not to panic too much, when we were alone together. It seeped into every area of my life and not just the time I spent with Sebastian - time off work, holidays, weekends - anxiety about filling up the day and making the time pass more quickly, panic about free time with no plans, or time to myself, when I couldn't actually relax and my thoughts would race, spiraling downwards.

It's funny, the things you remember about these times in your life. I remember a particular post about motherhood on Facebook. You know, the sort of thing that gets shared thousands of times by all the mums you know because it's so relatable. I think it probably featured a cartoon. It talked about the sleepless nights and the endless repetitive days and wailing babies and feeling rubbish but finished by saying that "and you know you'd do it all again at the drop of a hat". I don't like to use the word 'triggered' lightly, but there was a time where seeing anything like that was deeply upsetting.

I also remember the day I came across information about anxiety and the penny dropped - seeing as it wasn't something I ever would have considered myself to struggle with, even though it immediately became clear I have actually done so since I was a small child. In the same, eye-opening way, coming across information about high-functioning depression. The reality is that postnatal mental health issues don't just look like not sleeping or eating properly and failing to bond with your baby. They can look like a lot of other things as well and they can be evident at six weeks postpartum, six months or three years, which is when I would say that things finally started to turn around for me.

I have a five-year-old now and things are so enormously different. Four was a great age. Five is a brilliant age; it's so much fun. And last year, we made the decision to add to our family, meaning that I'm now expecting another baby later this year. I'm not going to pretend things might not be completely different, but I feel better equipped to deal with it when the time comes. Luke has always been a very involved parent (We shouldn't expect anything else but sadly that's often not the case and I know I'm fortunate) and thanks to the shared parental leave policy that has appeared since Sebastian was born, we hope to share time off together this time around, which should be a huge help.


"60% of mothers who said there was an emotional problem they didn’t feel able to discuss at the six week check cited feeling embarrassed, ashamed or worried that the health professional would think they were not capable of looking after the baby."

This is key. I've seen it in countless online discussions. Women worried that admitting to struggling will mean social services involvement. I don't think I ever felt this way, but a huge barrier to decent mental health that I've worked hard to overcome over the last couple of years has been the fear of what people will think. I've had aspects of my life as a parent that I've always been fairly unapologetic about - the fact that I was happy and relieved to return to work, for example - but others that have caused a lot of stress, like feeling my parenting is judged by some and linked to the fact I work full-time, feeling that people have negative opinions about only children, feeling that it's impossible to relax because you must constantly be seen to be making yourself busy and productive and useful, or feeling that you'll be judged for being open about some of the struggles you've had with church. 

And another important thing to own has been 'feeling my feelings' - sitting with them without responding in a reactive way or indeed falling into a pit of despair or judging myself for having said feelings. I found the 'Sleepy Hedgehog Model' of managing emotions in Emily Nagoski's brilliant book Come As You Are amazingly helpful and remind myself of it on a regular basis. When you've spent years beating yourself up about things you feel, seeing yourself as less than and convincing yourself that your feelings are a problem or invalid, that's not easy - but it's so transformative. 

I do wish in some ways that I'd sought professional help at an earlier point but nothing is ever easy. All you hear is talk of waiting lists and cuts and finding it hard to get help unless things are really bad. And getting help privately isn't an option open to many due to its cost. All that felt discouraging and pointless. And so I've had to do a lot of work on my own, with a small amount of professional help, with friends who have been helpful to talk to, with good resources, learning to be kind to myself and to process events in a helpful way and understanding how my mind works. If the Hidden Half campaign helps more women to access help when they're struggling, it will be amazing and so necessary. And if an increased focus on mental health at the six-week checkup starts to make a difference, I hope that more women will find it easier to access help and to know who to talk to if they find mental health issues develop later on.

There are no prizes for just getting on with it and telling people you're fine. I've finally learned that while I may be tempted to fly under the radar and shut myself off from people when things aren't great, I can reach out to people too. So often, women struggle under the burden of feeling like they must be seen to have it all together, that to admit to anything less will mean being judged and that even to be truly honest with close friends may be taking it too far, opening up too much and becoming that friend who's a needy, irritating burden. We make ourselves smaller and our needs lesser until we become invisible because it's somehow distasteful to have needs and wants and feelings. For the sake of mothers everywhere, this must be resisted. 

The power of J John's anonymous fellowships

Thursday 13 July 2017

In the summer of 2004, when I was 19 years old, I was just one of a crowd of young people who flocked to St Paul's Cathedral one evening to hear J John preach on the ten commandments. I was attending Soul in the City, a week-long initiative where thousands of young people of my generation descended on London to carry out community projects and evangelise. 

I'm not sure how significant it is that we had a choice, that evening, between going to see J John preach on the ten commandments and going to see Delirious? and that I chose the former, but I expect I was very diligent and wrote a lot of notes. It was a very hot week in August and one of the things I remember the most about that evening was the stickiness of the Tube afterwards. But I also remember feeling as if what I'd heard that evening was important.

This past weekend J John's been drawing crowds in London again, this time to his JustOne event, held at the Emirates Stadium. An estimated 23,000 people attended, not quite filling the stadium - as was the organisers' goal - but a perfectly respectable total for the UK's first evangelistic stadium event in three decades.

One particular quote from J John is being heavily featured in coverage of JustOne:

"Mass evangelism reminds the world that the Church is not dead. It’s easy to ignore a few little fellowships hidden away in anonymous buildings in a dozen suburbs. It’s much less easy if there are tens of thousands of people in your city’s main stadium."

It's a quote that many people are finding rather troubling. I'm not sure if that was his intention, but there it is. Enormous Christian rallies at stadiums featuring 'big name' speakers and high profile worship bands may not be everyone's cup of tea (including mine, these days) but they have a place. They do have an impact on people; they change people's lives. But while promoting the event and in the aftermath as the organisers celebrate its success, it's not exactly necessary to position huge events as a more glamorous, more important counterpart to what happens in churches and communities across the country every single day.

JustOne has partnered with scores of churches to link up people who responded in some way to the event last weekend. Initial reports suggested that there were 6,000 'responses' - 6,000 'lives changed' which is an interesting assumption to make as early as the point at which these people may have simply filled out some contact information on a postcard. The official number has now been confirmed as 1,743 - and these people will be put in touch with partner churches in London to hopefully continue their journey. 

These partner churches might be little fellowships in anonymous buildings in the suburbs. They might be slightly larger, flashier outfits. But what they'll all have in common is that every day, they'll be striving to make a difference to the lives of their members and those living in their communities. Reporting impressive numbers is nice and looks good in headlines but these numbers aren't much different to what I'd think of, if they related to something I was doing at work, as vanity metrics.

Without what happens next, these numbers mean very little. For those 1,743 people, what will come to matter just as much as the moment they 'made a decision' at JustOne is what will happen in countless small suburban fellowships and small groups and conversations in the years to come. It's likely that these will make or break their faith

For some Christian leaders and some churches, the headline statistics and hopes of national media coverage, the 'influence', the presence in major cities, the big name speakers and big events and big numbers seem to matter a great deal. The hype and the big pronouncements matter a great deal. It's hard to critique all this without coming across as thought you're mounting a bitter attack on the well-meaning actions of good people, I know, but when all this becomes the focus, we end up with a distorted, consumerist view of success and one that is fundamentally incompatible with the ups and downs of the Christian life. Hype will pass away. Media coverage will pass away. 'Influence' as a goal raises troubling questions.

One of things I've read recently that's stuck in my mind the most is this Church Times comment piece on Sean Bean's portrayal of an inner-city priest in Broken. I think it actually made me feel somewhat emotional, probably in part because I'm pregnant and also very much because increasingly, it described what I have needed and benefited from and sometimes found upsettingly lacking in church life in recent years.

In the piece, Mark Bryant describes being at a clergy gathering and hearing stories of faithful commitment to communities that results in unspectacular tales - helping the homeless, walking alongside parishioners struggling with depression - stories these clergy felt often go unheard at a time when the focus is on church growth.

At the weekend, mentions of JustOne were entirely absent from my social media feeds. That could be because people I know just weren't really its target audience (although one report estimates that 80 per cent of attendees were Christians). What were very much in evidence, however, were descriptions of the small church meetings and regular church events happening all over the country that weekend. 

I'm not gloating. As a new Christian, the first time I attended an event with 10,000 other churchgoers blew my mind and helped open up a whole new understanding of church. But I was brought up attending church weekly in a small congregation in a rural town (so small, we didn't even have a youth group, which explains why my mind was blown when I finally got to hang out with thousands of other Christians my age). And I made a deeper commitment to my faith after attending an Alpha Course attended by about ten people, run by another small rural church. And every time I read a wonderful story like that of Leanne and Darren Bell or see the coverage of the way local churches have played a key role in supporting people in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, I think of the anonymous buildings in a dozen suburbs that make these stories possible.

Conversations around investment in women in ministry: do they speak to the UK church?

Monday 28 November 2016

Martin Saunders wrote for Christian Today recently about the experience of attending a conference of the UK's most influential church leaders and their teams, only to realise that "Ninety per cent of the people in the room were male; if you were to take pastors' wives out of the equation, that number would look even worse." He noted that in the UK at least, 'there's no doubt women are being invested in', citing well-known leadership conferences as examples of this - and who could fail to notice the image used to illustrate the piece - Justin Welby surrounded by female clergy?

It was also interesting to note Ruth Gledhill's piece published in the same week, that highlighted the visibility of women in Fresh Expressions:

"...unlike most of the larger, evangelical megachurches where nearly all the leaders are men, dozens of gifted Christian women are emerging as capable leaders of fxC churches.

Having seen a number of photos of the conference Martin attended shared on Twitter that week, I'd also noticed the dearth of women in attendance. It bothered me, as it normally would, but perhaps more so because the churches represented at the conferences were the sort of churches I attend. Women still don't have it easy in the Church of England, but the established church is often held up as an example when it comes to the inclusion of women leaders, when churches like those I've attended since I was 18 are lagging embarrassingly behind, looking, if you attend their conferences (on which I help produce an annual report) and their Sunday services, like so many boys' clubs.

I've felt compelled to move on from two churches partly because of my concerns about the invisibility of women, in one case because I felt a veneer of egalitarianism was dishonestly applied to a set-up where the opportunity to exercise certain gifts was not open to all who might fit the bill. It is genuinely concerning that hundreds of 'influential' church leaders can gather to plan for the future of 'new churches' in the UK, with so few women involved at a high level. Some new churches may be conservative and therefore opposed to women in senior leadership positions, but many aren't, meaning there is no excuse for this happening.

At the same time, the US Christian blogosphere (and indeed, the US national media) was reacting to the twin revelations of Jen Hatmaker's support for equal marriage and Glennon Doyle Melton coming out. Anne Helen Petersen had just written a brilliant piece about the 'new evangelical woman' who loves Pinterest and statement jewellery, drinks wine, goes to a church with a name like 'ONE' or 'Forest Hills' and wouldn't ever vote for Trump - but is still, of course, pretty conservative. "This election has made her feel politically homeless," wrote Petersen.

The bigger story here for some Christian women was not Hatmaker's opinions or Melton's new relationship. It was the way evangelical women's ministry had been thrown into the spotlight - Buzzfeed reporting from its conferences, national newspapers talking about the women who serve as evangelical 'inspiration' through their books, blogs, speaking tours and podcasts.

'Pastor, if you had to ask, "Who's Jen Hatmaker?" it's time to be more directly invested in the spiritual nurture of half your church,' tweeted Jen Wilkin as male church leaders dismissively wondered why on earth Hatmaker had become a talking point because they'd never even heard of her before. It was pointed out by many that churches often invest little in women's ministry and that male church leaders are disinclined to read books written by women or listen to teaching by women.

"If you are an evangelical woman with teaching gifts, there aren't always role models in your local church," wrote Kate Shellnutt for Christianity Today.

The overarching theme here, which subsequently played out in numerous discussions on Twitter and in blog posts, is a reasonably conservative one - the idea that many of the speakers and ministries influencing Christian women are not theologically robust, that problematic teaching abounds and that women would be better served by good quality local church women's ministry, which would therefore empower them to use their leadership and teaching gifts within the church.

There's been much discussion, as a result, of the way gifted evangelical women have gravitated towards parachurch ministries because they find few opportunities in their own churches. Christianity Today named organisations and events like True Woman, Propel, IF Gathering and Belong as examples of these. In the UK there are probably fewer examples and some of the biggest names in women's conferences come from the stable of influential churches like Hillsong and HTB.

A recent discussion between Hannah Anderson and Erin Straza for Christ and Pop Culture's Persuasion Podcast claimed that "the church has outsourced women's discipleship, thereby relinquishing its role in the spiritual formation of half the church."

"Women with gifting are rising up through the ranks, through blogging, through podcasting, through gaining a following online and launching from there into more visible, national ministries," said Anderson, explaining what she's observed in recent years and written about on numerous occasions, including a piece in response to the debate surrounding Jen Hatmaker and stating that this has come in response to the fact many churches don't 'have a way to integrate women into mission and leadership'.

"Women's ministry is much more entrepreneurial than discipleship ministries at large. So what you see is...collecting and advocating and building a following and building this social network," she added, highlighting that this can be both a strength and a weakness of women's ministries.

One strength of such ministries is the fact that they're more accessible to those whose churches have no women's ministry, or who have too many other commitments to attend weekly get-togethers. But Anderson's concern is that 'relatability' and a focus on 'self' - even though she feels this 'has a place' - sometimes takes precedence over in-depth teaching; 'entertainment' and 'head patting' being prioritised over 'sacrifice for something greater than yourself'.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert blogged shortly afterwards on the same theme, imploring "Pastors, keep your doors open", as she wrote:

"It’s easy for men in particular to believe they have opened the doors to women in their church, particularly in complementarian churches, if they have opened the door to one or two who are particularly gifted once or twice."

It may be a particular issue in complementarian churches but it's a problem that goes all the way across the spectrum to the functionally egalitarian churches, where one woman preaching on a couple of occasions might be held up as a positive example; where seven in ten main stage speakers at conferences are men.

"Open your doors to the women longing to serve, pastors, and don’t make them fit into little molds of children’s ministry or administration," concluded Wilbert. "These things are needed, but they are not the whole, or even a fraction, of what women are gifted to do."

It definitely needs to be noted many of the voices contributing to the discussion on women's ministry are complementarian (albeit 'new complementarian', as per the blogosphere discussions of three years ago) and from somewhat conservative churches where in-depth study of scripture is prioritised and parachurch ministries open to more 'liberal' influences are more likely to be viewed as cause for concern.

I've also wondered about the extent to which these concerns about women who have parachurch ministries come from a place of feeling women are fine to lead and exercise influence, but only under the authority of a male senior leader. It could be construed that what we're seeing here is a preference that women still only operate under male authority. Perhaps that's me looking at the issue through my egalitarian lens - I don't believe that women heading up their own organisations, ministries and churches is a problem at all - but we have to wonder whether complementarian views on the issue are influenced by this.

Despite this, it should also give us pause for thought that it's complementarian women that are telling pastors to open doors to women and advocating for greater resources to be poured into discipling and empowering them because they've noticed that the local church is losing gifted women due to lack of investment.

I may end up at a different place to these women in my conclusions about women and the church (although I greatly respect and appreciate their recent conversations on this), but as I think about the photos of church events I see - leadership gatherings from churches like mine, their networks and their 'friends' - I feel that more than ever, we could all do with considering how doors are being opened for women - and how so many doors - in the UK, in 2016 - are currently closed. As it is, women are being left absent, unnoticed and under-resourced as the boys' clubs of ministry and church leadership continue on their way, seemingly oblivious. As it is, I want to think about how I - and other women in our church circles - can help effect change.

Further reading

What I Want Pastors to Know About Women's Ministry - Sharon Hodde Miller

For Momentum, as it comes to an end

Wednesday 27 July 2016

It was recently announced that this year's Momentum festival would be the last, with Soul Survivor planning a new festival for 2017.

Thanks, Momentum, that the year I came feeling totally lost and confused about what on earth I was supposed to do, as a Christian woman who had no time for all the ultra-conservative stuff about gender and the church that I was reading about, I got to hear Jo Saxton preaching on an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and Elaine Storkey talking about global women's issues and that I realised that yes, things were going to be ok and that there was life and wholeness outside the box marked 'Biblical Womanhood'.

And thanks for amplifying all those other women's voices too because otherwise, I'd have barely experienced seeing women preach and teach. We really do have that far to go and we need Soul Survivor to keep banging the drum for women.

While I'm on that subject, thanks for 'coming out' as egalitarian and nailing your colours to the mast about it because you were so moved by the response the night you appealed for young women who had been hurt by the church over gender issues to come forward for ministry. The church needs organisations that are vocally, intentionally inclusive of women and their gifts.

Thanks, Momentum, that I found something special at Shepton Mallet when I was a thoroughly-messed up young adult with a catalogue of issues, a person who struggled even being on site at first because everyone seemed so happy and I was exactly the opposite and it just felt so bad, so crushing, seeing all those beatific faces when I felt the way I did. And thanks that I also found something special as a newlywed trying to figure all that married life stuff out. And as a justice-seeker trying to figure out what to do with my calling and my job at a time when I also wanted a child. And just a year later, as a new mother with my perma-feeding three-month-old in tow (even when he orchestrated a nappy explosion in the middle of a seminar on sex). That reminds me - thanks for giving Danielle Strickland the main stage slot that year. Her baby was only a month older than mine and seeing her up there preaching every evening knowing she was in the same stage of life as me was exactly what I needed.

Thanks for bringing together thousands and thousands of people from the supposed 'lost generation' of Christians every year for a decade and yes, for being cool enough to keep them excited about coming but also for welcoming all, not just the sort of young people who dress a certain way and go to a certain sort of church - even those who don't always want to jump around and do the Christian conga during worship in main meetings. Especially those who just like to sit quietly on the floor and keep still and think about stuff. It took me a good few years to understand those people. And then I became one of them.

Thanks for diversifying your programme as your delegates grew up and as the things we cared about and were interested in evolved, all the while keeping the core elements intact. And thanks for inspiring my generation to live differently and do some great things and get through the less-thrilling bits of life too - not just the highs of festivals and 'mountaintop experiences' - while keeping their faith alive.

Thanks for being committed to seeing healing happen, particularly emotional healing. I remember one year, a long time ago now, overhearing a young woman say that so many seminars seemed to focus on 'issues'. 'What if you don't have any issues to deal with?' she said to her friend. 'Aren't you fortunate?' I thought. You've provided the space for people to work things through and hear more clearly and I know so many people who are thankful for that.

Thanks for the terrible late-night campsite singalongs and the free hot drinks for people serving on teams and for making me spend loads of money in the bookshop and for the lovely smell of the night air and the peace of the early mornings and the pizzas and every injury I've ever sustained tripping over guy ropes in the dark and the music and for being more chilled than an event full of teenagers and the times I've heard God speak and the times I've seen Him do things and importantly, for your integrity.

Cheers, Momentum.


Tuesday 7 June 2016

I was chatting to a friend on Twitter the other day about my post on the script we use when we do vulnerability online and we ended up talking about writing in general. I mentioned that these days, I worry that anything I publish will just be awful navelgazing. I joked then that actually, when I look at my navel it reminds me that there’s a story there. Even gazing at my own navel is a storytelling opportunity. See, I am a storyteller after all.

When I look at my navel, there’s a funny little line inside it and only I can really tell that it’s a little misshapen compared to how it used to be. It’s the only visible evidence of a laparoscopy I had done at the beginning of 2013; one of the three incisions the doctors made right before they removed one of my ovaries, the associated Fallopian tube and something else - something hidden.


It’s about 1994 or 1995, I think, one morning at Sunday School and we are talking about ‘gifts’. We are asked to draw something depicting what we are good at. I set to work with my sheet on paper, drawing something or another to show that I am ‘good at writing’. Imagine my horror, when we have to explain to the rest of the group, what we’ve drawn and the girl sitting next to me - my age, the sort of girl who everyone thinks is good and kind and sweet - stands up and presents her piece of paper that explains that she is ‘good at helping’. Why didn’t I think of that? ‘Helping’ is nice. Helping is thoughtful. Maybe my admission that I’m good at writing is big-headed and not particularly holy. And so I feel a little bit envious and also, as if I’ve done something wrong, even though no-one gives me that impression.


It’s 2011, I’m 20 weeks pregnant and I’m lying down with my midriff exposed watching my baby on a screen across the room; arms, legs, organs, brain all looking healthy. The sonographer moves the probe to the right as he finishes up. He looks more closely. “Do you have endometriosis?” he asks. I don't.“Have you ever noticed a lump in your abdomen?” I haven’t.

“I can see a mass to the right of your womb,” he says. He leaves the room and comes back with someone else who has another look. It looks like some sort of cyst, they say, but a solid one, a big one. It’s the size of my fist - my actual fist. It might be growing. It might cause problems for the baby in the third trimester. I might have to have an operation to remove it and there’s a chance that this would bring on premature labour.

Over the course of the next few weeks, it's determined that this uninvited guest is a dermoid cyst, that it isn’t growing, that it’s not malignant and that it’s so snugly tucked away inside me that nothing needs to be done about it until after I’ve given birth. I’m told that its size coupled with the fact it hasn’t grown in the time we’ve known about it means it may well have been camping out on my right ovary since before I was born, carefully hidden yet growing ever more significant.


It’s 2015 and I’m going to a Christian festival. I’m going with no expectations. I’m over the hype, the anticipation that it’s going to be the week that God does something amazing because we’re all a bit jaded with expecting that much of festivals, relying on the ‘high’ they provide and besides, I’m working there so any sort of experience will be a bonus. On my first afternoon off I head to a seminar and at the end, I stay for the ministry because the seminar is about juggling all life’s demands as a woman and what I really want to know, what I’ve really been praying about, is whether I should give up my responsibilities at church and maybe even step back from church for a while because all it does it make me anxious and cross.

A woman comes to pray for me and as she finishes, she tells me about a word she has for me. Later that day I excitedly message a friend from church because just a couple of weeks earlier, she’d told me the very same thing that this woman has just said. It’s a picture so specific and detailed that there’s no way anyone can say it’s just a coincidence - but I have no idea what it means. 

Several weeks later I was talking to another friend about a mission trip she was going on. She was talking about what she feels is her calling in life and all of a sudden, the words of two different women, one of whom didn’t even know me, made sense.

My tale of that day at Sunday School when I didn’t feel I’d said the right thing was something I’d forgotten about for years until fairly recently, when it suddenly came back to me as I was trying to plan a devotional about God-given gifts. It was probably a jolt I needed, because it helped me to start making sense of something I’ve always struggled with - accepting and embracing what I can do rather than feeling shame about the things I’m not so good at.

As I’ve often shared in the past, much of my time in the church has been characterised by the sneaking suspicion that I don’t really fit in anywhere, with my distinct lack of characteristics I’ve always felt you’re supposed to have as a Christian and particularly a Christian woman. I read this piece the other day and it made me laugh because I recognised myself in it - particularly over the last couple of years, as I’ve struggled more and more with writing for an audience, impostor syndrome a constant presence. 

Yes, I could do writing and speaking and presenting and creativity and ideas, but I didn’t know what all that was for outside of work. It's been like a mantra that I have work skills, not church skills. I’ve also come to realise that even I still have a bit of discomfort with being open about what I’m good at because I’m a woman. So many people unfortunately see women who can talk and women who can write as having an agenda, as pushy, putting themselves out there for the sake of it. 

It’s a problem in society as a whole but never more evident than in the church, where it often feels as if speaking, writing and having opinions must come with a caveat that you don’t hate men of course, obviously, you don’t have an agenda, you’re not one of those angry or controlling women. The temptation is to minimise yourself, to become small enough to fit into the box of others’ expectations. It’s embarrassing admitting that you’ve fallen prey to that, really, but it’s no wonder.

The words from the two women - my friend and the stranger - both mentioned a gift from God in a box that doesn’t look very exciting or attractive, to the extent that I disregard it and keep on looking for something that I perceive to be ‘better’. All the while, it’s the gift in the less attractive box that’s important - a gift hidden in plain sight, a gift that’s always been there.

Now here’s where my analogy goes slightly awry, because in 2013, that thing that had been hidden away inside me since goodness knows when (growing teeth, just so you know - because dermoid cysts are a fascinating yet slightly terrifying example of the things our bodies can do) was whipped out and disposed of. I never knew it was there before and I can’t tell that it’s gone now. But this is a story about the significance of things unseen, the importance of the things we don’t notice and pay no attention to even though they’re definitely there and have been for a very long time. It's a story about never listening to the people close to us when they affirm us, mentally stamping every positive statement with 'Not good enough, though' until God probably, finally, gets so sick of it that He gives us a smack round the head.

I have a voice that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with or accepting of. And I’m still not entirely sure what it means to embrace it and what that means outside of work these days with blogging having changed the way it has and a busy life and having recently started attending a different church where I’m only just starting to consider how I might be involved. But what I do know is that it no longer means silencing myself and dismissing my voice because somewhere, there must be a pretty box filled with the gifts I think I’m supposed to have, rather than the ones I’ve always had.

Scripted vulnerability

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. 

It’s probably a product of the boom in confessional journalism and its Christian equivalent, the storytelling boom. We’re all storytellers now and perhaps we’ve internalised the idea that every significant event in our lives must be presented as a carefully-structured essay, a sermon of sorts, or like so many sermons a list of points that speak of the learning and practical application that have come out of our pain. 

We hold off writing about things, not simply until we’ve got our thoughts on the subject organised, but also until we’ve got a structured message, some clear takeaways for our readers and an opportunity to be inspirational - perhaps with a few key ‘shareables’ highlighted specifically for that purpose. 

This week a friend shared a lengthy update on social media, informing people of the tough year they’ve been having and being thankful that things have turned out ok, even though they still have a lot to work through. As people commented with love and support, expressing admiration for how open and ‘real’ my friend had been, it struck me that much of the post's perceived ‘realness’ lay in the fact it didn’t follow what I’m now recognising as the script we, as Christians, often follow (consciously, unconsciously, who knows?) when reflecting on difficult times. 

We describe the difficulties and pain; we bring the focus back to God; we give thanks and count our blessings; we move into reflecting on any positives that have come out of the situation and our lessons learned. We can hit ‘publish’ safe in the knowledge that we’ve followed the approved framework for dealing with life’s knocks and that people will like it. 

Don’t misunderstand me: this ‘script’ isn’t wrong. It’s helpful sometimes and yes, it can be inspirational. It’s quite natural for many people and in many circumstances - but sometimes it’s hard to get there. Sometimes it feels like we’re never going to get there at all. Our feelings aren’t so neatly organised and I wonder if we’ve perhaps lost something in shying away from sharing the messiness of our thought processes, preferring instead, by the time we’re ready to share on our blogs or on Facebook, to tie it all up neatly into a set of inspirational learning points that make us seem like real writers, or teachers, or ‘thought leaders’. Or at least the right sort of Christian. 

We should be able to write about our struggles - if we want to - without waiting for the perfect time to share, when our attitudes are right and we can say all the ‘right’ things. We should understand that praising people and telling them how inspirational they are when they describe their pain using the ‘right’ narrative isn’t always helpful. We pick up on what we see and keep quiet accordingly when our emotions and thoughts and questions don’t follow the approved script because we worry what people might think. Our thoughts aren’t for everyone to see unless they’re ordered correctly. That's something I've been guilty of in recent times, my head a swirling mess of half written essays not considered well-formed enough to be shared because there's no teachable moment for you, or because things are still difficult, or because I can't look at them objectively and give you some life application fat to chew on.

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. When being ‘real’ becomes scripted, it doesn’t seem so authentic any more. We can share our truths without completing a checklist of themes and words. And the difference will show, as it did for me this week when I read my friend's Facebook post and as it does always when I think about the stories that have stayed with me the most.


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