Sunday, 9 February 2014

Lay Women - Getting the Balance

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.  

Thursday, 6 February 2014

More gaps in the jigsaw?

In my last post I looked at how single parents were a group who were missing from the analysis of church growth. This was one group who are invisible in the discussion of church growth.  I don't think this is the only group who it would be interesting to look at if the data were drilled down in further research, particularly in relation to Fresh Expressions of church. Today I want to think about the reasons why single people without children and LGBandT people are also worthy of inclusion in future research into this area. I passionately believe we need to look more at how changes in the nature and shape of family fit into the changing picture of religious practice in the UK.

Single people without children are a group who are under-represented in traditional forms of church according to Kristin Aune and others. They are also a group whose presence in the UK has grown in recent years as the average age of marriage and life expectancy have both increased. Like single parents with children this begs questions as to whether Fresh Expressions have been more successful in reaching this group and to whether the growth of this group may be one aspect of the complicated picture of decline in the church too.
LGBandT people are another group who have been growing in visibility in our society and who have been contributing to the changing nature of family types, particularly the LGB community. They are another part of the jigsaw which can't be missed and may be a part of the church growth picture which has been missed.
With regards to faith their engagement we have seen the growth of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) as a denomination. At the same time I believe, from anecdotal evidence, we have also been seeing an increase around the country in LGBT groups which meet on a regular basis giving opportunity for the unchurched and particularly dechurched to come together with those who engage in formal worship who can be classified as churched for fellowship and worship.
The LGBT groups may meet in church buildings they are often go beyond the traditional denominational divisions involving people from a range of church traditions. Because of this aspect of their nature they don't fit into the categories which Fresh Expressions research focus upon, (using the classifications from the Church Growth Research Project). Yet these groups do meet a number of the identifiers that the Church Army's Research Unit gave for identifying Fresh Expressions. I want to raise the question as to how, if we want to get an accurate picture of what is happening in the UK we begin to include this part of the jigsaw?
The involvement of young people in MCC churches in this country has been looked at by Ria Snowden and Yvette Cooper from the WeeksCentre in their project on Queer Religious Youth. Their findings are interesting and include discussion of how people who find a home in these churches are often looking to fit in. It would be interesting to see how their findings do or don't overlap with the discussions on who is attracted by different types of church.
In March a collection edited by Snowden and Cooper, Queering Religion, Religious Queers, is due to be published. This publication contains a range of papers from around the globe including one by John J. Anderson on ordination and queer identity in mainline Protestantism. I believe this volume may give weight to the argument that sexuality needs to be taken more seriously as a category within broader discussions of ecclesiology relating to what the social characteristics of people attracted to particular forms of church are.
A final missing part of the jigsaw of what is happening in the UK which I want to consider is the relationship between one off or less regular events and the wider church and wider community. Having listened to a couple of pioneer ministers/leaders locally talk about the start up phases of what they are doing and the range of activities going on I can identify this as one aspect of Fresh Expressions work - as they tease out what is going to become the ongoing focus.
But I want to look beyond Pioneer ministry and again turn to the LGBandT community to explore this. Within the LGBandT community there are a range of events which are less frequent. These range from formal gatherings of LGBandT Christians at events such as those run by Two23 on a quarterly basis in London to once a year pride events, (such as the annual service run by Christians at Pride in London) and the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR).
TDOR is a growing international, annual event which seeks to remember the victims of transphobic hate crime who have died in the previous year. In Milton Keynes services of remembrance have taken place for the last two years. The 2013 act of remembrance was well attended, with the majority of attendees having no active faith involvement. The event took place in a civic church building and was organised by the chair of the churches mission and social responsibility committee who is also a Methodist Local Preacher.
However, it was clearly separate from the church and was not a church event. This was for several reasons. Firstly, the main reason for using the church building was not that it was a church but rather it was a room of the right size, in the right location which was a safe space. This safe space element was important and created a paradox. The nature of the church and its buildings meant it was a safe space. However, in wanting to ensure it continued to be a safe space the organiser was clear he wanted to avoid potential conflict and thus wanted the event to have an autonomy which required it to not have to go through discussion at committees. Secondly, in maintaining this autonomy he was able to partner more effectively with local LGBandT organisations. The local community interest company who run the LGBandT pride event in the town acted as a partner organisation and provided funding for the room hire.
In terms of what the event involved there was poetry music, the central reading of names and remembrance of those whose names were not known or who had taken their own lives and a prayer (written by a rabbi) where those who were able were invited to pray and those who would prefer to were invited to just reflect.
Where do events like this which take place in the rooms of civic churches, but are separate from them fit into the picture? I would argue, as I did in my first post on the subject of church growth that we need to look at the micro picture including at the other room bookings and users of our churches to get the widest picture.

As I write all this I am aware of the practicalities of research particularly with regards to time and funding. I am also fully aware of the argument that some things are best left undisturbed to happen without attention being drawn to them. I know too that there is an argument that my examples focus so much on the micro level that they are not useful in helping us get the big picture. However, I want to argue that in an increasingly diverse society getting the true picture of church growth and decline and faith in the UK will involve looking at smaller jigsaw pieces and taking the time to seek out those bits of the picture we might have left out in the past for the sake of convenience.