Guest written by Laura Taylor from the The Oh Nine.
SAFE, BUT NOT COMFORTABLE PART 1: FLAT-LADDER LIVING
“Imagine if church became a place where everyone is safe, but nobody is comfortable”
- Rachel Held Evans
If you haven't caught on already - this series was all about who is welcome at the table (spoiler, its everyone). In the opening post, we discussed this idea of uncomfortable, diverse community, and continuing in theme, this instalment is around the concept of ‘flat-ladder living’. This idea that we are called to be a community that does not operate within social constructs and divisions, but instead an even-keeled playing field, with no boundaries to entry or rungs to climb. I think it is summed up beautifully in this quote from Searching for Sunday ”our differences matter, but ultimately, the boundaries we build between one another are but accidental fences in the endless continuum of God’s grace”.
Despite best intentions - the church is a loaded space for many. We would be ignorant to brush over the hurts that historically and presently push people away, and more painfully that have been used globally by the church to keep people out. As much as we would like to think the ladder is flattened - there are rungs, barriers and assumptions that really nothing but the lived experience, and being open to listening to that, can teach us.
Take, for example, the role of women in the church. Amanda Pilbrow is a member of the Central Vineyard community, who for years served in church ministry. I asked her to share candidly some of her experience in leadership; “To be completely honest, the only people who know how difficult is to be a woman in ministry are the women themselves – they are the ones in the ring fighting to be there and yet getting the abuse from the spectators…. when the issue is raised, many are taken aback - disbelieving that ‘women in ministry’ is still an issue, assuming that those in the ring (so to speak) are being over sensitive or forgetful of just ‘how far’ the church has progressed. But the proof sadly is in the pudding. Just last week I heard of another young lady, theologically trained, presenting her very first, and apparently brilliant sermon. Afterwards, when the coast was clear, a man handed her a folded piece of paper and left. It read: “A woman’s place is not to teach – God will not bless you or this church if you continue.”
If you are reading this contemplating whether or not this is still an issue faced by women, it only takes watching this video to see how deeply ingrained sexism and prejudice is within the church system - despite the fact that methodist churches have been endorsing females in leadership for five decades. And it sits across a spectrum. In my own life there are the less-harmful and now kind of funny stories, like when I was called up by a well-meaning older lady on how I dressed when I sung on the worship team. I was told that jeans weren’t appropriate...but neither was anything on or above my knee. I went to Glassons searching for what I could only describe as an Gloriavale-esque skirt and came up short, ironically. And then there are the slightly more sinister ones, like when I was 14 and IM’d on MSN - the OG messenger - by an older male member of the worship team two decades my senior, who told me he had a thing for blondes. No matter where they sit on the spectrum, every block, barrier and uphill battle desecrates a space that should be safe, but at times can resemble a warzone.
And there are other rungs or perceived barriers of other natures too. I was chatting recently to a friend about the concept of ‘visible sin’ - the kind that is public knowledge and the visceral reaction that comes with ‘wearing’ it. She shared with me her experience as a young adult going through a divorce, within her own church community. “I don’t know If I ever felt unsafe in church, just lonely. There were some kind people who came and talked to me, but most seemed to feel too uncomfortable around me. I had a few close friends that did an amazing job of walking alongside me in this difficult journey. However some did the exact opposite. Everyone in the church community was so for my marriage to work, that they forgot to be there for me. It’s almost as if people felt if they sat with me, listened, prayed and showed love towards what I was experiencing, that it meant they agreed with my decision to divorce, and therefore they were tied to my sin. Unfortunately in my experience, some people can pass a lot of judgement and more importantly - don’t know how to journey with you.”
Journeying in the depths with and alongside the ‘other’ is not an original idea. In Corinthians - Paul instructs that “there is to be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another”. He was calling the early church into a way of living where all members were one body, when one suffered they all suffered and they could no longer show preference or selectivity for who they cared for. What would it look like if we were a community to live without division as Paul suggests? How do we champion, encourage and enable flat-ladder living? I’ll go out on a limb and say that the first baby step is being unafraid of doing a Jesus and meeting at the well, at the lake, at the dinner party. Entering in and holding space with our community.
I mentioned in the last post our multi-generational home group, and I will never forget when one of our members came along and hesitantly shared something they hadn’t been able to anywhere else, fearful of judgment. And for a brief second, I looked around the room hesitant to see the reaction. But all I saw were tears in everyone’s eyes of pride and compassion as we sat on the floor next to them, hugging and gathering around to pray. That kind of deep, unconditional love doesn’t just happen. We put effort into building and creating a space that was safe, in all senses of the word. Safe to share, safe to step up, safe to fail. It takes travelling together, and nurturing a deep love for the other - and in moments like that, when you are part of a journey, it is unbelievably worth it.
In the video mentioned above, a group of male pastors are left in a state of shock over the comments that have been said to their female colleagues. Some are despondent, some are fired up, some are speechless. I am hoping, (team relentlessly positive over here) that none of them went home from filming that day and walked back into their lives passively. As we have seen recently with the Me-Too movement, silence is a much an oppressor as any. Silence creates divides, it negates the need for challenge, it provides a breeding ground for self-doubt and loneliness. So for the conflict averse (guilty) I’m sorry to say it but we are also challenged to speak up when we see a barrier go up. After all - Paul calls us not only to love, but to challenge the powers and structures that cause suffering and dissention.
And finally, we need to become a community that is unafraid to hold the tension of differing ideas and opinions. As Alice Miller describes in one of her studies: “It’s not only the ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’ feelings that make us really alive, deepen our existence and give us crucial insight, but often precisely the ones from which we would prefer to escape. Helplessness, shame, envy, rage, grief, confusion - when these feelings are understood they open the door for our inner world that is much richer than ‘beautiful countenance’.
After all, none of us are wholly one thing. I love in the Ragamuffin Gospel when Brendon Manning discusses being a bundle of paradoxes, a fully human being who all at one time has the capacity to hope, doubt, hate, love, feel bad about feeling good. So If you are reading this, and you were brought up being told every Sunday that women can’t speak in church and you are struggling to see where this article coming from - that is ok. Please, don’t grapple alone in silence. We tautoko you to reach out and graciously say - “I just don’t understand, but I’m open to talking”. We need to commit to creating a table where these ideas can be discussed, debated and held, and where shame isn’t a factor, where everyone is safe, but not comfortable.