Gender at the Shared Conversations

There’s been quite a lot of reflection on sexuality on this blog already, but here I want to turn to gender and to focus on my experience in the Regional Shared Conversations, as a woman. My thanks to the various friends whose questions about it all have helped me to think this aspect through!

Gender: what’s changed?

When we think about our church’s response to the varieties of human sexuality, I do think it’s useful to keep in mind today the debates around the ordination of women. I was involved in those as a lay woman, as a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and as a member of the C of E’s decision-making body, the General Synod. Two aspects of my experience stand out for me: first, the need to overcome a view of myself as somehow inferior just by being embodied as a woman, and second, the need to make it clear that my commitment to the ordination of women was not motivated by any personal ambition. Ambition, of course, is a Bad Word in the church, to be denied at all costs.

Historically, and even now, women’s bodies have been represented as impure and carrying taint. During the time when the ordination of women question was live, a debate was broadcast on television from All Souls, Langham Place. I’ve tried and failed to find any reference to it beyond my own memory, which includes hearing a speaker propose that women could never be priests, because they menstruate. I have however managed to find another reference suggesting that this really was a concern in the late 1970s: a letter to The Times, in August 1976, by Canon John Austin Baker, including the lines ‘Take away the primitive superstition that women must not approach the altar because menstruation makes them unclean (an argument which modern opponents presumably do not wish to use) and what rational objection remains?’ Well, as that ‘presumably’ hints, some modern opponents were still saying this.

In Eastern Orthodox circles, there is still uncertainty as to whether a menstruating woman can receive communion. In 2012, Diarmaid MacCulloch usefully drew attention to the prohibition on menstruating women in the sanctuary, which ‘could still be encountered in 1970 in a regulation of the Catholic Church excluding women lectors from the sanctuary during their menstrual periods’. He discussed this example in more detail in his 2013 book Silence: A Christian History. Yet at the beginning of the seventh century AD, Pope Gregory the Great didn’t see it that way: the woman with an issue of blood was able to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, and be healed, so ‘why may not one who suffers nature’s courses be permitted to enter the church of God?’ This Bible passage was so important to me that, in the late 1980s when I was part of a group putting together readings for Lent, I selected it to write about. For me, one aspect of being a woman in the church has been an awareness that my body has historically been seen as making me a second-class Christian. I’ll come back to that later.

So that’s impurity; what about ambition? When I was on General Synod, when women were ordained as deacons back in 1987, and then as priests in 1994, I was constantly having to challenge the assumption that because I was a woman and because I was supporting the cause, I must by definition feel called to be ordained. It must be all about me. Well, it wasn’t. As a friend helpfully reminded me, some of the most valuable people in the ordination of women debates were men supporters, whose presence challenged any idea that this was just a bunch of uppity women who wanted their ‘rights’, tainted with the secular agenda.That was part of why, as a straight woman married to a man, I felt I should offer to be a representative in the Shared Conversations. I’m not invested in the debates in the same way as gay Christians are. Maybe that makes a valuable point.

Moving on?

It may look like the Shared Conversations mark the Church of England moving on from ‘women’ to ‘sexuality’. The conflict is behind us, right? Yes, we have inclusive language – as a relatively old person (although still below the average age of church members…) – I can still be caught out by the newer, inclusive version of a hymn I’ve known since childhood! Yes, we have women priests, women working as deans and archdeacons, and ten women named as bishops (not all consecrated yet). I’ve just been watching the service for the Queen’s 90th birthday, with women involved in all aspects.

But many of us feel that there are still pressures on gender which are simply not being addressed at the moment. There remains predictable horror in the press at the thought of referring to God as ‘she’. There are still clear discrepancies between women and men when they come forward for selection for training. Official figures for 2012-15 showed that, ‘The proportion of stipendiary clergy who are women has increased from 24% in 2012 to 27% in 2015.’ Over twenty years on, and still nowhere near parity…

A 2011 Church Pastoral Aid Society report found that the women who become priests are far more likely to be non-stipendiary, and far less likely to lead larger churches, with further research suggesting women were also less likely to respond to an open advertisement and more likely to apply for a post in a large church if approached personally. Rachel Held Evans, analysing the reasons why women – lay or ordained – are far less likely to speak at Christian conferences, noted ‘This may sound cynical, but as a Christian woman, I approach every boardroom and podium with the full knowledge that there’s probably at least one man present who thinks I shouldn’t be there.’ So, what’s changed? For women priests and for the church generally, maybe not as much as those outside the church think.

 Gender at the Shared Conversations

Keeping in mind those general observations, back to the Regional Shared Conversations. Those putting together diocesan delegations for these meetings – and I’ve written elsewhere about how my diocese came up with its list – were urged to ensure equal representation of women and men. In my experience, this worked; lots of women, young and older, gay and straight, lay and clergy. I didn’t have any sense of women being less likely than men to speak out at ‘table groups’ or to be the spokesperson for their table in plenary sessions.

L0076688 Victorian crossdressing. Photograph album, late 19th century Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

L0076688 Victorian crossdressing. Photograph album, late 19th century
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The point in the Shared Conversations in which gender seemed to me to play a part was when we self-divided into groups of 9 from which a facilitator formed three groups of 3. You know what the remit for the 3s is, because it’s all written out for you. First, that you will spend 40 minutes on your own reflecting about what shaped your own experience and understanding of human sexuality. Then you’ll have 15 uninterrupted minutes to share this with the others in your 3: no challenge or criticism will be allowed. Then you listen to the others. And then you talk about it for another 40 minutes or so.

So you know, as you walk around the plenary room in which people are starting to clump together into 9s, that you may end up being expected to reveal a lot about yourself to two other people in the group. That’s why you’ve offered to take part in the process, after all. I’d be unlikely to want to end up in the same 3 as someone whose views, as expressed in earlier sessions, would appear to equate homosexuality and paedophilia, or who doesn’t accept women in the priesthood, let alone the episcopate; I’d be unlikely to want to end up telling that person about my own experiences. Walking round the room was therefore quite a tense experience.

I managed to get into a 9 where there were a couple of people who seemed to be on my wavelength, several I’d not yet spoken with (risky…), and a person from the very opposite end of the ‘conservative to liberal’ spectrum from myself; someone for whom, despite our very different positions, I’d already found I had a lot of respect. Yes, I know, this is the church and we should all have respect for each other; and yes, I know, according to the Five Guiding Principles we are all to encourage mutual flourishing. But let’s be honest here – would you want to spend more time than necessary with someone who makes homophobic or racist remarks and manages to get away with it because we’re all being so careful of each other’s feelings and so very into mutual flourishing? And there’s the rub: it’s not simply that some people don’t realise how offensive they are being, it’s that all of us are potentially being offensive. My liberal/progressive views on the Bible will deeply hurt a Creationist, and I can’t measure that against my own feelings, as a woman married to a divorced man, if someone insists to me that Jesus unequivocally condemned divorce and that this means I need to repent of my marriage.

Doing the maths

Once we arrived in the small room allocated to our 9, the facilitator had to work out how best to arrange us into 3s. First he got a rough idea of where we were on the key issue; nearly all up the liberal end. He tried to do a swap with another group, but there were no takers. Maybe every other group was similar to ours. So instead he started from the fact that three of us were women. Each woman formed the core of a 3, and then the men arranged themselves accordingly.

Now this is tricky. Using 3s means there will be gender imbalance, just from the maths. In a 3, what is it to be the only woman? If a woman’s story of what she’s learned over her life about human sexuality includes rape, is it likely she’ll want to discuss this with two men whose views she could not necessarily anticipate? When dividing a class in a teaching context, I would be more likely to ensure that women, or men, when in a minority, could go in a group together.

In my 3, the two men in it with me suggested ‘Ladies first’ for the 15 minute presentations. Thanks, boys. Who goes first is important; it sets the tone as to what level of personal sharing is going to happen. I wonder how other groups did this? And I wonder how the dynamics are affected if a woman goes first, if a gay person goes first…

Leonardo da VInci, The principal organs and vascular and urino-genital systems of a woman

Leonardo da Vinci, The principal organs and vascular and urino-genital systems of a woman

As part of my presentation, I talked about my experience of my body. Highly relevant to my reflections on what shaped my personal experience and understanding of human sexuality was the fact that I suffered for over twenty years with severe endometriosis. It influenced my choice of PhD topic and it had a huge effect on how I felt about my body and about myself as a sexual being. I felt it necessary to apologise in advance to the two men who had been allocated to this group with me. They listened intently. They had never had the experiences I was describing; one is married, the other not. One had worked in medicine, and said afterwards that he was in awe at the physical experiences women go through.

But even in talking about my body, I was aware that I was playing into stereotypes about women as rooted in their bodies more than men are: the old parallels of female/male being equivalent to body/soul. When I constructed my story for these two men, I tried not to shock them too much; a typical female strategy. Personally, I didn’t feel vulnerable talking at this level with two men I’d only met the day before (maybe it’s easier, not just because of my personality, but because they are not from my diocese so I’m unlikely to walk into them at a church event!). My story included some men behaving pretty badly, but it could have been far worse, and I suspect I would have self-censored if that had been the case.

So: I think gender affects the Shared Conversations process, regardless of the balance of the overall numbers; and the maths of the central discussions in 3s raise what I find interesting questions about how the conversation will proceed. I wonder if General Synod will also use 3s? Perhaps we’ll find out when the full agenda is published next week.

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on
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