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, stating, “It seems like she hasn’t been well-briefed about our position.”
— Uniting Church (@UnitingChurchAu) August 23, 2017
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 of how women contribute in a meeting. Nancy stated that more often than not women 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, ‘Yes’! 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. This means 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. 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, 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.
— Uniting Church (@UnitingChurchAu) August 22, 2017
It is difficult to discuss women and men without falling into unhelpful cultural stereotyping. When thinking about gender, we need to critique our own worldviews 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, 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 that can help our Church to continue to learn.
After having a keynote speaker discuss women and men in Ministry at a Uniting Church National Ministers’ Conference, perhaps it is timely in 2018 to commission a new expression of Gospel and gender to further explore our common good?
Rev Dr. Amelia Koh Butler is a Uniting Church Minister. You can follow her regular theology driven reflections through her blog Hyphenated Faith.