What if, along the way, we’ve picked up ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman that just aren’t working? What if we’re tangled up in beliefs about who we should or could be that might be holding us back from finding our feet as the women God has made up to be?’
Rachel Gardner, ‘The Girl De-Construction Project’
Imagine the scene: it’s breakfast time in a farmhouse in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall. It’s the morning after the night before, the Christian version of which is the morning after a night of inadvertently staying up really late up having the deep deep chats where you all bear your soul and the scene becomes a thin place without you all realising it. You’re all around the kitchen table when someone asks ‘so how late did you guys stay up last night?’ One thing leads to another, and you end up put on the spot to re-deliver a monologue you gave in the early hours of the morning in the comfort of newly-deepened friendships. The gist is this: what the Proper Christian Woman is like. Over breakfast, people laugh either again or for the first time, but for you, it’s not quite as funny. Because, as the Cornish sun streams through the window and bounces off your cereal spoon, you realise that you’d really quite like to be the Proper Christian Woman. She’s married, she’s beautiful, she has kids, she has a perfectly turned out house, she can sing and bake and sew and do all three sections of the Bible in One Year in the morning. In short, she’s not just everything you’re not right now, she’s everything you probably never will be.
It’s fair to say that, along the way, I have picked up ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman that really haven’t worked. And I look at the teenagers in my youth group and at my female friends in various stages of life, and as I prepare to be in all sorts of contexts during my ordination training and beyond, I’ve been struck by the importance of modelling what it means to be a Christian woman who’s me, with all my dreams and hopes and fears and flaws.
I’ve been reading with great delight and much punching-the-air Rachel Gardner’s ‘The Girl De-Construction Project.’ If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s the book I wish I’d had at 15. It’s honest, vulnerable, and empowering. She actually uses the word ‘vagina!’ The books for Christian women and girls I grew up with re-enforced the depiction of girls and precious flowers with ears too delicate to dare utter the anatomical names for our body parts. She talks about sexuality in a way which is, sadly, revolutionary for 2018. She talks about arousal and sex dream and sensuality and masturbation. She talks about the clitoris (only slightly less than my MPhil thesis, not that it’s a competition) and it’s sensible rather than gratuitous.
She takes bodies seriously and sex seriously; her book as a whole is a stunning exercise in incarnational theology, it might not use technical theological language, but its theological integrity is both rich and obvious. This is not a haphazard work of empty platitudes and vague statements about God, this is a work of liberationist theology. And as I prepare to begin my DPhil constructing a theology of sexual consent, this book has helped re-ignite my passion for this topic and for the church to actually engage with it.
But she also takes formation seriously. She writes: ‘knowing who you are doesn’t start with you; it starts with the God who created you and is more attentive to you and who you’re becoming than you could possibly imagine.’ In a section called ‘know your body’ she talks about examining your hands and asking what they are telling your about what you might need, and includes in the list of potential answers, ‘holding them out to God, because you need to let go of something that’s been weighing heavily on your heart.’ Formation is essential because it is never ending. Because the 15-year-old me had the same fears as Cornish farmhouse me as right now me, differently expressed but still ultimately the same. Because while God is endlessly creative, the enemy is vomitously repetitive. It is in paying attention to formation that we learn to hear God’s whispers of truth over the shouted lies of the devil. It’s important for all of us, but especially important for women.
I read ‘The Girl De-Construction Project’ alongside watching ‘Nanette,’ the remarkable stand-up special by Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby. I don’t want to spoil it for you (although it’s been out for quite a while) but I would urge you to watch it.
At one point, Hannah says this:
I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.
It is a statement which resonates with me and I see it throughout so many of my female friends. Because us women, particularly those of us in evangelical circles, we were endlessly hounded to be humble, when actually it was humiliation dressed up as a virtue. When Gardner speaks properly about bodies, it’s actually a subversive act which is a healing balm to so much humiliation women and girls face just because they have the bodies they do. What both Gardner and Gadsby have in common is dismantling this socialised notion women have that they have to apologise just for existing, just for being. Both journey the formation path, their creative outputs having different destination points, but both pastoral in their own way.
One of the questions that has popped up now and again during the discernment process and now as an imminent ordinand has been ‘so what’s your ministry going to be, do you reckon?’ First off, I don’t even know how you train for ordination, let alone the super hard part that comes after it. (No, but seriously, how do you train for ordination? This was actually never mentioned on any vicar school open days). Second, how should I know? I don’t even know where I am on the church candle anymore, in fact, I think I’ve just misplaced my candle entirely. But it did get me thinking. And as debates waged on Twitter (where else?) about the role of women in the Church of England, and mutual flourishing, disagreeing well, five principles blah blah blah, I found myself saying to God, ‘God, I don’t want to do the whole ‘women in the Church thing,’ that’s not what I want to be known for.’ Quick as flash, God replied, ‘why don’t you want to be known for fighting injustice?’
Ouch. Just because the burn was from God doesn’t make it sting any less. My generation isn’t that good at saying thank you. And for that, we should say sorry. I only get to think the words ‘I don’t want to do the whole ‘women in the Church thing” because generations of women before me did, and at times, to great personal cost. There are women in the Church who stood up and spoke out and now find themselves stuck under a stained glass ceiling. There are women who walk into rooms of clergy and find themselves the only one. There are women who have got on with their calling after having been spat at and shunned. And my generation of women doesn’t recognise that well, and I am sorry. I am sorry to those of you who were the trailblazers, who risked so much in pursuit of God’s call, who others in our church feel you should apologise just for being you. I am truly sorry.
In a story which makes it sound like I spend far more time in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall than I actually do, I was in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall. It was January. It was so cold. I was huddled in a former nun’s cell awkwardly holding my phone as though it was an alien object I was encountering for the first time. After six days, silence had been broken and my friend and I sat on her bed, picked up an ear bud each, and for the first time in six days, listened to music…
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.
We lip-synced and danced with all the enthusiasm and joy that bursts forth after a week in simultaneously liberating and torturous silence. It was glorious!
So what do ‘The Girl De-Construction Project,’ ‘Nanette,’ women in the Church, and an anthem from a Hollywood musical have to do with anything? Well, they each say something profound about how women are made to apologise in a way which is unjust, is demoralising, and belies their being creations of the almighty God. And why have they all collided into the word vomit that is this blog post? Because I have just moved to vicar school. Yesterday, I was introduced to a guy who’s going to be a first year just like me. And after the interaction was over, I came up to my room and said ‘God, I wish I wasn’t shy, I wish I wasn’t anxious, God, I wish I wasn’t me.’ And isn’t that just the most blasphemous thing? I might as well have said, ‘God, you did a bad job making me.’ Except he didn’t. Because he’s God and my goodness, isn’t he pretty excellent at creation! I feel this constant need to apologise for who I am, to say sorry for taking up time and space, for saying my bit. I say sorry for asking questions, sorry whenever I feel inadequate, I apologise just for existing, just for being. But I am, with a life of formation ahead of me, who God made me. He is the source of my formation, he is present in my wounds, he is the cause of my fight for justice, he is the joy in lip-syncing to a musical in a nun’s cell after six days in silence. He is my creator. So, with all the apologies my vagina-possession has socialised me to make, this is me.