Christian Feminism is about more than women in leadership, attitudes to male headship and gender inclusive words within liturgy and music. For me it's about seeing what the bible has to say and what in turn as disciples of Christ we should be doing in relation to ensuring that all people, regardless of gender, are treated with equal respect in our society. A large part of that involves shining a light on areas of marginalisation and invisibility, particularly on those areas of life which disproportionately impact women but tend to be ignored. Today I want to pick up on a major concern that the Church Growth Research Project findings on Fresh Expressions which I've been talking about recently have given me as a Christian Feminist.
The CGRP Fresh Expressions findings indicated that women are more likely to be lay than ordained leaders in Fresh Expressions and they are more likely to be leading in a part time or spare time capacity. Now, as somebody who believes everybody has an equally worthwhile ministry whether lay or ordained the difference in the data on that issue don't bother me. What does concern me far more is the split between those who are employed full time and part time and those are leading, presumably unpaid, in their spare time.I could get into the difference in value which this data suggests we appear to put on certain types of activity in terms of the way that the men are more likely to be involved in activities relating to youth, young adults and the middle aged whilst women are more likely to be involved in work with babies, toddlers, children and their parents. The split is more even when it comes to Third Age initiatives with older people. However, that is not where my concern lies.
I am worried about what the data about those leading in their spare time might be disguising and how this might be contributing to a wider culture in the church which may be at best hindering people following biblical instructions for healthy living and at worst actively working against women's health, particularly. We don't know from the study what those who are leading in their "spare time" are doing in the rest of their lives. I suspect for many it will be paid employment and domestic duties around their homes including the care of families.For women who may already be doing a triple shift (with a paid job, caring responsibilities and domestic responsibilities) the dominance of this type of unpaid "spare time" leadership gives another layer to their lives. Now, I know men may also face this too and it is not a wholly female issue, but as with so many feminist issues the data shows us it disproportionately relates to females.
I want to place this working of a triple or even quadruple shift in a biblical context. The idea of Sabbath rest is one which God instigated for good reason. Whilst I think that we need to be wary of going back to Edwardian understandings of this which were based around a system of double standards and not getting caught by the neighbours it is something important. We are intended to have rhythms of life which allow for life. This is understood by those who seek to encourage full time paid leaders to take a day off each week and work two of three parts in the day (i.e. if working the evening to try and not work morning or evening). Now I am not naive enough to think that for many full time leaders life works out like that (I know too many who are working themselves into the ground). However, the principal is becoming increasingly understood as important for clergy.
I would argue that for many of these "spare time" volunteers these leadership responsibilities may be getting in the way of taking a proper day off each week and forcing them to work three part days. Events don't just happen they also involve planning meetings and other tasks being performed. When one adds in their domestic responsibilities as well I worry about if and when these people (who are disproportionately women) are able to rest.
This isn't just an issue for Fresh Expressions, increasingly this is an issue for the wider church because the pool of volunteers able to contribute in their spare time is decreasing. Thus, more is being landed on the shoulders of those who are actively involved year on year.
As I finish writing this I want to say I fully believe in a mix of lay and ordained leadership but I really do think in a changing society and changing church where we are experiencing both growth and decline we need to think seriously about the demands we are placing upon people. Discussions about our future organisation need to take into account not only buildings, finance and professional staff but also the way we can help volunteers keep better, more biblical, rhythms of life. To do this we need to understand the realities of life for both genders in our society.
By the way if you're interested in engaging with Christian Feminism the free one day Reclaiming the F Word conference coming up in Manchester at the beginning of March, organised by the Christian Feminist Movement in partnership with St. Peter House Church and Chaplaincy, would be a good place to start. It seems to have a good range of speakers and be covering a range of topics.