Marking The Path

The Ramblings of a Professional Student…

Sister, Where Art Thou?

June 6, 2012 by gretacornish · 9 Comments · Uncategorized

The following post is written in response to Rachel Held Evan’s blog, which is running a themed week, entitled ‘A Week of Mutuality’. It is hoped that this post will contribute to the ongoing discussion regarding how genders should relate in a Christian context.

When I was eight years old, I had the most unusual conversation with my father. At some point that day, I realised that I was the eldest of two girls and that my father was the only son to his parents. My young mind wondered, with deep concern, what might happen to the good name of Cornish once my sister and I were married off.

Sharing this thought with my dad, I confidently announced the obvious solution: for the sake of the family name, I wouldn’t get married – but I would have a child, so they could have the surname of Cornish and keep the lineage going. My dad burst out laughing and complimented me on my creative thinking. Of course, he didn’t take me seriously, being only eight years of age – but he at least had the ability to recognise that I was trying to think outside the box. A commendable achievement in his eyes.

See, I grew up in a loving, but non-religious household. It was a typical nuclear family with a working father and housewife mother. In many situations like this, there can be an unconscious gender socialisation that takes place – and of course, I underwent this, like any normal kid growing up in the 90s.

However, I never once felt as though I was limited on account of my gender. I grew up cooking, sewing, skateboarding and go-cart making. I played soccer and netball. I danced and swam. My parents bought me Barbies and Lego and took me camping, fishing and surfing. I was a veracious reader because my parents facilitated a love of learning from an early age, no matter the interest – even if it extended to dinosaurs or astronomy, or geology. When I announced my plans to be an architect in the fourth grade, my parents obediently complimented me on my roughly drawn plans for a new resort, or old folks home.

Yes, I was that weird kid that sat in the library at lunch time.

When I was 13, an interesting thing happened. I started attending a youth group with some friends – and as a result, ended up following Christ and regularly attending my local Church of Christ, where I am still am, 13 years later. My youth pastor was a female and I never once sensed that she was somehow inferior to the male leaders around her. At church, gender was never a conscious issue – at least, not to me. I was encouraged according to my gifts and found a safe environment to simply be who I was.

As a result of this, when I was 16, I felt the distinct urge to go to Bible College and to perhaps write and teach in that area – something that my parents were strangely supportive of (in my father’s rough words, “as long as you can prove that you can get a job out of it, I’m OK with it”).

A long and eventful story followed this urge. After a false start and some advice, I realised that a secular education might actually be a good foundation and ended up studying media, communications and journalism at university as a ‘preparation’ for college – but not until I had completed a one-year detour through an architecture program.

Towards the end of my journalism course, I decided to audit two subjects at a local Bible College to test out the possibility of going into an MA in Biblical Studies. Life changing. A feeling of settling. Conviction. Excitement.

But also a slight feeling of confusion and unease. You see, all the lecturers at college were middle aged… and male. Although they were verbally encouraging of my potential postgrad endeavours, I felt oddly alone. Where were the women?

For the first time in my entire life, I felt like maybe I wasn’t cut out for a career in biblical academia. As a woman in her early twenties with a distinct sense of calling, I had no precedent to go by – the leaders at my church barely finished their undergrad studies! It was terrifying to have no model to demonstrate what it meant to be a woman and someone actively engaged in academia. I had heard that some Christians didn’t like the idea of women who taught. Had I sensed wrongly?

Questions started to flood through my head: would I have to become a ‘ball-buster’ to survive in this culture? Would I have to sacrifice my easy-going, feminine personality to operate in this realm? Would I even be welcome? Or, even worse, would I be ignored or treated like a novelty, not to be taken seriously?

So, I walked into the open day at the AOG college where I now teach with a feeling of trepidation. To my relief, I met Dr Jacqueline Grey, a model of what it means to be a serious academic without sacrificing genuine femininity – and as she explained the MA course to me, for the first time, I realised that maybe I could do this after all.

In the following years, this was confirmed over and over again. I witnessed powerful, but confident, genuinely feminine women teaching with the same authority as men and engaging their students – shaping their worldviews and bringing out a thirst for God and ministry. Such observances were enough to make me believe that I could apply when a junior academic position opened up at the start of 2009. Six months later, marking reports, I had a moment where I realised I was doing what I felt called to do at 16. And I smiled. I still smile.

Yet, part of me wonders how many 16-year-old women are in complementarian congregations, with a deep burning to learn and teach – but have been told that they don’t have the authority to.

My family are still non-religious – but there’s no doubt that they’re proud of me and believe I can do what I feel I’m lead into. Despite the fact they don’t understand exactly what it is I teach, they believe that what I do is important – and helpful to the faith community I’m engaging with.

Like my colleagues, they don’t believe that my contribution is stepping out of an intended role, or detrimental due to my ‘lack of a male member’ – and if I may say so, the self-confidence that comes from engaging in something one feels called to is perhaps witness in itself to the crazy notion that God calls according to gifting, not gender.

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Ariel Tate

    Awesome blog Greta! And to think that I was at that orientation day but had no idea how significant it was for you! Excited to see where God takes you in the future, and with all that you achieve in academia :)

  • Anna Deevy

    I love how you write Greta! Such a good post. Love it.. & Love having your example .

  • Lyn Cavey

    This was so interesting, Greta. You know, your Dad and I had 5 male cousins on the Cornish side and I believe some have sons – to carry on the Cornish name. (And, not forgetting the girls, 5 female cousins also on Dad’s side).
    (On Mum’s side [McGuire] – there were 4 boy and 3 girl cousins.)

  • Rachel Collis

    You truly are an amazing writer! Always enjoy every word!

  • Eva

    Hey Greta,
    Interesting blog, although I disagree with your suggestion that the basic church is a gender-friendly environment. If you consider where we went to church, the vast majority of women involved in the highest leadership were some other leader’s wife and they were in either an admin position, or a ‘chic’s job’ kind of position. How many male worship leaders were there, and how many women on backup singing? Considering there were more female singers, surely there should have been at least an equal amount of female leaders?
    Furthermore, while it was considered normal for women to go and seek counsel from male leaders in a one-on-one situation, how often would it be the case that a male went and sought counsel from a female leader? These are the types of behaviours you need to consider when assessing gender-friendliness, because I definitely saw that certain behaviours were encouraged based on gender (and marital status for that matter)
    I think it’s great you’re being a trailblazer and I hope you have many heated debates with all your colleagues as you open your can of whoop ass, and show women that their path is not defined by their gender.

  • gretacornish

    Eva – I definitely agree with your observations. Well noted and thanks for pulling me up on that. I really should have specified within my post that it was as a teenager that these gender differences didn’t seem that obvious to me – call it a combination of teenage ignorance and naivety. Probably a lack of understanding how leadership structures worked within the church…
    It’s interesting to note that even in denominations where women are endorsed to be ordained to the highest office of the church, there is still a vast under-representation. From my experience of working at college, pastoring and church leadership can definitely gain a kind of “men’s club” mentality at times, which makes it hard for women to identify. Although I deplore the explicit exclusion of women from leadership in more conservative denominations, part of me wonders if they are in effect simply exercising openly what all other denominations are practicing covertly. And how much is this linked to an under-representation of women in significant institutional roles in wider society (though the church is one of the worst offenders)? Thoughts?

  • Eva

    Well it’s interesting to consider if it’s a matter of society imitating church, or church imitating society. The Bible is very weak on examples of God empowering women to lead, for every how many hundred men mentioned in the Bible is there a woman? How does this impact, like you say, a woman’s ability to identify with God and leadership? And for men to identify women as leaders and authority figures? Do we just take this idea that it’s an anomaly for women to lead, so while maybe we accept it, we don’t expect it?

    Since the Bible has significantly shaped culture, I think it has a lot to say for the under-representation of women in leadership in the church, and wider community, but gender discrimination isn’t limited to the religions that use the God of Abraham (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) so it can’t cop all the blame.

    Personally, I don’t feel the Bible is a suitable source for shaping a healthy feminine identity. While it throws a bone to women every now and then, the gender-imbalance is huge, and since we have relied on the Bible for so long, how can we be suprised when our lives today reflect that?

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