I have a B.A. in Theology from the University of Cambridge and am currently studying towards an M.A.R. in ‘World Christianities’ at Yale Divinity School. Follow me on twitter at @hannahmmalcolm, and read my other musings at youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com. I talk too much.
I was born in London to evangelical Christian parents, who met at medical school and both came from Christian families. They were both ‘working’ parents, though their decision to have five children meant that my mother stopped working for a few years/went part-time. Both parents ‘led’ at home, and I never had the impression that either was making ‘final’ decisions (and if someone was, most days it was my mother, who is terrifyingly organized and efficient).
I promise this won’t be my entire life story. We’ll skip some bits.
In my teens, as a reaction against a secular school environment and a desire to explore what it would mean to fully express my faith, I began writing and blogging about being a Christian woman. At the time I called myself ‘complementarian’, believing that ‘equal but different’ meant what it sounded like – that men and women were actually equal, but that they were ‘different’ – and, from my teen perspective, I could see they were different. They looked different, they smelled different, and they thought differently about things. I never thought that women shouldn’t preach, but I did think there were bigger concerns. I did, however, react violently against the dating books, the language of ‘warrior princes’ and ‘pure princesses’ and the flowery skirts brigade that still infects many evangelical churches today. I would sit there in my trackies and jumper (and sometimes jeans if I were feeling really gracious toward my parents) and feel disgust at the guilt piled onto girls about their sexuality in particular. I understood wanting to dress modestly, but my frame of reference was the fact that, to me, most immodest or revealing clothing was just another patriarchal imposition – high heels, after all, are shoes designed to make it harder for women to run away. In church, teenage boys talked about their struggle with porn, teenage girls talked about their low self-esteem. I felt fine about the way I looked, and had definitely watched porn. Where was that conversation? Once, at university, I tried to bring that up in a flowery-skirted bible study, and was greeted with relieved I’m-not-the-only-one faces, but also silence.
At university I also discovered that many of my evangelical male friends were pleased that I described myself as ‘complementarian’, and I began to understand what that word really meant –men had the final say, women were ‘naturally’ submissive, and working mothers were, at best, a no-other-option choice – not a good model for raising a family. I had seen none of that in my parents’ own marriage, and began to think that maybe I didn’t belong in this camp. I was too brash, too outspoken, wanted to argue theology when that was a ‘male’ domain, and I began to resent my ‘female’-ness.
And so the word ‘complementarian’ slowly dropped out of my vocabulary, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the insidious male/female gender divides I saw in my (in other ways absolutely wonderful) evangelical church. Men went out for curry, beer, and theology, women had afternoon tea and craft days. Male students had male mentors in positions of church leadership, and there were no such leaders/elders amongst the female mentors. I had switched to the theology faculty for my final two years of study, and had several concerned conservative male friends suggest that it wasn’t a great idea. No women suggested that to me. In fact, I rarely heard evangelical female friends make theological assertions or discuss theological ideas at all, outside of the need for evangelism and personal Bible study. Like all of academia, Theology conferences were predominantly white and male, in both speakers and attendees.
I began reading more anthropology, and found that, as I did so, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sexes beyond the fact that women could birth and feed children and men had greater physical strength. There were no universal norms as to ability to lead, intelligence or subtlety of thought, fierceness of spirit, or preference for quiet, sitting down activities. In fact, the only true universal was that male physical strength led to male dominance, and that meant that male names were far more prevalent for both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities (e.g. the most famous sports people, warriors, chefs, artists, craftspeople, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, etc. are, for most of history, male, even though assumptions still prevail that little boys will want to run around outside and poke insects and little girls will want to bake and paint and play teacher). The most genuine ‘difference’ seemed to be one of opportunity, not natural tendency. (No one calls Van Gogh ‘girly’, but Cleopatra led ‘like a man’, because it was the men who led.)
If nature doesn’t really support gendered norms, should the Church? Of course, the Church is not bound by society, or even by what humans find ‘natural’ – even if it were ‘natural’ for humans to want to seek out multiple sexual partners (and some scientists argue that this is the case) I would still support marriage and one person commitment as the model God wants. And so, the questions became –
1) How much Spirit, and how much culture, do I read into any given Bible passage?
2) How much do I take seriously the feeling of call to leadership that many women in the Church claim to experience?
And 3) Why is the Church so slow to cry out against the oppression of women in all walks of life?
So, this is where I begin – a gender structuralist, who wants to take scripture seriously. A proponent for women in leadership, but who also understands the perspective of those who do not want it. Someone who wants to increase space for women in theological conversations, not by reducing male voices, but by making the space even bigger – I know that there are many white male theologians who have taught me a great deal, and I would not want to lose that, but I also don’t want to be limited to that. It’s exciting to me that all of us are going find our theological limits challenged in the next generation. The Church no longer looks white, male and western. It’s time for all of us to catch up.