She’s Gone Liberal … (The Language of Church)

Image by Author - A Mug Posing as a Mug of Beer

I am going to start with a confession. (This seems appropriate when veering into the ‘religious genre’). It started during the first lockdown. After one too many exhausting Zooms during the day and a disinclination to stomach yet another cup of tea, I started to bring a mug of beer to any online church meetings which took place after 8pm on a Thursday or Friday evening. I found I enjoyed these meetings so much more and so this habit has continued.

This confession has no relevance to the rest of this piece other than I am feeling rebellious about incurring judgement¹ because the last time I wrote about church, someone questioned whether I was airing my dirty laundry in public. Therefore, I might as well be in for a penny, in for a pound. Occasionally, I even bring a bag of crisps. I’d love to say it’s just like being at the pub but it isn’t.

Anyway, onwards and upwards with the actual topic I wanted to discuss.

Last week, at a meeting in relation to a Christian organisation, I climbed on to my high horse and sat there for a while. I am not sure exactly what happened to prompt this other than I was already feeling disgruntled when I clicked to join because (1) I knew I would be the only woman (2) I am often the only woman and (3) I can sense that I am only there because I am a woman. Despite my best efforts to channel my worthiness, this causes a psychological dent in my confidence. It’s not that I need female back-up in the room to help me but I do need allies in the room that might understand and reinforce my perspective.

When, we had to introduce ourselves and explain why we were there, highlighting our background and expertise, I guess I clumsily tried to acknowledge the elephant in the room and said something painful like “I am here on behalf of all women”! Whilst I had access to the floor, I continued to bang my feminist drum and took the opportunity to address some of the language being used which I believed was already eliminating women from the conversation.

This language is commonplace. It is not intentional and it is certainly not unique to the church but it is divisive. It includes addressing target groups as ‘guys’ or ‘blokes’. It involves the over-usage among contemporaries of ‘bro’, ‘mate’, ‘buddy’, ‘lad’². How can I even start to have relevance alongside these brothers? There’s an exclusive pack out there to which I could never belong.

It is confusing and complicated being a woman in any church context, especially when you have opinions. Already I fear reactions to what I have written. I can also see that I am falling into the trap of questioning myself by semi-regretting those attempts to stand up and call out the marginalisation of women. I am not sure how positively it was received. I am conditioned to apologise. This comes in spite of knowing that unconscious bias can’t be avoided. It is what it is - unconscious. The problem is that when that bias is not called out, it continues, it perpetuates, and it damages. But, there has to be a culture of permissive safety to call it out and it’s hard to find those safe spaces in the church.

Language matters. It’s a conversation we badly need to have.

In many ways, I am quite weary of how language is being brandished to tell me who I can or can’t be. It is only recently I realised I should probably be identifying as one of two camps - complementarian or egalitarian. I had to google them to get a definition. I am unsure where these terms emerged from, if they are cultural or Biblical. I had no idea I had been operating for so long in blissful ignorance as to where I stood on this.

As it happens, I don’t like either of them. Neither describes me³. One feels too passive, the other too extreme. One looks like waving dusters, the other banners. One seems too quiet, the other too loud. Neither has much scope for flexibility. I’d like to find a new term, a moderate middle ground which gives me capacity to decide who I am based on the doors that open to share the Gospel (and preferably aligned to my fluctuating mood). Maybe there could be one that doesn’t focus on rights but rather on intentions, one which acknowledges that the urgency of the Great Commission calls for all people to take action, regardless of gender. To me, living my life in Christ should not mean being a different person within the church to the one I am at home or in the workplace. Sometimes I’m in charge, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m up front, sometimes I’m behind the scenes. I am quite happy to have my dinner made for me yet also instigate a financial decision. I always know my limits. I can speak passionately and coherently but it doesn’t necessarily have to be from a pulpit. If I only spend my time demanding equal access, I could be neglecting other vital opportunities, ones I am possibly better equipped for.

In essence, I don’t want to be labelled and I don’t want this debate to be the distraction it is. I want women to be both respected and enabled based on discovering the unique value they bring. I recognise that when God calls you to preach, to have that burning desire compromised can be deeply traumatising. I definitely don’t want any woman to be accused of ‘going over to the dark side’ or to hear “she’s gone liberal” whispered in the pews just because she elects to fully exercise her gifts.

In all of this, I believe we are missing the full realm of perspectives and therefore, we are missing the full realm of possibilities. Perhaps we currently don’t even have the sufficiency of language that we need to move forward.

My request is simple. I would like somewhere open and honest to talk about all of this. I can’t be the only one who is confused, who would like to see those elephants in the room properly surfaced⁴, who requires an alternative language.

Get in touch but no judgements please.

[1] This is false bravado. Read to the end.

[2] N.B. In addition to language, I’d like to add sporting references (particularly football) in talks and sermons. When you mention the match yesterday, it can be guaranteed that at least half the congregation did not watch it. I also object to choruses which involve men miming the Haka. I find myself visualising what could fifteen women do?

[3] I have no issue with anyone who knows one of these clearly describes them. It’s all about freedom of choice.

[4] Happy to talk about my favourite IPAs too with any blokes!

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter