What about women who don't want to be bishops?


So women can be bishops. But that's just for Anglicans, and I fancy not all Christian women are keen on ecclesiastical purple anyway. So who's going to champion the role of women in the Church at large?

One conundrum I've never quite got my head around, is why the Church is accused of being too feminine when, for most of its life, men have been in charge.

It's true, there are a lot of women in the Church, and some rather daunting statistics to back that up. One Tearfund report found that 65 per cent of UK churchgoers are female. More anecdotally, I've heard that women outnumber men by four to one in the Church of England.

But by and large women aren't the ones setting the agenda in the Church – or if they are, they haven't been doing it for long.

Women and the Church (WATCH) had set its sights on seeing the Anglican Church welcome female bishops. Now that it's been agreed, it's time to look at which other structures prevent women flourishing and progressing within the Church.

It's not enough to allow women to be church leaders, when there are much stronger, subliminal forces at work, argues Jody Stowell, vicar of St Michael's and All Angels Harrow and on the WATCH leadership team.

"Our liturgies are very male, our songs are male, there's lots of male language for God – and our language creates our world," says Stowell.

"When women go into that situation, they are constantly imbibing the fact that God's male and it's not really a place for them."

About half of ordinands in the Church of England are female, but the number of women leading Anglican churches is much less than that. One explanation is that women have only been ordained since 1994. Another reason is that women often opt for more supportive roles.

WATCH is keen to find out why that is, and whether there are things that can be done at an institutional level to support women who would otherwise take on the bigger leadership positions.

And for those who don't fancy being in charge of a church?

The Christian Feminist Network was set up to advocate for all women, not just those in church leadership.

"What I've seen to be really effective at creating change are grassroots initiatives that include all and show all women that they can have a voice," says one of its founders, Hannah Mudge.

"We have to represent ourselves when it comes to these issues," she adds. "I'm also part of a group that's looking at encouraging Christian events to feature more women speakers."

Last year the God Loves Women blog compiled a list of the number of men and women speaking at the major UK Christian conferences and festivals. Unsurprisingly, there were far more male speakers than female. Of those that did have women speaking, a large number were either married to men speaking at the same event or on a topic particularly aimed at women.

Difficulty in interacting with male leaders could be one thing that prevents women from getting these kinds of opportunities. Conference speaking lists, like most things in life, depend partly on who you know, and networking in the Christian world involves an added dimension of awkwardness.

Jenny Baker, author of Equals and part of the leadership team of the Gathering of Women Leaders, says that the fear of forming inappropriate relationships with female colleagues, prevents some male leaders from working more with women.

"It leads, I think, to inappropriate boundaries," says Baker. "Yes of course it's terrible if a working relationship turns into an affair, but it's not fair if men are setting the rules about how women are interacting with men.

"Instead we need to work out together how we do something constructive about it, and not just keep separate from each other and not allow good, constructive relationships to form."

But we all know there's more to being a good Christian than standing up at the front.

"We do tend to celebrate a particular type of person – people who have led things," says Baker. "We forget that there are people who are being really faithful day in day out – men or women – don't get much recognition."

Then of course there's the old chestnut of what to do if you're not married with kids, or in church leadership. Who's got your back then?

"The church does a lot for women who have children and families, but often they don't get a lot of support for their careers," says Baker. "If you're a wife and a mother then you're seen to have made it, and if you haven't got those things, a good career is a second best."

Clearly this isn't just a problem for the Church. The representation of women in politics made headlines last week when Harriet Harman criticised Gordon Brown over his decision not to appoint her as deputy prime minister after she became deputy party leader in 2007.

Suzanne Moore at the Guardian followed this up with a suggestion that feminists should rally to form a feminist party.

But academic Kate Maltby, writing for the Telegraph, disagreed, pointing out that while she and Moore both agree on the need for better female representation in the corridors of power, they have a different view on the purpose of feminism.

While Moore champions feminism as a movement against neo-liberalism, Maltby sees feminism fighting to see women rise up within big business, not toppling it.

Well, if you think a feminist party is niche, a Christian Feminist Party would be ultra-niche. But does this little tête-à-tête on feminism today have anything to say to the Church?

Mudge says: "It's clear that feminism can really speak to the Church about the equality of women and men, and the importance of combating inequality and injustices against women. Issues that affect many women in the Church – such as domestic abuse – are still taboo, and they shouldn't be."

The Church also has something to offer feminism. "The origin of justice and concern for the oppressed, for a start," Mudge says. "But also grace, compassion and understanding, which is so often lacking not just in the feminist movement, but in all spheres where ideas are discussed and the oppression of people is concerned."

An institution, so often accused of being over-feminine and full of women, needs to find a way to give those women a voice.