I’d like to draw your attention to the report released by UK based Project 3:28 this week looking at the balance between male-female speakers in UK Christian conferences. The project, kickstarted by a small group of superstar activists, exists question the imbalance between male and female speakers at Christian conference, and to advocate for visible gender justice.
You can read the whole report for yourself to see a breakdown of the number of speakers, some comments on research methodology, and improvements from 2013-2014. Though I am pleased to note that the (BUGB) Baptist Assembly came top of the list, having a moreorless equal line-up (52% men, 48% women). Also, two conferences (Church and Media Conference, and Youthwork Summit) are notable for having a higher proportion of women than men.
A couple of thoughts on this report which occurred to me on the train this morning:
- The very existence of this report is a good thing for Christians. Perceptions of even innocent issues, such as how many people turn up on time for the beginning of a church service, can vary dramatically from person to person. This is even more the case in issues where our wider life experiences, bias and privilege affect the way we perceive. Hard facts are important.
- It’s also encouraging to see that a lot of conferences have seen a rise in the number of female speakers since Project 3:28 started. It’s not possible to say whether this is a causal relationship, but it’s definitely good to see.
- I definitely notice I’ve been disconnected from the English church scene for 7+ years by the fact that I didn’t recognise all the conferences by their names. A definite Emigrant Heimweh moment, there. Also, by Austrian standards, the very fact there are so many conferences shows how blessed the church in the UK is. The idea of just one viable annual national conference on that scale is unthinkable here, really.
- Some results are not surprising. For instance, it’s not surprising that conferences such as Word Alive or Keswick, which are characterised by a commitment to conservative gender roles, should have a vast majority of male speakers. So we need a distinction between conferences who out of conviction feature male-only speakers, and conferences who feature a majority male speaker line-up because of other reasons.
- At the same time, I think the above point raises an interesting ecclesiological point: what is the ecclesiological role of a speaker in a conference that is by nature parachurch (leaving aside denominational specific events such as the Baptist Assembly). I can see and respect a biblical argument for male only office bearing in the church (so for male-only pastors or elders) – even if I don’t agree with it myself. I struggle to see the argument outside the local church in a parachurch context. This points to a much bigger discussion about how parachurch movements use their power to affect (control?) theology of the local church in all sorts of areas, not just gender equality.
- Likewise, we’d be naive not to think that market forces play a role. Christian conferences are generally commercial activities as well as ecclesiological – they need to make their bottom line. Sometimes that means choosing speakers who are known to sell tickets. Now, market forces can be [morally?] wrong (insert socialist critique of the idolatry of the market here), but we need to be aware of them in our analysis.
- There are some areas I’d like to see researched further in the statistics: can we distinguish between mainstage and breakout session speakers? What about other denominational-specific conferences – the Baptist Assembly is featured, for example, but the Vineyard National Leaders Conference isn’t. It’d be interesting to see a breakdown across denominational events. I suspect a large part of this comes down to funding – you can only do so much on an unfunded research project, and I think the results that we do have aren’t in any way invalidated by the questions that remain.
- On the question of funding – I wonder what it would look like for those conferences and denominations explicitly committed to an egalitarian understanding to set aside a couple of hundred pounds in their budget to encourage further quantitive research. I think it would be good for all involved, and would mean that our perception of how well we act out our beliefs might be a little more accurate than a finger-in-the-air-test.
- The ball also needs to end up back in the local church’s court. Ultimately, that is where most speakers, both men and women, get initially asked to speak, get opportunities to explore their gifting, receive encouragement and critique. This report underlines the responsibility for leaders, especially those in churches committed to egalitarian understandings of preaching and church offices, to actively promote and encourage speakers from a variety of backgrounds. It’s easy to just encourage those whose exercise of gifting most looks like your own (hence the number of white men encouraged by white men), and local churches need to be structurally intentional about this – probably only when this happens will we see a major wind change on a national level.
- Finally, it’s good to note that this isn’t just a conversation happening in churches. The other half of my life, I work in the web industry, and exactly the same conversations are happening there around the conference scene – how do we find new voices, how do we encourage gender and racial equality etc. It’d be good to think about how we learn from other industries.
- I look forward to the day when each conference achieves something like 50-5o% representation.
Finally, I encourage you all to read the report, engage with it and maybe drop the organisers an encouraging tweet or Facebook message!