“Without You Ladies, Where Would We Be?”, Traybakes and Blokes Worth Watching

Image by Author - 527 Pages in a Lady’s Handbag

If there’s one place guaranteed to strike fear into my heart, it’s a church kitchen. Commission me to go in there and I’m Jonah heading to Nineveh. I admire those who operate effectively in them but I am terrified of putting something in the wrong cupboard, contaminating a sink. I am convinced I’m being watched. Someone will pounce if I accidentally set a sandwich tray in amongst the chopping boards. I have so many issues with the cutlery drawer - why are there no matching spoons, do people donate their odd ones and how did that nutcracker get in there? I wonder who controls the constant supply of dry tea towels. I imagine there’s a woman in every church who is serving God very successfully by collecting the damp ones.

I don’t have a good track record with church kitchens. I’ve initiated some minor flooding whilst manning a table-top dishwasher. I’m still seeking penance for the saucepan, binned in 1989. No amount of steeping was going to remove my first teenage attempt at toffee. I have spent many a ten minutes being indoctrinated on the intricacies of the coffee machine. As my eyes glaze over and I nod repeatedly, I know I will never, ever be doing this again by myself. There are too many steps and if you’re coming down early to get the boiler on, you might as well do the rest. I can barely navigate my own kitchen, let alone one specially designed to support everything from centenaries to Moderator visits.

So, when I found myself a few months ago, in an unfamiliar kitchen, in charge of elevenses for a group of ministers, I was in full-blown panic mode. I opened doors. There were vases and vases and more vases, doilies in a variety of sizes, a Lazy Susan, so much Old Country Roses. There were three kettles. I boiled all of them. I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted a cafetiere lurking. “I know what to do with this,” I thought. A quick phone call, an obliging daughter and a bag of my best ‘Belfast Coffee Roasters’ filter later, I was all set. “Real coffee,” they all exclaimed. “Did you make these yourself?” someone said, as I produced some Marks and Spencer chocolate-covered honeycomb on a funeral plate. “Absolutely,” I said. “You’re my new favourite person at Presbytery,” he replied. I’m not going to lie. It was a moment. My eyes welled up. If this is what it takes to be accepted, I thought, I can do it. I’ll work my way up. After that, they allowed me to take the notes.

We were discussing important stuff - inner city mission, housing estate ministry. The same book kept cropping up. All the ‘young’ men had read it. “It’s great,” they said, “You should read it”. And so, not one to be left out and mindful that knowledge is power, I decided I’d add it to my 2022 reading list. How naïve I was. When it arrived, I took one look at its 527 pages¹ and chucked it on a shelf along with all the other ‘theological’ books I’d never get round to. The summer passed contentedly with Richard Osman and Sally Rooney. Then, as October dawned, I found myself drawn into a conversation about deprived communities. It’s possible my involvement was to be limited to co-ordinating traybakes for an outreach event but seeing as my last run-in with a tin of condensed milk involved a sliced finger, I reckoned I’d outsource the Fifteens² and concentrate on the book that would help me understand the issues better³. I’d break it down into manageable chunks. Maybe, I’d start in the middle. I flicked through the chapters. One caught my eye - ‘Why my first hire was a woman and why yours should be too’. I was excited. I could skip straight to p375, now I knew the women were in charge. It said the women felt marginalised and disenfranchised. “It appeared that they had been left to take a back seat in the life and ministry of the church …. They were on the usual rotas: tea, coffee and the flowers, but that was about it”. I was intrigued. Were the equal gifts of women about to be recognised? Alas, no. The book explained that mature women should be employed as community workers because “most pastors are likely to fall morally when they get deeply involved in counselling needy women”. I presumed there were no needy men in the community. “The church is to be led by men after all,” the author reminded. It seemed morally weak men could define the leadership strategy but capable women would turn it into action. By involving them in this way, “women would be encouraged that they have a serious part to play in the Kingdom of God”. This book was first published in Great Britain in 2021. I was disappointed. Did all those who had recommended it have no concerns about its content? It focused on the bigger picture, the hot-topic of church planting, so maybe it didn’t matter what it said about women. Perhaps, they all agreed with it. In the church, I have no idea who is friend or foe.

A few months ago, I promised myself I wouldn’t write about this stuff anymore. I didn’t like the way I sounded, always complaining about gender inequality, harping on about systemic barriers. I didn’t want to be labelled as a troublemaker, or heaven forbid, a feminist. Could I not write more about faith and less about church structures? Jesus Bids Us Shine talked about small corners. How about I just stayed in mine. Surely, I could navigate around any challenges and besides, there wasn’t anything I was that ambitious about doing. I had ticked off a number of items on my bucket list including Presbytery and the General Assembly. I’d had an article published in the Presbyterian Herald⁴. My sudden fame had taken me by surprise. One person had been brought over to meet me at Presbytery - if I’d had a copy of the magazine with me, I could have autographed it. As we stood in the queue to sign in and I eventually located my name in a section all by itself at the bottom of the last page, a retired minister had whispered discreetly, “I’m a lifelong dissenter too”. I wondered what that meant. He had thoroughly enjoyed the piece. It had made him laugh. I made a note to write about needing more funny Christians. I worried though that I’d overdone the comedic value, to the extent that my serious points had been missed.

But as I reflected on how that book had made me feel, all I could see were more battles ahead for women who want to play a serious part in the Kingdom of God in the twenty-first century. What about my daughters? There is no doubt that current practices are driving them away. If we are not worried about declining numbers and decreasing relevance to girls who aren’t being limited in the ‘secular’ world, we should be. This is not about creating some sort of elite group who are justifying reduction in size as a necessary evil to weed out those who do not subscribe to their interpretation of Scripture. Whilst there is little positive that can be said about Covid, it has given us an endless supply of sermons on YouTube. An anonymous tip-off had directed me to a series of four, focusing on the election of elders⁵. It’s best to protect the location of the whistle-blower but let’s just say, if I wanted to attend for real on a Sunday, I could travel there in around thirty minutes. As I finished listening to each sermon, I wanted to expunge the memories, cleanse my soul. “How did you sit through that?” I asked. “The office of elder is a high calling. It has been given to the church by God. God wants to fill it with his men,” the preacher had said. It wasn’t subtle. The repeated use of ‘men’ made it fully clear where those in the pews were to place their votes. It was a hard four weeks to be a woman. “For decades now, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has made it very clear that women are eligible for election on the same basis as men,” he continued. He respected the law of the church but “my reading of the Scriptures is that to be an elder, you have to be a man and I will be referring to the elder as a man all the way through these sermons,” he explained, just in case anyone was still in doubt or had nipped out to boil a kettle. “Without you ladies, where would we be?” he said, “and I’m not talking about tea-making”. I was grateful he clarified that. Unfortunately, in the absence of any other suggestions, it looked like the church kitchen was the safest place to be. Well, at least, he was honest. Better to set out your stall than sit on the fence, allowing the women to go forward, having preached nothing in their favour and thereby abandoning them to a congregation who doesn’t realise they can actually vote for them. “There are women elders in Belfast,” the anonymous source said. “It’s the lack of consistency that gets me. It depends where you live now”. “Hmmm,” I thought. It was the analogy about the different gifts that men and women have - the one about the brain surgeon and the orthopaedic surgeon - that got me. “Now, I wouldn’t want a leg man to operate on my brain,” he’d said.

But inconsistency happens because systems exist outside of any compliancy, beyond regulation and devoid of concerns about reputational damage. This is not the business world. Church law is not constitutional law. In July, there was a flurry of activity in certain circles about an article which highlighted the pervasive culture of BWWs (Blokes Worth Watching) in the evangelical church⁶. The content was thought-provoking. From one writer⁷ to another, it was well-written. But, when something is written by a well-known man who already has a voice, it will obviously be taken seriously. It comes with no fear of consequence, truth-telling becomes divinely-ordained. That is a privilege that most women are yet to have. From the pen of a woman, it would only be seen as whinging.

The article described the wonderful vine (Christ and his people) and the wonky trellis (the systems) in conservative evangelism. “Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it gets,” the writer said as he described how the systems in the evangelical church and the assumptions behind them weren’t quite up to scratch. “Anglican circles feel like a rugby locker room, independent circles feel like a football locker room, but they’re still just locker rooms, full of blokes”. He detailed the dynamics permeating the conservative evangelical spectrum - “the blokeyness, the pragmatism, the militarism, the strong sense of unimpeachable rightness, the tribalistic them-and-us mentality and the inner rings”. Boys were being groomed for greatness via camps, placed on a conveyor belt to ministry apprenticeship, then the ‘right’ Bible college and on into full-time ministry. Church ministers were always on the look-out for BWWs, seeking the next generation that looked and talked exactly like them.

I wasn’t sure I was even qualified to comment on BWWs. I wasn’t trying to be a minister and I’d never been to a camp. My parents only ever took me to Barry’s amusements in Portrush. I wasted hours on the 2p slot machines, came home with a shell ornament. I had no clue all that religious stuff was happening on the beaches.

But BWWs wasn’t intended to be a complete assassination of the evangelical church. There was a positive spin. The church still believes that “the world is lost, that it desperately needs Christ, and that the local church is commissioned by Christ to reach its locality”. It concluded that, “parts of the trellis have let us down - at times, dreadfully. Yet Jesus never will”. It was hard to disagree.

On social media, so many women jumped on this article as validation of everything they had been saying for years about the sexism, the demeaning, the control, the lack of inclusion preventing them fulfilling their callings in the evangelical church. They were grateful to be heard, pleased to see this calling-out and yet, the word ‘woman’ is not mentioned once in it, no practical suggestions are made to ensure better systems, to make the circles less like locker rooms, full of blokes. No-one was even asked to behave better. The article’s main purpose was to highlight how by transforming the trellis, we could discover, perhaps for the first time, what true theology, worship, prayer and discipleship means. It’s what could be achieved but without any sense of the how.

And that’s the problem. If you men are not openly for us, you might as well be against us. If we have to deal with the unsubtle, those who explicitly advocate for men and men only to be commissioned to run the church, then subtle, closet, whispered support of us is almost worthless. We need so much more from those who are willing to advocate in our favour, who respect us for all our gifts, who have a different interpretation of Scripture, who are interested in changing systems and creating a less wonky trellis. Basically, we need you to speak up and speak out. We need “Without you ladies, where would we be?” to mean so much more than traybakes and church kitchens.

[1] I feel I need to add that it has almost 40 pages of endnotes. That’s not on. Ever heard of a footnote?

[2] And why not just include a recipe - https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/fifteens (external link)

[3] I can’t tell you what the book is, I just can’t!

[4] https://issuu.com/presbyterianireland/docs/presbyterian_herald_september_2022/s/16636646?fbclid=IwAR3r2WL-Q3KrckEbakloU4M9YDw20uiaU_dcL3IDWtkQNRLjUrI2hCIFQ5Q (external link)

[5] This explains what an elder is — https://www.presbyterianireland.org/Resources/Leadership/Choosing-New-Elders.aspx (external link)

[6] https://www.e-n.org.uk/2022/07/features/evangelical-futures-bwws-the-blokes-worth-watching-conveyor-belt/0ff5f/ (external link)

[7] Yes, I am a writer.

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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