‘Hate something? Change something!’ On gender bias in conferences

I have a recurrent experience with car ads, which I think is their fault not mine: I can often, years later, remember every detail of the ad except which particular car it was advertising. I suspect this is a result of the mismatch between the grandiose claims made by marketeers and the tiny differences between actual cars. One ad, years back, ran under the slogan ‘hate something? change something!’ – as best I recall one manufacturer or another had improved their diesel engine slightly in some particular, and the marketing department decided to make this an example of world-transformation up there with the American Civil Rights movement or the ending of apartheid… I love the slogan, though. For myself I translate it as ‘don’t moan; transform!’ There are a few things I care about enough to really not like; it would be easy to talk a lot about them; the challenge instead is to do something that will actually make some difference (which may involve some intentional talking, of course). One of the things I try occasionally to do something about is gender balance in those bits of the church I can get my hands on – mostly UK Baptist and evangelical life. So I became interested when Helen (@helen_a13, aka ‘the tweeter formerly known as @fragmentz’) and @God_Loves_Women started asking questions on Twitter about gender representation on UK Christian conference platforms (based on Rachel Held Evans twitter comments about the gender (im)balance at something called ‘The Nines’ in the USA, and an American journalist offering an analysis of the ‘biggest Christian conferences in the evangelical world’ – he used ‘world’ in that odd US English sense of ‘North America’; cf. ‘World Series Baseball’). I tweeted a few names and lists of conferences to include, and looked forward to seeing the results sometime next month… …I should know GLW better than that. Her analysis went live the next morning, and makes sobering reading for anyone involved, as I have been, in organising and running conferences. It suffers the problems of any statistical analysis (you know the old one about a statistician being someone who can lie with her head in the freezer and her feet in the oven, and claim that on the whole, she is feeling completely normal?). But these stats are too skewed to enable any excuses, and I suspect that we all know that if we did the more granular stuff it would just look worse. There’s something here to moan about – or to transform. How might we do the latter? First, there are already some brilliant blogs on the subject: Hannah Swithinbank asks conference organisers to front up and be honest. If you failed to get a decent (which means representative, as well as skilled) speaking team, tell us – publicly – how hard you tried, and what you are going to do different to do better next time. Martin Saunders talks about the effort the UK Youthwork Summit put in to achieve gender balance, and so gives a model for others to follow Jenny Baker points helpfully to some of the underlying structural issues that need to be named and changed. Jonny Baker is typically direct about how easy it should be. Second – guess what? The church is not the only community that faces this particular problem. People have talked very practically about increasing female representation at science conferences; at game developer conferences; at conferences on writing JavaScript – and probably lots of other places. There are great ideas here we could happily borrow… What else could we do? Here are some ideas, thrown out at random: 1. Picking up on Hannah’s points: if your gender ratio is rubbish, commit – publicly – to do something about it at the conference. Create one bursary for every excess male speaker, to be awarded to a gifted young woman; have your top speakers meet with them day by day through the conference to help and encourage them into using their gifts; next year, give them a slot on the programme; … 2. People say they can’t find female speakers – so is there space for a directory, listing great women, their particular gifts and expertise? 3. On twitter, Jenny Baker said she and others had tried the directory idea, and people had been reluctant to put themselves forward. So build a group through intentional mentoring, training sessions, and safe practice spaces; meet people, and encourage them to get involved; … (I know Jenny and Wendy Beech-Ward are doing this already; I wonder how much support they are getting from conference organisers who complain about their inability to find women to speak?) 4. Or, instead or as...

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On English Bible versions

The first thing to say is that, as English speakers, we are blessed with many many extraordinarily good Bible translations; compared to almost anyone else around the world, our riches are embarrassing – in fact, have you considered keeping your old church Bibles and giving the money you would have spent to Wycliffe, Bible Society, or another Bible translation ministry? That said, the decision which Bible version your people will read is a serious one for a minister to take…

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Improvising in the key of gospel

My friend Wesley Hill (who blogs, with others, wonderfully here, incidentally) shared a story about Pope John Paul II on Twitter today – do read the link, but the essence is that the Holy Father encountered a priest who had deserted his vocation and had been reduced to begging, and then restored him by asking the fallen priest to hear his – the Pope’s – confession. (There seems to be some evidence that the story is factual, not hagiographic, incidentally.) The story grabbed me: I added it to a small group of tales I know, only some of which I can tell (the most personal I can’t, online, because of the people involved. But ask me why I just love baby showers one day when we’re alone). Tony Campolo’s famous tale that ends ‘I belong to the sort of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three o’clock in the morning’ is on the list too. Another of these stories involves two other friends, Brenda and Andrew Marin (whilst I’m doing the linklove, Brenda blogs here and Andrew blogs here), and concerns a bunch of Christians in and around Boystown, Chicago, who became seriously upset that the only Christian voice at the annual Pride march was people shouting ‘SIN’ loudly through megaphones from behind barricades. So they printed up some T-shirts and handwrote some signage saying ‘I’m sorry – if you’ve been judged or dehumanised by a church … for Bible-banging homophobes … for how the church has treated you …’ Buzzfeed had their mere existence as #1 of ’21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity’; but the real story came when a guy named Tristan, who was a semi-naked dancer on one of the Pride floats, saw it and got it, and ran and threw his arms around one of them, Nathan, who blogged about it, memorably beginning, ‘I hugged a man in his underwear. I think Jesus would have too.’ What are these stories for me? I have a talk I give from time to time, which begins riffing (with Callum Brown) about ‘the death of Christian Britain’ and moves on to responses. I make the move to exile (the title of the talk is often ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore…’), and look at the responses of God’s people to being exiled. There is a surrender to despair in Ps. 137; if you reach as far as Maccabees, but only then, there is a vision of culture war (not in our Bibles anywhere, churches of the Reformation; we might think on that and learn from it…); there is, in the birth of Pharisaism, a rigid adherence to the old rules; and then there is vegetarianism and hospitality. The vegetarianism, of course, comes in Daniel 1; the hospitality in Esther 5-7. Two great OT saints, Esther and Daniel, respond to a changed cultural context by creatively re-imagining what faithfulness to God might look like. They both improvise (as does Nehemiah – see ch. 2 – and, well, everyone else who gets it right); they re-envisage the old laws in a new context, and invent creative ways forward that are utterly faithful to God’s covenant and at the same time completely responsive to the culture. In the new context of exile, careful adherence to the old laws won’t work (and now you need to make a daily sacrifice in Jerusal… Oh.); we can surrender to despair (Ps. 137); we can fight some rearguard action (Maccabees); we can choose a set of rules that still apply and be slavish in following them (Pharisaism) – or we can improvise. In music – these days, particularly in jazz, but the cadenza of a concerto used to work the same way – improvisation is a fascinating art. Good improvisation is profoundly responsive to what has come before, and in certain ways obedient to the key and to the rhythmic structure of the piece, but at the same time it is deeply inventive. Improvisation is also instinctive: jazz musicians say regularly that your fingers go the right places; the moment you have to think about it, you’ve blown it completely. To improvise instinctively, of course, you have to practice endlessly, playing and playing and playing, till your fingers know where to go without being told. Put another way, you start to indwell the music, knowing instinctively, without thought, what can or must come next, even when there are no notes printed on a score. For me, living faithfully after Christendom is an exercise in improvising in the key of gospel. We face – daily; hourly – previously-unimagined challenges and situations; a set of rules is too solid, too...

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