Parrot Wives: A Church-Leader Photo Phenomenon

“Parrot, parrot, parrot wives.  Parrot, parrot, parrot wives” (sung to the tune of Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’.) 

It is a strange and peculiar phenomenon that Nick and I have noted…..’The Parrot Wife’.  Go onto a church website; normally a charismatic, reformed, new stylee congregation – you know the ones with cool fonts (the type-sets rather than the christening kind) , the super-duper programme and the relevant worship; and there you may behold the parrot wife.  She may be found on the ‘who’s who’ or the ‘about us’ page under the ‘leadership’ section.  The spiel will probably outline her husband’s leadership role, his favoured football team and his choice of ‘hot wife’.  She will most likely be named as his ‘better half’ and linked, bound, tethered to their ‘beautiful children’.  She is his and her place is with his children.  The photo of parrot wife shows her perched awkwardly on his shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot.  A mate who repeats what it’s told, flaps at points but remains loyal throughout.

Behold the awkward side hug.  Almost conjoined in a lovely side hug – smiles all round – adoring looks galore!

I guess it’s difficult to take a good photo for a church website – I think maybe I have watched too much America’s Top Model and expect Nigel Barker to conjure up some magic thing of beauty – but these photos strike me as indicative of an underlying issue.  Parrot wife and awkward-side-hug are an extension of their husband.  They are not their own person.  They very often don’t get their own write-up on the website beyond their role at home and with children.  They are an appendage. like another tool on a swiss army knife, at their husbands disposal at any given point; preaching, funny one-liner, wife – tools of the trade.   A ‘hot wife’ is part and package of the role of church leader.  In a recent book written about marriage, aimed at Christians, I noted that wives were told their own calling and gifting as people is sacrificed for the furthering of their husband’s calling.  I struggle with this idea – I thought we are personally accountable as well as community responsible.  I don’t believe that marriage requires me to become a parrot, or an awkward-side-hug, but more fully me and my husband more fully him.

I think I’m tired of all this.  Church, for me, is about encouraging people to grow and become more of who God intended them to be.  The Bible seems brimmed full of talk about freedom and liberation from the constraints and ties of sometimes warped human ideals.  I thought faith was about seeing each other as beautiful and limitless because God is beautiful and limitless.  Instead again and again I feel discouraged by the way women are objectified – whether it be through being plastered on the front of ‘FHM’ or being paraded as the pastor’s wife, an accessory rather than a person.  I will not be a parrot wife.

Silencer….

I am a strong advocate of women being able to speak publicly about life, faith, politics, hell anything that isn’t just ‘I don’t know much about the gold standard, but I do know about fluffy kittens’!  So I find it interesting that there still seems to be a lack of women speaking publicly when we are decades past votes for women and the notion that women can have a voice…..well maybe we are still journeying on from votes for women to a place of having a voice.  Still it’s puzzling that women still fail to be much more than tokenly represented in government, as CEOs of businesses and in position of leadership and voice within the Church.  What is the hold-up?  I guess the structural machines of discrimination and prejudice take a while to get their creaky joints working.  And misogyny is still very much at large.  But I wonder what it is that stops women themselves seizing opportunities and running with them.  Sprinting off with them at such a speed that there’s no stopping them?!

I love to talk, I really do.  When I was about 8 I wanted to speak at the Christmas service at church.  I diligently wrote my talk.  I practiced it out-loud to myself underneath my covers before bed (I was a sad child!) ironing out mistakes, carving it with care.  I never did deliver that talk, and have never since.  I still have that burning desire to speak publicly, but I have very few places or contexts to practice.  I’m not sure a dozen drunk young people on a double-decker bus on a Saturday night would appreciate me pontificating on ’empowerment’ or ‘activism’!  So instead I keep my talks to myself in the car as I drive to work, or in my head as a i drift off to sleep.  I wonder whether I am the only one doing this?  Maybe I am odd!  But i think the underlying principle is ‘I want to do this more but I’m not sure how’.  So why am I not sprinting off with opportunities to make my voice heard – well I don’t know how?  How do you go about doing that?  Where are the ‘routes in’ for women to be heard in different forums in life?  I know some must exist, they have to, but how can we ensure these routes are accessible? 

I find it hard to write this because it sounds like I am just shouting ‘I WANT TO SAY SOMETHING’ – which I do – but I also want to hear from others.  I want to enriched by a diversity of sounds, stories, thoughts, ideas – things I agree with, things I don’t.  I feel scared of writing this because it is exposing – I desperately want to play a part in what’s going on around me, and I do in so many ways, but I’m not content.  I want to be heard and I want to hear others.

I think one of the issues is that in the ‘Christian world’ at least, we have a set ‘formula’ for a ‘successful’ talk.  It should be smattered with jokes, funny on-liners, lots of little anecdotes which lead to a crescendo of heart-warming / heart-wrenching (depending on the topic and the event) climax.  I am being particularly facetious today (blame the strawberry laces I’m consuming!), but I wonder if you have some experience of Christian talks whether that description brought a knowing wry smile to your face?  I am not saying having a pattern is bad – heck we have a history of liturgy – but I wonder whether this is a hard formula to just pick-up as a woman.  Not because we are not capable but because we may not have had the contexts in which to practice and hone that formula.  I see some parallels with women comedians who, I think, are sometimes judged more harshly than their male counterparts.  Are women speakers critiqued more harshly than men?  It often seems to me that men are judged individually on merit, and how they sit with regards to this tried and tested pattern – “Oh such and such (insert male Christian speaker’s name) was great today” or “I didn’t enjoy him quite as a much”, where as with women I tend to hear “See women speakers are great just listen to (insert women Christian speaker’s name)” or “See that’s why women shouldn’t speak”.  I guess I am blabbing a bit now and falling very soundly into the anecdotal category – still I wonder if there is any truth to be had here?  How can we ensure there are places for women to practice speaking publicly?

I also wonder whether that formula way of speaking is great for some, in some places, but not for all.  Is there a chance that maybe having more women feeling free and confident to share their voice may bring a point of difference into the melting pot of ideas and theology?  There are so many brilliant women who are raising their voices – let’s have more!

Lastly, I think women stop themselves.  I know there are times when people are looking around saying ‘where can we find a women to talk about this?’ and there is no response.  Why is that?  I think that the image of confident woman is blighted by words like ‘bossy’, ‘up herself”, ‘arrogant’.  I am certainly aware that putting myself forward for anything is risky and again exposing.  It is so much a part of who I am, wrapped up in my own identity, the core of me, that to parade what I believe to be something I can do allows others to knock me down, and I won’t want to get back again.  I am frightened that if I say I want to speak people will say ‘what have you got to say?’, or ‘what could you actually bring?’, or ‘who are you anyway’ or worse, nothing at all.  I am my own worst enemy at times.  I want to stay just behind the starting blocks, watching others, visualising my own race – practicing my talk under the bedcovers at night.

Starbucks and therapy: why women work with girls.

Lately, I have been thinking about some of the work I do with young women and thought I’d share a few things!  This post looks at some of my thoughts with regard to ‘why women choose to work with young women’ and I plan to do a follow-up looking at ‘how we go about work with young women’.  These are my own reflections from practice, they have no empirical evidence and come as the result of sleep deprivation and currently, as I type, red wine!

Anecdotally it appears to me that a growing trend in Christian youth work is single-sex work.  Particularly I have noted the increase in woman who go into youthwork looking to work with young women.  The draw of days on end in Starbucks, solving issues to do with ‘self-esteem’ is massive it seems.  I am not averse to this particular way of working.  I love cafes as much as the next person and see the value in working one-to-one and in small groups looking at issues.  I am concerned however that this trend is indicative of a deficit in the training and development of those going into work with young people (especially women), rather than a deep-seated, planned, needs-led approach to informal education. 

Being involved in delivering youthwork training for a variety of people and groups I’ve noted that very often work with young people attracts those who a)are looking to work out an ongoing issue for themselves vicariously through their work with others b) are looking for a safe place to continue on being an adolescent themselves c) are looking for an excuse to delay meeting the real world.  There are obviously lots of others who are going into youth work to see young people supported to become more, and all that.  And it would be naive to think that nobody goes into working with people to fulfil something in themselves – in fact that can be appropriate if acknowledged and handled in a transparent way.  But my concern is that if those working with young women are looking to solve something in their own lives they could project their own issues onto unsuspecting others. 

It seems to be a thread in conversations I have that many Christian women feel they lack a wealth of female role-models.  Who are the apostolic leaders?  Who are the pioneers?  Who are the really good reflective practitioners?  My concern is that rather than seeing this as a provocation to be those people to succeeding generations, many women going into youth work are looking to fill the need for affirmation, security and worth through some pseudo-therapy in starbucks.  Their meetings with young women are more to do with themselves and their issues than the development of those they meet.  I guess I’m treading a thin line here!  I am not alleging this is what happens in all mentoring sessions.  I am not alleging this is what happens in any one-to-one work, but I guess it could be.  You see sometimes I think we are very quick to ‘buy into’ stuff in Christendom.  We want to be doing the ‘latest’ kind of thing.  We want that funky youth cafe, or that edgy worship event, without necessarily reflecting on the fundamental issue of ‘need’ and the appropriateness of each approach to help facilitate a meeting of that said need.  The ‘coffee shop’ thing is really valuable, but I worry that it may just become the ‘thing to do’ without a reflection on why and how?  Or worse it is something that those going into work with young people need and because they have not had that need met – the need for real relationship; the need for challenge; the need for reflective space – they are seeking to quench that with a saturation of lattes and ‘how do you feel?’ chats. 

I have to declare that all these thoughts are a challenge to me as much as a challenge to others.  I know that I am still a work-in-progress and my own motives and approach need to be reflected upon.  I guess I am just asking whether we need to be doing more as community to try to help people work through things in appropriate spaces, so as to avoid them seeking means that may be inappropriate and damaging.  A 15-year-old can not solve my deep-seated issues about my body –  only I can do that – with the support of God and others around me.  I worry that we are setting up those going into youthwork to fail.  We have been short-changed and now we are seeking to deal with that deficit through our work with vulnerable and impressionable others – treating them almost as vessels to be used to our own means.  I hope I am way off mark with this.  I hope I have just reached the sleep-deprived insanity thing.  I hope the short-changing of generations of women can begin to be addressed in our work with young women.  I hope….

 

No more nails…

I have done quite a lot of work with young women but I have become increasingly distressed by the trend to do ‘pamper sessions’ as a way of single-sex youth work.  I am not saying this kind of work hasn’t been positive for some, but it seems now to have been packaged, branded and accepted as the only way to work successfully with girls.  I am, to be honest, sick of the ‘pappy’ nature of so much of the work with young women I see and hear about.  It is not good enough to just reproduce the same old crap.  It is not good enough to blindly put on the same old things without critique and without any attempt to determine needs, and seek to enable young women to address them. 

It seems ridiculously paradoxical that we do ‘self-esteem’ work whilst surrounded by beauty paraphernalia.  How can we spout a message of ‘self-esteem is not related to how you look’ whilst in the midst of yet another pamper session, manicure night or fashion show?  The words we speak are entirely overridden by the actions we display.  Adolescence is complex enough without introducing these paradoxes.  I know of some work with young women that even advocates and uses the teaching of ‘etiquette and deportment’ in an attempt to help young women feel better about themselves.  My blood is boiling as I type this – what century are we living in?  These techniques smack of one thing to me – ‘wifedom’ and wifedom in the spooky, scary Stepford Wives style.  Producing and reproducing young women who are rigidly robotic in their ability to sit nicely and use the correct knife and fork.  Young women who will make ‘good wives’ – as if this is the only aspiration they could possibly have.  As if, if you look right and act right you will find yourself a good man – or more likely you will be found by a good man, for you can surely only be a passive object, a damsel in distress waiting for a rescuer (who values someone who can walk with a pile of books on their head – rather than ideas in them).

The methodology we adopt in working with young people is, to me, as important as the substance.  I believe we should be fostering  environments where young women are encouraged to think for themselves, to be assertive, to make decisions and to be active rather than passive.  I believe we need to move away from strategies where we do things for and to young women – where we ‘do’ their hair, where we ‘do’ their make-up, where we ‘do’ their nails.  This type of work can only perpetuate this crippling cultural stereotype about female passivity and eventual objectification.  Women can be, and are, complicit in this passivity so much of the time in my experience.  Where are the girls who can stand up for themselves?  Where are the girls who can make a decision?  Work with young men tends to be much more active in its approach – football, outdoor sports, go-karting.  Young men are encouraged to take risks, to be assertive and decisive. 

I am conscious that I have a tendency to over-analyse things(!) but I can’t help but see a link here in the Church.  Woman as passive, as someone’s wife, as someone’s mother, as a someone to be rescued, as someone who looks right and plays her part.  Is work with young women in the Church a mechanism to shape them into the stereotypes we are most comfortable with?  Femininity in a way we feel safe with.  For if women are silent, demure, indecisive and passive, they won’t rock the boat.  They won’t ask questions about inequality, injustice and oppression.  If they’re busy doing their hair, make-up and nails they’ll have no time to lead and speak and step into the fullness of who they are.

I want to smash-up some pamper sessions.  I want to take girls tree-climbing, protest-marching, campaigning.  I want to ditch the ‘nicey-nicey’ stuff and do things that make a difference to others – that for me is what really impacts self-esteem.  If you can help bring positive change for others, it is near impossible to not be changed positively yourself.  Here’s to messiness, hairs out-of-place and no more nails!

Boobs, babies and sexualising role-play….

I have again very much neglected posting here so I’m trying hard to get back into some kind of blogging routine!

Being on maternity leave has given me a lot of time to peruse things on the internet that make me mad!  Here’s one:

An article in the Daily Mail focuses on the outcry that has arisen from the launch of a new doll being marketed for children that allows them to mimic breast-feeding.  There is a certain irony to this online article.  As I scroll down to read it I glance at the side bar which contains picture after picture of women with very little on, or being portrayed in ways I would say play to objectification.  Why is it then, that the thought of a child role-playing and imitating a perfectly natural human function (breast-feeding) is so utterly offensive, but the portrayal of women as little more than walking talking dolls perfectly acceptable?  How did we get to a point where breast-feeding is something to be squeamish about but breasts as provocative sexual objects perfectly normal? 

Why are boobs so offensive when used for feeding a baby?  Heaven forbid I satisfy my baby’s hunger with a breast rather than a bottle.  In a world where the sight of women in very little bombards us, it seems paradoxical that so many people can’t stomach the thought of boobs being used for feeding.  Where music videos shown throughout the day perpetuate this objectification of women – women as sexual objects – boobs are commodities to flaunt and ultimately purchase, the thought of a breast not being used in this context is obviously horrifying. 

I find it galling that the claim against this doll on sale is that it is sexualising children!  How is this sexualising children anymore than giving a pre-pubescent child a doll to play with? – yes a child cannot breast-feed, but a child cannot have a baby!  If a breast-feeding doll is ‘sexualising’, surely any doll is and should therefore be branded ‘totally inappropriate’.  Let’s ban dolls and let’s ban role-playing.  When my four year old daughter pretends to breast feed her doll (complete with the click of re-attaching the nursing bra!) I shall now be forced to reprimand her and condemn myself as if I had purchased her a padded bikini and miniature high-heels.  I shall now be forced to feed Eden in a small dark corner, out -of-sight, in case someone, somewhere catches a glimpse of my powerful sexualising mammary glands.

There is now, it seems, a hysteria around the ‘sexualisation of children’.  With the recent publication of Reg Bailey’s report on just this, and the proposals for tighter legislation and regulation for retailers and advertisers, the issue has taken centre-stage.  Now I am all for seeing less posters of boobs (!), being able to watch music videos with my children in the day and no longer seeing hideous clothing pitched at my daughter.  The reasons though that I find these things offensive are in the words of Symon Hills’ very helpful article for Ekklesia, “…not the sexualisation of childhood, but the commercialisation of sexuality,” (Symon Hill).  I object to women being portrayed as objects – to the dehumanisation of humans.  I object to the fact that my children grow up in a culture that sees sex as commodity and people as part of the package. ( I love Hannah Rudge’s critique for ‘Bitchbuzz’ on this stuff – much more articulate than mine!)

I worry that many Christians will jump on the band-wagon of some moral outrage to protect our children from the ‘big bad world out there’.  I worry that the highlighting of this issue of sexualisation will lead to more unhelpful sexual repression in churches, stifling healthy, whole, human development.  I long to see a world where people are respected as people and not objects, but also a world where sex and sexuality are not things to be sold, but to be celebrated as a part of what it is to be alive.

My boobs, I must declare, are no longer the shape or size they once were.  They would not be suitable to appear on page 3, or on the latest pop video. They are also not commodities to be sold, or objects that sexualise others. They are however beloved by my baby, who is very happy with them! 

Lapdancing church…..

So life is slightly manic at the moment!  However I have found maternity leave a great inspiration for finding things to rant about and now have found 5 minutes to myself (!) to blog about one of them…..the lapdancing church!

In Bournemouth it seems churches are OBSESSED with building projects – I guess this may reflect an ongoing trend elsewhere but I wouldn’t want to speculate!  One of the local congregations looking to expand their empire (I said I was going to rant!) has undertaken a massive development in the heart of the town.  This particular brand of christian denomination does not have an egalitarian theology and I think personally has a sappy complementarian approach that smacks of, at best, patriarchy in disguise and, at worst, blantant misogyny.  Masked behind the ‘we value women BUT’ argument I have struggled to balance their theology with the justice I see advocated by Jesus and his radical treatment of women.  All this aside I was shocked to see the hoardings of this congregations building works.  Granted the building is also going to be student accomodation, but clearly a development by the church (their own signage is on the hoardings), I was amazed to see a poster for a local lapdancing club!

As a signed up, happy-to-shout-it-out, feminist I am not a big fan of lapdancing clubs.  I think they perpetuate the objectification of women, an issue which has far-reaching consequences.  Sex as commodity and women as property to be brought and sold are not what I see as Kingdom values.  Why, oh why, then are this church seemingly, by default (or not,) advertising this kind of  ‘service’ on their development?  Does no-one else see this as an issue?

I have contacted the church to ask them why the advertising appears on their hoardings.  Their response was disappointing claiming the hoardings are owned by an outside company and so, as such, they have no control!  I don’t know that I believe this in all entirity so I am pursing an activist approach and looking to get my own advert on display.  I may go for a poster for Rob Bell’s new book, or maybe one for the local spiritualist church.  I wonder what would move them to action.

Because for me the issue is that they don’t seem to see the issue.  I can’t help but think there may be a bigger reaction to something that they can evidently contradicts their theology, but perhaps their own view of women (submissive / second-class?) is actually inherently linked to their passivity on this problem.  If you hold that a woman is not really a full person, but merely subject of her husband (heaven forbid she is single) then how women are treated is of little importance.  But it is important to me!  What does it say to those in my community?  That the objectification of women is fine by us as christians?  That lapdancing is another consumer product that we as Church will happily endorse? 

So I am really happy for people to join me on my mission to get the church to make the company remove the advert.  The company must have a price – how much will they pay to remove the poster?  How much is the rsepect and dignity of women worth?  How much do we care about modelling a radical, justice fuelled, non-compromising faith over empire building?  Who’s with me?!

Mr Darcy and the Church…..

I am a bit fed up with the ‘feminisation of the church’ argument.  It seems the ‘en vogue’ critique of church – “we’re not fully functional because we’re too feminine……the church needs to ‘man up'”.   I am not saying that the way we do church is not currently alienating men, but it is not just men who feel alienated in the current church culture.  Do we think the church is too feminine because it still seems to perpetuate this passenger culture, where people attend services to be serviced? (much like many christians attitudes to the role of women – to service and to be serviced)  Where passivity and apathy are the norm and the expectation is that leaders, or indeed, everyone else must pander to us.  Maybe the feminisation argument has come about because so many church members seem to be ‘looking for a hero’. 

One of my close friends is helping put on a christian event where the focus very much on ‘who will be the speaker?’ and ‘who will lead the worship?’ – ‘who will be our hero?’.  Like a character from an Austen novel, much of christian culture appears to be searching for an equivalent Mr. Darcy – coming out from the water to sweep us off our feet.  We the passive ‘damsel-in distress’ merely swoon and allow ourselves to be taken along.  We run our events with a focus on who will lead us, who will save us, but when I last checked that role wasn’t vacant.  Christians are romancing each other with flirty events – celebrity christians upheld, I am sure not usually by themselves, as the ‘latest thing’. 

When Nick and I started going out (it was a while ago!) he was put in this kind of hero position by some young people involved in a large local youth event.  In 1999 I am and partly proud (in a jovial way) and partly ashamed to say, my then husband to be, was rumoured to be the ‘christian-to-know’!  It is ludicrous – not that he would be a good person to know, but that people talked about this kind of thing.  This attitude does not seem to have ebbed away – it seems to have got worse and is not limited to youth events.  A couple of years ago at Spring Harvest I witnessed a large group of people following the main celebration event lining up to get a well-known worship leader’s autograph and pose with him for a photo.  I am sure the person in question felt awkward and unsure what to do, but even the fact that those queuing thought it a perfectly normal thing to do speaks volumes.  To me it is indicative of this celebrity obsessed culture we have formed. 

Christianity, I thought, was transformative and at times absolutely counter-culture.  Instead we are in a place where the end of a christian event could easily be the aftermath of an ‘X Factor’ tour.  To me this is a danger far greater than ‘feminisation’.  It is viral, contagious and crippling.  It may mean many gifted people neglect their gifting because they don’t feel as good as the endorsed celebrity.  It may mean we continue to see the same faces and same people upheld as leaders and rescuers.  It may be we take our eyes off the transformative message of Jesus and instead peddle a pappy, glossy, ‘hello magazine’ equivalent.  In my experience the most challenging and Jesus-like people are those on the edge, quietly going about what they are called to do.  They are out of the spotlight, not coming out of the water to dazzle others Darcy-style, but still taking the plunge and swimming in the midst of what it is to be human.