“A woman who claims to be a pastor is … just as a [sic] bad as a sex offender who is hired as a pastor.”
This tweet from a self-proclaimed Christian was doing the rounds this week and was vastly seen, shared, and commented on. This perspective isn’t new to female church leaders though. The famous 19th-century Baptist minister Charles Spurgeon in one of his sermons repeated a story of Samuel Johnson hearing of a woman preaching, to which he responded:
“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Thankfully, most of the responses to the tweet were akin to an incredulous raised eyebrow or two, but the reality is that this kind of thinking is part of a world that women leaders, and particularly women church leaders live in. It is simply the air that we breath, the water we swim in.
We live in an environment that suggests we are perhaps “not quite” priests. I have often thought of us as Schrödinger’s priests – like the cat, one day the box will be opened, but until then, it is perfectly OK to believe both that we are priests, and that we are not.
What is it like to live in this world? How do women survive and even perhaps thrive, as they seek to live out their calling? The truth is that some do manage to do this, and some will not. Imagine growing up in a church where you are told over and over again that there are some jobs that women simply do not do – not only that, but that God says it is sinful for women to do them, and sinful for men to “let” them.
It may be that some women simply won’t make it out of that box. But it is not completely hopeless. Most of us who have taken this journey will attest to a sense of calling, which we can not deny and which means that any obstacles shrink in our path.
Before the Church of England voted for legislation to allow women to be bishops in 2014, I often wondered about those women over history who had a calling to that role, and how sad it was that their calling was not fulfilled. But I then realised that even if the church at that time had not been able to confirm their calling, nothing could stop these women from living out who they were made to be by God.
I received the ministry of women bishops before the church caught up with what God was doing and made it official – it has often been that way; that the church has to catch up with the wild and surprising God who we follow.
And yet, until the affirmation of female church leaders is universal and loudly proclaimed by the church, it cannot help but affect us, no matter how resilient we try to be. Some women won’t make it, they won’t even begin their journeys because their path is blocked. Women will always have to use precious energy to resist the narrative that we may be church leaders, but we may not.
When the Roman Catholic Church forced astronomer Galileo Galilei to recant his theory that the earth orbits the sun, it is purported that he said:
“And yet it moves.”
And so for now, female church leaders must face their churches and keep saying in response to those who deny we exist: “And yet, here we are.”