Abolishing the secular life

In our beginnings, Baptists did away with various traditional distinctions of Christian life. Although practising ordination, we denied it established any set-apart hierarchy within the life of the church; we also rejected the traditional Roman Catholic practice of recognising a particular consecration of certain people, clerical or lay, to ‘religious life’, characterised by the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience (in popular parlance, this is the way of life of monks and nuns, although that is to elide a number of important distinctions between (e.g.) sisters and nuns, or monks and friars). This was all narrated as a rejection of priesthood, and of the religious life, and, historically, we generally accepted those characterisations as adequately clear accounts of our particular belief and practice. In recent decades, however, a number of us have habitually resisted the first: we do not reject or abolish the ordained priesthood, as Baptists; Christ has made us together a royal priesthood. So a fine contemporary Baptist slogan insists that our ecclesiology is about ‘abolishing the laity’. (I do not know who coined this phrase, but it seems fairly widely used, and I have cheerfully adopted it as catching something vital of my understanding of Baptist ecclesiology.) The priestly office, of holding God up to the world and holding the world up to God, is one we believe all Christians corporately share. Baptism is an act of ordination (the common UK liturgical practice of baptism – I can speak no wider with any expertise – fits well the definition of ordination offered in BEM, as it happens…); other than (arguably) the catechumenate, there is no order of laity in Baptist ecclesiology. Now, of course, this conclusion is not a claim that baptism and membership of a Baptist church makes someone a priest in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church would understand the word; essentially (in common with other churches of the Reformation) we reject that understanding of priesthood as unhelpful. Rather, it is a heuristic, perhaps apologetic, approximation: ‘if your ecclesiology is based on a clerical-lay distinction, then you will better understand the inner logic of our tradition if you think of us as abolishing the laity, than if you think of us as abolishing the clergy’. As a result of thinking through the arguments of Robert Song’s recent book, Covenant and Calling (which I blogged about here), I have been reflecting on the tradition of the religious life. Song does not mention the religious life at all in his book, but he is attempting to imagine a form of covenanted and fruitful faithfulness that is not marriage, and it seems to me that to think that through clearly there is a need to reflect on the religious life, if only to be clear why whatever is being imagined is not a form of that life. One result of my reflections is a further re-characterisation of Baptist ecclesiology. I do not think our vision abolishes the religious life; rather, if we have to work with the religious-secular distinction, I think a Baptist vision of the church abolishes the secular life. Again, this is a heuristic/apologetic approximation; these are simply not native Baptist categories. Let me work with it for a moment, however. Developed Catholic understanding has, as its first distinction, the existence of the ‘consecrated life’. ‘The state of consecrated life is thus one way of experiencing a “more intimate” consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come.’ (Catechism 915). The ‘perfection of charity’ here is defined in terms of the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience (although the Catechism will later note that the eremitic life, recognised as a valid – perhaps as the basic – form of the consecrated life, does not necessarily involve profession of the evangelical counsels). Within this basic practice, many different forms of consecrated life are acknowledged: hermits; consecrated virgins and widows; secular institutes; apostolic societies; and religious life. The first two are by nature solitary, and so fairly antithetical to Baptist visions of life and holiness; secular institutes are a bit of a historical anomaly, essentially being a way of recreating religious life in post-revolutionary France, where religious orders were for a while banned. The latter two are more interesting: apostolic societies ‘whose members without religious vows pursue the particular apostolic purpose of their society, and lead a life as brothers or sisters in common according to a particular manner...

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Again, on conferences and statistics

Ian Paul, who I have never had the pleasure of meeting, but with whom I interact regularly online, posted some reflections occasioned by my blog post on his blog (I think it is better to describe it like that than as a ‘response’). I’m sorry to move back over here rather than responding directly there (not least because his blog is much more professional, much nicer-looking, and (I assume) much more widely read than mine), but this essay just got too long. Before I start, I should say that I respect Ian greatly, that we agree on most subjects (although he belongs to one of those strange sects that sprinkle infants…), and have made common cause together before now. Specifically, given the topic under discussion, Ian has been a committed and effective campaigner for female leadership in the church, and has done much good as such, for which I honour him. If we disagree, it is en famille. Ian’s first comment relates to a passing phrase I used ‘the Christian conference circuit’; I did not mean much by this, save that there are a certain number of (non-congregational) events in the UK to which a Christian speaker might be invited. It is not a closed shop; the ‘gatekeepers’ who invite people to various events are generally publicly identified and (in my – fairly extensive – experience) are always very proactive in seeking out potential new speakers. But, as with any area of life, there’s a learning curve; no-one goes straight to main stage. That was the extent of my reflection. I might blog again about this, as it seems to have touched a nerve with a few people, but for now I just want to stress that I really didn’t mean very much by it. The nub of Ian’s argument turns on some thoughts on parenting. I commented that ‘the hard yards on this road come when, if you have family, your children are young, and it is generally harder for a mother than a father to accept invitations to be away from home,’ and located this ‘generally harder’ in sociology; Ian wants to locate it in biology, or possibly psychology, and so argue that mothers need/want to spend more time with their children, and so will choose, often enough to skew speaker stats, not to do those ‘hard yards’. Now, I think my sociological argument is stronger than Ian’s biological/psychological one, but neither of us are experts there and we’re not going to solve that. So, for the sake of what follows, I will assume his point. Even with it, I suggest that (a) his conclusions do not follow and (b) even if they did there would be a gospel imperative to resist them. I see at least three logical problems. The first is this: Ian’s argument is clearly a degree argument, not an absolute difference argument (a degree argument: women tend to be shorter than men; an absolute difference argument: men have more Y chromosomes than women). A degree argument, even if it applies well to two classes as a whole, may not apply to particular subsets of those two classes. So: female netball internationals in fact tend to be taller than men. Ian applies a general claim about women to the specific subset of female leaders without arguing that the transference is plausible. It seems to me that it is not: his claim is something like ‘in general, maternal instincts will lead women to value their families higher than their professional development’. For his argument to hold, Ian needs to demonstrate that female Christian leaders are not, on average, sufficiently invested in their God-given vocation to nullify this general gender gap he claims to see. (This would not, of course, be to claim that female leaders are less invested in their families than women in general, but that – properly, given their calling by God – they are generally more committed to their ministry than, on average, other women are to their jobs.) Now, I don’t accept that there is a gender difference here, and my suspicion is that the reality, for female and male leaders, in church and without, is actually precisely the reverse. There is some evidence, for what such evidence is worth, that senior leaders in various fields are more, not less, invested in their families than less ‘successful’ people in those fields, and that holds true whether they are male or female. This chimes both with my experience of the senior people I know – in the church and in other fields – and with some Biblical material about the responsibilities of a Christian leader towards his/her children. Female or male, the leaders I respect most are (either single...

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On the reception of the 2014 gender stats for Christian conferences

In reviewing last year, I looked at a list of everything I had ‘delivered’: writing sent off for publication; teaching done; students submitted; talks given; … I find it helpful: it is too easy to remember the stuff I didn’t manage to do, of which there is always much, and focus on that. (For the first time I also had a heading for things I had intentionally stopped doing, which wasn’t a long list, but is something at which I intend to work harder.) One of the things that gave me most satisfaction to note was the public launch of Project 3:28, a small collective of people working towards gender justice in the church, who have come together to do some specific things. It came out of Natalie Collins‘s collation of statistics on the gender of speakers on UK conference platforms in 2013, which I blogged about here; a group of us got together to talk about whether we could do anything; Project 3:28 is the result. We’re working on several strands, but the first one went live yesterday: gender statistics for UK conference platforms in 2o14, again compiled by Natalie. The headline number was encouraging: in 2013, of the 431 speakers at conferences we counted, 24% were female; in 2014, we counted 1081 speakers, and 34% were female. Natalie tweeted from the project account (@project328) through the morning, posting award certificates for the five conferences with the best gender balance and the five with the most improved gender balance. We’ve not yet reviewed the reception as a team, but I think when we do we will be pleased. There was media coverage from Premier and Christian Today – hopefully the print sources will also notice us – and a fair amount of buzz on social media, most of it positive and encouraging. Of course there were a few negative lines, some of them rather silly. ‘Didn’t we know that already?’ some asked. No, we didn’t, not the precise numbers, or the year-on-year change, or the conferences that were doing better than most. ‘What a waste of money!’ opined several; I think it has cost us, between us, nearly £250 so far – a fair chunk of that the price of the meal where we first got together to plan, which was generously paid for by an all-male conference (via a speaker’s fee they gave to one of us…). Then we had the classic spurious alternative – ‘shouldn’t you be concentrating on … instead?’ Hey, we saw an issue that we thought we could do something about; that doesn’t mean we don’t care about other issues – and in every case I’ve so far seen mentioned, at least two of us have been actively & publicly involved in addressing the issue elsewhere (unlike, generally, the complainant). Finally – my favourite –  ‘A much simpler way would have just to read [sic] any literature advertising the event and play spot the female photo & name’; What did you think our research method was? Stealth photography in green rooms? DNA testing of skin residues left on microphones? Compulsory urine samples as speakers left the platforms?! One comment keeps coming back though: ‘don’t we want the best speakers?’ Yes. Yes we do; that’s most of the point. On the assumption (and it is an assumption, but it is one I believe to be well founded in Scripture) that God gives gifts to people regardless of gender, roughly half the ‘best’ speakers should be female, where ‘best’ = ‘most gifted’; if our platforms are 75% or 66% male, then we are not getting the ‘best’ speakers. The problem is, though, that ‘best’ means more than ‘most gifted’; it means also ‘most experienced’, and so we get a vicious feedback loop: we want the same names and faces on every platform, because they have learnt through long experience how to do it well, and because they are famous names and so draw the (paying) crowds. I’ve organised conferences; I can write that list in the UK evangelical scene – and it is indeed 70% male. But I can write another list of speakers who are just as – or even more – gifted, in many cases who I would much rather hear, who are slightly rawer, for lack of experience, and much less famous – and that list is majority female. We came together in the Project 3:28 collective knowing this; round the table when we first discussed ideas were some veterans of the UK conference scene: Wendy Beech-Ward, Paula Gooder, Krish Kandiah, Rachel Jordan, me, … This is why intentional action is needed. The conference circuit operates as its own breeding ground: you get brought in to assist at a...

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