My Greenbelt 2016 had a lovely Christian feminist flavour to it. Even today it can still feel that to situate yourself as a Christian feminist is to situated yourself slightly on the margins of our wider Church and it can be lonely. Communities and individuals at Greenbelt of course have been discussing feminist issues for years, and it’s an utter pleasure to find somewhere where I can be at home in both the Christian and feminist skins I wear. And challenged, inspired and intellectually stretched along with all of that.
One highlight was Natalie Collins and Marika Rose’s session on Christian feminism, where they deftly introduced and unpicked terms and ideas that can feel too overwhelming to enter. I was encouraged by them, their full venue, and particularly by the young women attending and engaging with their seminar. It’s always exciting to see the baton being passed on, and young women growing up in a world that is more open to them because of the impact that feminism has made on it.
Another absolute highlight and privilege was interviewing Elaine Storkey, a founding figure and regular Greenbelt speaker, who this year was speaking on her new book Scars Across Humanity, which discusses global problems of violence against women. I’m so aware that women like Elaine have worked to change the Christian context that I’ve been a woman in, and am deeply grateful to have gone ahead and pioneered.
So, on the Saturday afternoon of the weekend, in a freak thunder storm – so apologies Elaine in any errors I’ve made where typing up your words that were at times obstructed by the rainfall, and thanks for swimming across to the press area despite apocalyptic floods! – where I interviewed Elaine, I was interested in her take on where we’ve been and where we’ve got to go…
threads: How much has the landscape of Christian feminism changed over your career?
Elaine Storkey: Enormously. I began in the 1980’s really, I was on the tail-end of a lot of secular feminism and what was happening in the Church was that women were leaving in droves because they heard the feminist message about authenticity and integrity, integral-ness and so on… and it just didn’t square. It didn’t square with their experiences within the Church and they were out of there. Or else they were joining very liberal camps within the Church where orthodoxy didn’t matter, where the scriptures were very much downgraded to largely about opinion or a whole range of accommodations.
And it was really difficult to hold onto those women. I was finding this particularly, because I could hear where they were coming from, I shared it myself. I mean, I thought they lived in an impossible world, and so my aim was to actually, I think, to stop the hemorrhage. I was very concerned to do that, but not just in order to get more people or bums on seats in churches, but to actually get them to stay there and put their case to the Church. And that the Church heard it. It’s a male predominant outfit; you have men’s minds, you think the male is norm, everything you do, the language you use, the words you sing is, couched with this undergirding and women were being written out of history, so, what are you going to do about it?
That was all quite fresh, especially in the evangelical Church, now it’s not. Now it’s really, really old hat, and there are more Christian feminists than I can count on all my hands and feet, and hundreds more besides! It’s a very different kind of ball game. I think it’s largely to do with what counts as authentic Christian feminism – how far can you go in the opposite direction? How far can you ditch the Church completely and still be Christian? And how do you tolerate those people within the Church who are still polarised on this issue? So there’s much more ascendency, but there’s far less Church affinity, so there’s an awful lot of Christian feminist who are post-Church or post-Christian. The Church hasn’t changed so they’re out of here – they’re not out of the faith, they’re just not really hanging around.
But also feminism itself has changed. It’s fragmented into umpteen different kinds of categories, each with its own agenda, and very often not even speaking to one another and there’s an awful lot of squabbling going on with the feminist camps. So you see at these big events, like London Feminist Conference, where suddenly a whole bunch of feminists who last year were the rage of the year, this year are no-platformed because they’ve said something that other feminists haven’t liked. But hats off to the London Feminists because they’re trying to reconcile this, they’re trying to say: “We don’t no-platform women on issues of disagreement or difference or so on, only on fundamental offence.” But then what constitutes fundamental offence?
So it’s a fragmentation of feminism into queer theory, into transgender issues, into polarisations of various forms and so on… it’s very difficult to address.
Do you see much of this fragmentation in Christian feminism or is it still quite unified?
Quite a bit. The issues that once united Christian feminism now divide us. Issues on abortion, where a generation ago you’d have found most would not be pro-abortion at all, they might concede that in dreadful circumstances abortion was the only viable option, but now you have pro-abortion feminists who would still call themselves ‘roughly evangelical’ or whatever. There are debates in all kinds of areas that weren’t debatable before, it was just an accepted quality of discussion.
And there’s fragmentation in other areas, fragmentation in how we see the scriptures, how we related to the Bible, what we think of men (laughs!), how we tolerate being treated in a subordinate or put down way… How we cope with being patronised is a big issue for feminists; do you spit in their face, throw things at them, or smile sweetly and ignore it? Before, you had to carry on working with these people so you adopted tactics that make it easier to be as firm as you could and you didn’t give way on the issues, but nevertheless you wanted to continue the relationship wherever possible. Now, you don’t want to continue the relationship… why would they?
Does that to you feel like progress? Originally you were worried about these women leaving the Church, but actually does it now feel like a different kind of leaving the Church? Is it now positive?
How can I put this tactfully? Some of these churches deserve to be post-Church, because they haven’t got their act together, they’re still in a total sphere where they haven’t thought out where the contemporary mindset is and they haven’t addressed it, they’re living a totally different way. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of faithful Christians in those churches, you know. Lovely, faithful Christians who have been struggling and they’ve been fighting their own battles- it’s not that they haven’t fought any battles, they jolly well have, and they can’t catch up with today’s battles. And so, I don’t despise those people at all, I listen to them, I pray with them, I rejoice with them, as to where they are.
But an awful lot of younger feminists won’t do that, because they just see these people as completely out of touch, so I understand why they’re post-Church. In that sense I think that they need to hang around. And then there’s an awful lot of criticism of younger women by older women and older men, and that’s something else…
But do I think that’s progress? No, I think it’s regression in that I’d hoped for more from the Church, I’d hoped that more churches would be beacons of inclusiveness and welcome and debate and openness and so on. And taking the gospel seriously, taking gender seriously, and really putting a marker out there that says: “Look at us and you’ll see Jesus.” And that doesn’t seem to happen in some cases. The Church is full of internal and stupid squabbles. Why bother, if you’ve sat in as many meetings as I’ve sat in over the years, and listened to squabbles about things that do not matter one iota, you know, you think: “Well why would people want to come in on this?”
What are the signs of hope that you see in the Church, where it’s getting it right?
There are many signs of hope in the Church.
I’m still always struck by those people who listen to one talk… so I’ve spent eight years writing a book about violence against women. I will say the majority of people who’ve written to me from nowhere, the majority of people who’ve supported me in the writing, who’ve said: “Yes, this must go out,” and go round telling people about my book on women. There are women who are already in the mindset that I’ve been in and know that I’ve been doing this and are as bothered as I am about the global ubiquity of violence against women and want it stopped, so you would expect that support, and I’ve got loads and loads of it. But the ones who’ve just written in and read the book when they’ve picked it up from somewhere are men! I would say that they’re three to one – people who I don’t know and have never met before and have written in to affirm what I’m saying to ask: “What can I do about it? I want to get all the churches together and I want you to come and tell us all what we can do about it.”
So that’s always excited me, how people with a real Christian mindset who are guided by the Holy Spirit can come and hear something of God and then they’re convicted that they must do something about it. I find that enormously positive. That’s one of the big areas of hope for me – that the Holy Spirit is alive and well, and working with our brothers and sisters all over the place, all over the world actually!
And the other thing is the global Church. When you look at it, and people get desperate because of the Christians in Africa who are very, very conservative with regard to women and so on, the same Christians in Africa are fighting tooth and nail against violence against women. There is an awful lot of faithful Christian living that we don’t know anything about and that gives me a lot of hope as well.