Within a month of my ordination, in 1996, I went to the Denominational Consultation, which was a great time of creative talking and dreaming about the future shape of our Baptist Union, when all things seemed possible. Amongst many strands of debate was a desire for all aspects of Union life to be more inclusive of women and other minorities. At the time there was a (poor) joke that the women members of Baptist Union Council could all fit into the ladies’ loo at The Hayes. A recommendation was made that Council seek to reform itself, but it soon became clear that would be neither easy nor welcome by all. I well remember my frustration as the debate went on!
But Council agreed to set up the Women’s Issues Working Group (WIWG), with me as its first Convenor (1997-2000). We were a group of lay and ordained women and men, reporting to Council via the Finance and General Purposes Executive. This, at the end of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, and working in parallel with the BU Task Group on Women and Violence, and also coinciding with the end of the BU Women’s Mission Network, gave us a huge agenda. Our brief was ‘to look at every aspect of the life of the Union, with a view to promoting the gifts and ministries of women’. That is what we set out to do, by various means: we called on every committee and group in the Union to become more inclusive; we read the council documents ahead of the meetings and then tabled questions; we challenged, we niggled, we persisted, we wrote papers, we made representations everywhere we could think of. I still have a box file full of minutes, papers, and letters written to The Baptist Times, the General Secretary, the Head of Ministry Department and others. Looking back, I’d forgotten how much of a battle it was. It was costly, and it was hard work! I hadn’t realised it would feel like trying to turn round the tanker of accepted norms, theological intransigency and almost total cultural and linguistic maleness. Naively perhaps, I did not expect such strong resistance – it was far more confrontational than it need have been! Why did many men and some women feel threatened?
In time the WIWG became the Women’s Justice Group, and the next big debate in Council was in 2010, with another significant report on Women in Leadership. Meanwhile there were more women in prominent roles, as college tutors and Co-Principal, and as Regional Ministers, and on Council, including as moderator. There are also more women in pastoral charge and in training at Baptist colleges. A major survey of Assembly also revealed a move towards more women as key speakers, and in other ‘at the front’ roles. Had things changed sufficiently by 2010 to pave the way for the first woman as General Secretary?
Now, from the ‘green pastures’ of retirement, I conclude that things might be better than in 1996; there is thankfully more awareness of all forms of exclusion and under-representation, but compared with other denominations, there still seems a long way to go both in numbers of women in leadership and in their acceptance as equals. I am saddened to read of the same struggles by women as 20 years ago. On the UK Women in Baptist Ministry Facebook page, the same questions are often asked, the same issues regarding settlement, status, title, dress, how to deal with male attitudes, the same tired worn-out theological arguments.
I stood down from WIWG (but not from Council) because I’d had enough of being defined as a woman minister; I just wanted to get on with doing the job of fulfilling my calling. If God was OK with that, I didn’t see why anyone else should object, and if they did it was their problem, not mine. So no more Rev Mrs, just let me be Rev Jenny please. Let me be ‘gloriously myself’, with no apology for how I dress or what earrings I wear, or anything else which is totally irrelevant to the amazing reality of being called by God to be a Baptist minister.
Jenny was minister of Attlebrough Baptist Church, Nuneaton
(1996-2005), and Robert Hall Memorial Baptist Church, Leicester