Thursday, 24 August 2017

On Women and Men and Ministry in the Uniting Church - One Women’s Response

One Women’s Response
– A response to Nancy Beach’s presentation at the UL2017 National Ministers’ conference.

The Uniting Church is Australia’s Ordination questions highlight the importance of an egalitarian approach to men and women in ministry. However, we have mistakenly assumed that this would mean a commitment to public advocacy and leadership in combatting the dehumanising rhetoric of complementarianism in the life of the Church. It was deeply disturbing to many at the recent UL2017 National Ministers’ Conference to be presented with the continuum of “Complementarianism to Egalitarianism” as reflective of the current spectrum of belief and behaviour in the Uniting Church in Australia. How far we have fallen!

This is not a criticism of the excellent presenter, Nancy Beach, who was refreshing in her well-grounded and insightful comments. It is just that 25 years ago I did not think we would need to revisit such arguments within the UCA. I thought we learnt these approaches simply to offer support, advocacy and solidarity to our ecumenically oppressed sisters-in-ministry. Alas, Nancy’s presentation was needed in a Church that is seeing women walk away from working in hostile environments.

After the well-constructed and engaging session on women and men in ministry, I asked a few people what they thought about the current climate in the UCA. Several spoke of their concern that we were sliding backward, reiterating some comments Nancy had made in her presentation. Another expressed surprise at hearing this spoken about at a National Conference, asking: ‘It seems like she hasn’t been well-briefed about our position’.

On reflection, even if Nancy was aware of ‘our doctrinal position’ of women and men being equal in ministry, she was very effectively addressing the reality that there is doctrine and then there is belief – and they do not always match up. She highlighted this with a particularly helpful example:

[paraphrased from Nancy Beach 24 Aug 2017]
When women contribute in a meeting, they tend to hold back until they are 90% sure about what they are saying, whereas men will contribute their thinking when they have a 40-50% formed idea. 

My response to that is:


And – when a woman presents a 90% formed idea to a bunch of 40-50% thinkers, they often treat it as if it is a 30% formed idea that will need their validation. This is why I believe women need to be particularly attentive to other women’s voices in meetings. They need to listen carefully to one another and reflect back what they are hearing, repeating those things that resonate, and removing the enculturated habits of men from assuming that it is a role (attached to their gender) to validate considered thinking, (sometimes with questions that show they have not bothered reading the paperwork or asking in advance). Of course, this becomes impossible when you are the only female in the meeting OR when women are trying to behave like men in order to get on (more on this later).

Aside for Executives: I have always prioritized business relationships where a 
member of a Board has sought answers to their questions when they read the 
report, in advance of the meeting. Such courtesy is to be treasured and invites a reflective relationship. When such a relationship is established, I am much more likely to seek out that Board member for further refining of emerging work. They have demonstrated how to improve work 
rather than destroy it.

I was, however, bothered by the advice that women should speak up earlier when they have less formed ideas. An alternative would be to tell some people to shut up until they have engaged their brains better. An in-between compromise, which has been around for a long time, is to invite people to toss in partly formed ideas for the group to play with respectfully.

Respectful engagement is about relational behaviour. Women are not the minority in the Uniting Church, but we can sometimes be treated as minority voices, and we often act as a passive majority. The rise of UnitingWomen and Women-in-Theology and new forms of expression are signs of the desire for a more active engagement. Such gatherings of women include welcome experiences of freedom and empowerment. They also highlight that this is no longer the expectation in our mixed gatherings.

It is difficult to discuss women and men without falling into unhelpful cultural stereotyping. When thinking about Gender, we need to critique our own world views and cultural assumptions. One way of doing this is to consider perspectives from other cultures, examining alternate values and then reconsidering our own situation, enlightened by other ways of looking at things. (Essentially, this is part of what we are doing when we do Bible study.)

Within the Uniting Church in Australia, many of our comments and assumptions about women are also Western ones. Some of the strongest women of influence and authority are from non-Western cultures. I have been privileged to learn from indigenous sisters from both patriarchal and matriarchal social systems. I have witnessed the shift in style when four female Moderators (2 Western and 2 non-Western) get together. I have experienced Executive Leadership gatherings, in Australia and overseas, with some gender balance and, more often, with minority women. These are stories our Church could learn from.

If it is appropriate to ask a Keynote Speaker to come and talk about Women and Men in Ministry at a Uniting Church National Ministers’ Conference in 2017, perhaps it will be timely in 2018 to commission a new expression of Gospel and Gender to further explore our common good?

1 comment:

  1. There are many varied and surpringingly subtle forms in which these strange dynamics play out. It is not always obvious in the moment but is experienced in a residual or delayed aftereffect of dissatisfaction. I was confronted by some of the dynamics some time back and was confused as to whether it was the result of gender perspectives or more the occasional eruption of lay/ordained power imbalance. There can be a number of different overlays! These situations, whilst leaving me a bit perplexed, have also helped me gain some understanding the way I might also exercise power over others who view my position, my learning, or my language as indicators of 'authority.'

    I was definitely drawn to the UCA because it would be a place where my theology and my ministry gifts would be welcomed without the disheartening 'yes, but' that I had been blindsided by in several other faith traditions. By and large I have been affirmed and respected in each role I have been called to, and have enjoyed involvement in the various councils of the church with a sense of full engagement and participation. There are exceptions to that however and I especially take the point about women respecting other women's voices in decision-making contexts as well as everywhere that discernment occurs.

    I agree it is a matter of reflecting on our responses to each other and being a little more aware of our embedded cultural, social and theological assumptions alongside the personality factors that influence encounters.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.


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