A personal reflection for International Women's Day (March 8)
Ruth Garvey-Williams was heading up a North London newsroom at the age of 20. In Christian ministry for 25 years, she has spent much of that time in leadership,, often as one of a tiny minority of women. She believes churches are missing out because women are not able to contribute their God-given gifts.
Recently, I sat for what seemed like the millionth time in a gathering of Christians and sighed. Once again the panel of Irish “influencers” brought in to discuss the issues of the day were all men.
I have great respect for those present and appreciated each contribution that was made. But I couldn’t help wonder… what did we miss? What perspective was lost because once again it was “not possible” to find any woman to speak?
One of the organisers laughed it off. “We invited some women politicians but they could not come.” When it happens once, we laugh with you. But for every conference, committee, training event, panel and board… the story is similar… the excuses are the same.
A few familiar faces appear (rightly so, because they are gifted women). At times “big name” speakers are brought in from outside the country. But if these are not available, their places are not filled.
I’m told. “We tried but the women said ‘no.’” “We don’t know who to ask.” “There are only a few women in positions of influence.”
I’m not into militancy or fighting for rights - after all we follow a Saviour who laid aside His rights and humbled Himself (Philippians 2). Like many of my sisters, my instinct is often simply to walk away and to go where we are welcomed and where we free to use our gifts… often at the margins and out in society where our contribution is valued.
Yet, I also have a passionate love for the Church, the Bride of Christ, in all her glory and brokenness and it makes me sad when I see her missing out!
A body cannot survive if vital organs are simply not functioning and in the same way, the Church needs every member, every person to use their gifts, in order for it to flourish and grow!
I have travelled all over this island. Everywhere I go, I meet godly, intelligent, wise, articulate and passionate women who have the potential to bring nuance and perspective to any debate; women who have a significant and often prophetic (Joel 2:28) contribution to make.
When they hear that no women were available to speak, these women look at each other and ask, “What are we? Invisible? No-one asked us!”
There is an assumption that it is more important to hear from those who are considered “influential” - those who are already in positions of power or responsibility or who are more frequent public speakers (in other words… men).
Yet, we will never feel the influence of women, if we never hear their voices. We will never benefit from them, if we don’t invite their participation.
The reality is that for every woman who is invited to join a panel, committee or leadership team and for every woman who is added to a conference programme, there are usually three or four men invited. It is therefore not surprising that on average, the percentage of women speakers and leaders is tiny or non-existent.
Being one of a minority is not easy. Expectations can be unreasonably high for the only female voice on a panel of men. There is little room for mistakes. And there are the inevitable remarks, assumptions and jokes that create a thousand tiny needles to discourage and undermine. Some women are tough enough to weather it. Others simply don’t have the energy.
If women are not invited to participate, they don’t gain in confidence and skill. And a vicious cycle develops: women are not given an opportunity to speak, so no-one knows that they are able and so they are never given an opportunity to speak.
Not equality but denial
The issue is not, first and foremost, one of equality, it is of denial. The body of Christ is denied the benefit of women using their God-given gifts to equip God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4).
Often, we have the added challenge of theological differences over what is a “valid” contribution for a woman to make. The theology is not the focus of discussion here (although I’m happy to discuss it elsewhere) because my comments are primarily for those who say they are already convinced of the need to support and champion the involvement of women.
I’ve heard more and more men in leadership claim that they are working towards a greater level of inclusion. Yet the overall situation has remained largely unchanged for many years.
The reality is, whenever leaders, by their actions or inactivity, re-enforce the status quo, they automatically side with a conservative view of a woman’s place, whether or not this is their conviction. It takes hard work and commitment to change things!
We can’t expect change, if we don’t change what we are doing! And unless things change, the church will continue to miss out!