Jamys Carter – a PhD student associated with the Centre for Religion and Public Life – writes about the picture he submitted to the University of Leeds’ “Postgraduate Research Image of the Year” competition, which captures his research about the question of women in ministry in a British Pentecostal church.
By Jamys Carter
Sometimes people wonder why I started researching a feminist subject, and why after fifteen years of pastoral ministry I would take a break from that to undertake a full time postgraduate research degree for three years. The answer to these questions is varied, but some of it lies captured in this recent image I took in response to the University of Leeds’ “Postgraduate Research Image of the Year” competition. As a ‘hobbying’ photographer I thought this competition would be a good challenge, and a reason to try out my three flashes and remote controls! The first problem was that I needed an appropriate venue, some thing identifiable as a church building. A year ago I could have used my own, but now I am involved in a church-plant in a sports hall (not the image I was after for this shot). A fellow minister gave me the keys to his venue, which overcame my first hurdle. The second hurdle was more technical, and I won’t bore you with the details, but I needed to remind myself how to use my equipment. Trial and error, and a light-meter, and I was good to go. The shoot itself took more than an hour, although my willing female preacher only needed to pose for about five minutes. The rest was all me, resulting in a slightly surreal image (but saved on consent forms and lots of waiting around). Lighting-rigs repositioned, slogans altered, clothes changed, and a while later I had many photos to work with. The longest part of the process was to come. This is the zoomed-in pixel by pixel editing required to layer one image over another. There may have been a better way, but with no green-screen big enough I was left with this painstaking process. However, I was pleased with the outcome, and the photo has been sent to the competition (please vote for it at the Leeds Doctoral College Showcase on the 4th December at the Great Hall and U.G 09 before 13.30 – only if you like it though).
The image caricatures the mix of opinions about women in ministry that I have experienced and heard about when the surface is scratched in Pentecostal churches. I am sure this is not limited to Pentecostals, but that is my area of research and experience. My MA by Research found that women ministers had all experienced some negative views about their ministry simply because of their gender. The opposition generally took a few arguments, based on their interpretation of the Bible, as captured in this photograph (“Leadership is male” or “Women should be silent”). The women ministers I talked to had been robust enough to find a way to minister, which for some meant moving to another church, or for others became a protracted disagreement at the local church leadership level. These oppositional voices almost clipped the wings of these women before they could obey the perceived call of God on their lives. Only God knows how many women have had their wings clipped and have not been able to find a way to minister because of such voices.
The oppositional voices are represented in the image ‘robustly’ shouting down the sound of the woman preacher. As I said earlier, this is a caricature and I have never actually heard of that kind of behaviour in a church service. But I know of people who have walked out, won’t turn up, or sit with a stony expression and folded arms if a woman takes the platform. It may just be one person in a congregation, it may be more, but that kind of response can spread. There is an uncomfortable atmosphere when someone expresses their disapproval, and those around them can feel the vibe and be discouraged. It is worse for the woman preacher. She has to face the disapproval, she sees the expression and body language; as a preacher I know that one person who looks at you like that can seriously outweigh all the positive expressions in the rest of the congregation, it takes courage to carry on.
Despite the spotlight on the oppositional voices, the encouragers also have a spotlight. They can lift the preacher, they can keep them going, they provide a balance to the ‘other side’. Of course, this is hugely significant for the woman preacher who needs to know that people are with her and for her. My research demonstrated that the women ministers would reflect back on one or more voices that brought the encouragement for them to find a way to minister.
But then there is the congregation. The message is for them, as Jesus said “he who has ears, let him hear”. The problem, as depicted in the image, is that the congregation is rather in the shadows. Whether they look disengaged, or straining to hear, the spotlight remains on those who are either denouncing or encouraging the woman preacher. The clamour of voices can drown out the good news of Jesus. The woman preacher wants to preach the good news, but is faced with an issue that first has to be dealt with: is it God’s will for a woman to minister? Until the grassroots of the local church has answered that, then the women in that church may not fulfil their God-given potential.
Why did I start this line of research? I had the audacity to address this issue in my local church. Some people walked, some people crossed their arms and stared at me, but I carried on. Of course I hope and pray that the church in question will continue in the liberty I fought for; but my calling from God expanded beyond that one congregation. So here I am, with God’s grace, wanting to quiet the storm, wanting to quell the clamour.
About the author
Jamys Carter is a PhD student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds and an ordained minister in the Elim Pentecostal Church.