Ok I’m gonna level with you here, I know I might seem self-assured and secure but you know there are times when that whole confidence thing goes right out the window. And I mean a lot of times.
Mostly, yeah, I have a pretty good sense of my God given identity, and I love it. I love who God has made me to be. But I have realised that there are certain times when a subtle, almost subconscious, switch is flicked within me that activates self preservation filters. Maybe it’s just me, or perhaps, and particularly if you’re female, you might recognise some of these:
First up there is the vocational armour plating. It activates to remind me of God’s calling on my life, no matter who might disagree with my ordination, in any particular setting. This is usually activated on my way to said setting so that I arrive with full body armour ready and poised for any anti-boobery nonsense.
Secondly there is the eagle-eye mode (remember that old Action Man feature?!) The eagle eye mode is quite clearly a spiritual gift and gives the skill of scanning a room on entering to seek out allies within 10 seconds of arriving (and the ability to plot a safe path to them).
Eagle eye is deployed along with the fixed grin, enabling graceful room crossing whilst, smiling at one and all even though some of those people will turn away or stare daggers at me as I pass by.
Then of course there is the defensive handshake. If, in using eagle eye and fixed grin, one is lured into an unwanted assignation, this pre-emptive greeting protection goes into play, giving the supernatural ability to deflect an overly familiar kiss greeting, unwanted hug or perhaps still the relentlessly violent handshake. In this case my face shall stay passive despite my hand being squeezed so hard the bones are being shattered one by one into tiny smithereens. (I mean what is that about? Feel free to express your manly-Alpha-male-ness-posturing on some other clergy dude but please don’t do it to me).
Oh and finally, I almost forgot and in my case perhaps the most important – the mouth guard – which automatically kicks in to filter out anything controversial between my brain and tongue, enabling me to stick to absolute pleasantries when an F bomb would most likely be acceptable.
These filters, I realise, tip into play in any mixed leadership gathering – and when I say mixed, I do of course mean 80% male. I don’t know perhaps it’s just me? Or maybe you have your own filters/coping mechanisms/self-preservation tools that kick in?
Here’s the thing, it was only last week that I realised these filters even existed in my life.
In case you hadn’t realised by now, I’m passionate about encouraging women in ministry (and especially mums). For decades (well, who knows how long?) there has been this stereotype that says women are gossipy and bitchy about each other, and studies into female leaders highlight words like bossy and difficult, aggressive and unfriendly. I’m sure we’ve all experienced one or two bitches (male and female) but I just don’t identity with this stereotype. I want to be an encourager, a cheer leader, a supporter. I want to be available to women who need a chat or to pray, to send encouraging tweets or messages when they need it, to write about women being, quite frankly, epic. That’s what I aspire to.
Which is why I was so surprised at my own reaction last week when I found myself in a room full of 200 female church leaders at the New Wine ‘Leading Women’ day, all there to support and encourage one another. The key moment came right at the start of the day when we began to worship together. As 200 slightly higher pitched voices than I usually hear, joined together to praise, tears instantly sprang to my eyes as a realisation hit me – despite my passion to encourage women, I had never been in a context like this.
I felt the pleasure of God in our worship, the validation of the callings in our hearts, the strength of faith in the room, the sense of combined, if slightly bruised and battle weary, minds. I honestly think that if anyone had come into that place right then with a different theological view, it would have melted away, the Holy Spirit was clearly at work and, in a phrase that +Jill Duff used later on, perhaps enabling us all to stretch our wings beyond the things that encage us.
And it didn’t end there.
When +Emma Ineson opened the first talk of the day, aside from a hysterical Premier Inn analogy, she told us she had a real sense of dynamite – dunamis in the room ready to explode out of it. Dunamis in the NT refers to strength, power and ability, and for me that set the tone for the day.
At some point amidst all of this womanly back slapping, I realised I felt different, I felt freedom. It’s hard to describe that freedom without sounding super sensitive or overly critical, but perhaps some of you reading this will understand what I’m trying to articulate. The thing is, being a leader in the Church of England means being part of an institution that was founded within the patriarchy – that’s not a political statement, it’s a fact. And whilst it’s been 25 years since women could be ordained as Priests in the CofE, it’s only 5 (as of 17 Nov this year) that they could be consecrated as Bishops. Only 5 years since, in theory, equality has existed in this institution. So, in many ways it’s understandable that as female leaders we might still feel the need to guard our hearts and minds from potential negativity and criticism.
When we encourage one another – male and female – then we help each other to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. The best God-designed selves we can be, without the need for protective filters. I long to see many more spaces where women especially can wholeheartedly feel that freedom to flourish, and I think it’s our responsibility to enable these spaces. Whether that’s at events and gatherings or in our working relationships, online interactions and in person, let’s encourage one another. Let’s have each other’s backs, be each other’s cheer leaders and in doing so we might light the dynamite and stretch out our God-given wings, to be all that we are made for.