Warning: angry rant ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
I am angry right now. I just saw the list of names of people to be ordained deacon in my diocese next February. I have no problem with any of those names, but I have a problem with the list as a whole; of the seventeen people, only four are women. For the second year in a row, the proportion of women being ordained deacon will be less than a quarter.
It wasn’t always that way. I can remember within the last ten years, times when the proportions have been about even. But I have noticed, over the last few years, the proportion of women gradually dropping. And people are starting to comment, and to ask why; to wonder if fewer women are discerning vocations, or if perhaps it’s a statistical blip. Or whether there is something else, harder to identify, in play.
I’ve only very recently been through the whole selection-formation-ordination process, and I believe my own experiences have given me some insight into why women might not be coming forward in equal numbers to men. My experience suggests that:
– When we first begin to discern a vocation to ministry, we are often discouraged from taking on leadership roles and developing our potential in our own parishes, while watching our brothers in Christ receive encouragement and opportunities to do so.
– If we have children, we discover that the formation system can be inflexible around the demands and juggle of parenting, necessitating long periods of deferment rather than continued progress during that time. (I was forced to cease attending college altogether while pregnant, rather than being able to undertake a negotiated reduced load).
– We encounter resistance from clergy who might employ us in lay roles which would further our preparation and development; as was told to me: “It’s not appropriate for a young woman to do this job.”
– We find that colleges can prioritise their own convenience over working with candidates to enable them to study to their fullest potential: “Just stay home and enjoy your baby.”
– We find that examining chaplains often seem to assume a one-size-fits-all model of ministry, normed on traditional male experience, so that instead of accepting or even celebrating women who are young mothers offering for ministry, we find our care arrangements for our children while we are working criticised as “undermining your ability to set a good example of Christian family life.” (Whose version of “Christian family life” are we expected to live up to, anyway? And where is that documented as a diocesan standard to which we may all refer, for transparency and clarity?)
– Further to that last point, we find that our attempts to find our own identity, our own discipline, of life in ministry can be met with bafflement or judgement if they don’t meet other people’s ideas of normal. Had to adapt your prayer life because quiet meditation doesn’t work while the toddler destroys the house? Don’t expect your attempts to be creative, flexible and faithful to be well-regarded; instead, you’re more likely to be told that your prayer life is insufficient.
And so on.
This is just a quick sketch of some of my experiences. It’s not exhaustive. It doesn’t take into account the particular barriers and biases – conscious and unconscious – which my sisters also face when in this process. And which I suspect may actually be increasing, given the dropping rate of women ordinands.
That some of us get through anyway is not an indication that all is well. Some of us are able to find mentors who will encourage us and help us navigate the landscape of the contemporary church. Some of us find decent men and women in positions of power who will shelter us and provide us with the space to flourish. Some of us are gifted with more than the average quota of sheer pig-headedness.
But unless you truly believe that God is not calling and gifting men and women equally for service and ministry in the church, the numbers indicate that something is wrong. And if we recognise that, we need to look at the structural realities in the church which are the institutional expression of that wrongness.
Each and every one of us is part of this system. We each have the power to encourage or discourage; to create opportunities, to give chances, to be creative and thoughtful, to listen to people and honour the vocations in their hearts as well as the circumstances of their lives. Those of us who truly honour the vocation of women need to be intentional about this; to work together, to do the hard thinking, the careful planning and the gentle encouraging, and the loud and public speaking which will not let these problems go unrecognised or unaddressed.
I am angry because I had to stare down every one of the barriers I listed above in order to be faithful to the call of God on my life. I am angry because I believe that there are fine, gifted, called women out there who encounter these barriers and don’t have the resources I was fortunate enough to have, to get past them. I am angry at the stupid, heartless wastefulness which will let that go by instead of realising that we need every one of us to make a difference in the mission of God for the world.
I will not let it go by. I will think about it and talk about it and work together with those of like mind to make a difference. I hope you will, too.