1. Tell us a little bit about yourself Steve.
I’m a Baptist minister, in my mid-forties, married to Heather, who is a clinical scientist by profession. We have three daughters aged 6-13 and we live and work in Fife on the east coast of Scotland. I’ve been employed teaching theology at St Andrews University for the past ten years; I write a lot (15 books so far; a blog; lots of shorter pieces online and in print) and talk a fair amount in university lectures and at academic and church conferences.
2. You’ve recently become a Sophie Network Trustee. Why did you want to support us?
I believe in the aims of the Network, and was convinced that I had things to offer that could help to fulfil those aims. That simple, really.
3. Sophia believes in championing the equality of women and men in all spheres of leadership. Have you always been an egalitarian?
I was converted to Christianity as a student in Cambridge; before then I’d grown up – through an all-boys state school, as it happens – as, I suppose, a fairly typical 1980s teenage boy, with no thought that any role ought to be closed to women, but also with all the unconscious assumption of male privilege that comes with that background.
Student Christian Union life then, as now, occasionally got exercised over gender issues, and fairly soon after coming to Christ I became aware that there was a debate. I recall looking at it; I don’t recall ever being convinced of a ‘complementarian’ reading of the Bible, although I explored it as seriously as I could. I joined a Baptist church that had women on the leadership team and that was part of a denomination (BUGB) that had been ordaining women since the 1920s; I thought we had sorted the issue.
I went to train for ministry to Spurgeon’s College in 1992; there I had the first experiences that led me to begin to understand that the issue wasn’t sorted; the denomination had changed rules, but not hearts or structures. For the past two decades, I have been on a journey of understanding more about structural realities, and also more about the reality of male privilege; I don’t suppose that journey is over.
4. From a theological perspective, what convinces you that God intended both women and men to use their gifting in leadership?
‘This I know, because the Bible tells me so’! It is, actually, that simple at heart; the basic promise of Pentecost is that sons and daughters will both prophesy; the NT knows and names any number of female church leaders – so many, in Paul’s lists of greetings in Romans 16, that there are scholarly articles wondering why the Roman church was so female-led. Yes, there are a couple of texts that, taken out of context, seem troubling, but the evidence seems to me fairly overwhelming when it comes to church leadership. (I think the evidence on family headship is more finely balanced, although I still prefer an ‘egalitarian’ reading as the best.)
That said, I think I find it easier to see this because of a lot of historical study that shows that radically Biblical movements throughout church history have almost always welcomed women into leadership; male only leadership generally happens through cultural accommodation, when a movement wants to become respectable. Living in a culture that is aggressively egalitarian in its rhetoric – far less so in its structures and practices, of course – it can be hard for us to understand how this could have been the case, but it really was.
Again, the more I think about ministry, and read others arguments, particularly historical arguments, about why ministry should be male-only, the more I see that these arguments are not primarily exegetical, or rather that the exegesis is being driven by a set of assumptions about gender that we now know are not true. All the history and theology here just helps to see what really should be obvious in the Bible.
5. Has there been a female leader who has inspired you and/or helped you grow in your own leadership journey? Please tell us more about her.
Many. My early Christian formation in Cambridge came through the Baptist Student’s Society,known as the Robert Hall Society; there were several inspiring female leaders there who were a central part of that (I married one of them…). At college I trained alongside a number of women (and men) whose friendship and example shaped me in extraordinarily important ways. There were a couple of nuns who I met only once each on retreats, but whose wisdom still shapes my prayer life, and who I still quote regularly. There are people I know only through reading their words, or about them, but who I find deeply inspirational – Phoebe Palmer and Mother Julian of Norwich, for example.
To pick a couple of very significant names, though: Ann Holt mentored me in several important ways when she was at Bible Society (I did some consultancy work for them, and worked with Ann on some conferences). Wendy Beech-Ward has been a wonderful – and at crucial moments, a very forgiving – friend, and a powerful example to me of what real leadership looks like: not self-promoting, but effective in making things happen, and marked by deep integrity. I also owe my entrance into wider church ministry largely to Wendy’s championing and trust when she was at Spring Harvest.
6. Women have been using their leadership gifting to serve God for centuries. Tell us about The Alabaster Jar Project which is shining a light on some of their stories.
There has been some wonderful academic work recovering the lost or forgotten stories of female church leaders from past ages – several who, you can’t help thinking, would be very well-known names if they had been male; I wanted to try to make some of those stories accessible outside the academic sphere. (I have read several popular-level books on inspiring Christian women; far too many were inspiring for being someone’s wife or mother.) My target reader was, I suppose, my own teenage daughter, or someone very like her, sensing God’s call to a leadership ministry but not knowing of any role models. I set up a website to tell some of these women’s stories with, I hope, accessible and inspiring tellings, and then enough academiic detail available at the back to convince a critic or to help someone else to follow up. It’s at www.alabasterjar.org.uk.
7. Recently there has been a lot of press about Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg wearing 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirts. Would you describe yourself as a feminist? Why? Why not?
Probably not; I think the title is others – women’s – to give, not mine to claim. I can never pretend to be an expert on systemic sexism and its effects; my six year old daughter has more direct experience of that already than I will ever have. (I remember an evening holiday walk with our two older girls, then 12 and 9, who as we talked deconstructed the gender assumptions of a set of TV adverts in ways that I would have been proud to publish.) And I already know and respect the argument that would restrict the title ‘feminist’ (and other similar terms) to people – women – with such direct experience. I am content to be an ‘ally’, to acknowledge that I always need to learn from those who know the truth first-hand, and to encourage, support and publicise their efforts…
…that said, I remember once Alan Storkey being asked what it was like, being married to a feminist; he answered ‘I don’t know; you’ll have to ask my wife.’ I’d shamelessly steal that line tomorrow if the opportunity arose.
8. This month, Peter Grant and Natalie Collins has explored the involvement of men in supporting women’s rights in a Sophia article focusing on Iceland’s recent announcement of hosting a conference on VAW without any women attending. Do you have any thoughts about how men can helpfully champion women’s rights?
In the particular case of VAW, of course, it is basically a male problem; almost all violence against women will end just as soon as we men decide collectively that it is not OK to beat up or rape our partners or other women, and not OK to stand by whilst others do these things. Men can champion women’s rights first by respecting them, and then by refusing to be silent or complicit when they are not respected. Because of this, I love what Peter has been doing through the First Man Standing programme of Restored.
More widely, we have to be prepared to listen and to believe what we hear without immediately becoming defensive; we also need to be ready to acknowledge where we have got things badly wrong, because we did not understand. I’ve learnt more from Natalie than almost anyone else. In the last couple of years; it’s not always been comfortable, as I have come to understand structures and systems and seen my complicity in them, or understood how damaging things I have done have been. When we begin to understand, we can begin to speak and act – and, because of the gender injustices in our world, our speech and action can be powerful, if rightly directed. But we can never lead here, we can only follow and support those who really know what they are talking about.
The other thing I would say is that my experience of this journey has been repeatedly of being overwhelmed by the graciousness and generosity of so many women. When I have tried to speak into this or that situation, and sometimes done it really badly, the warmth, encouragement, and forgiveness I have received, in some cases from women I have never met, has been astonishing.