Whilst much of the world might be completely oblivious to the debate, many corners of the church community have spent the last couple of weeks arguing about whether their ministers should broadcast online services from their church buildings or from their homes. Critics of kitchen table broadcasts claim that this move has supressed the church to the domestic where, they say, it will surely wither and die. Regardless of where you stand on the church vs home spectrum, this suggestion that a domestic setting for worship is in some way missiologically dangerous should concern and anger the feminist theologian in equal measure. The domestic (the home setting) is intrinsically, for better or worse, associated with the female; traditionally a place where women work, rest, centre family life and, sometimes, the only place they have been allowed to lead or exercise agency. When we suggest that church in the domestic is somehow lesser, we have to ask ourselves whether that judgement comes from a place of thinking that the domain of women, or a space that is normally feminized, is somehow lesser; subordinate, inferior.
Is it that the patriarchy, and the men oppressed by it, feel less in control or less able to dominate in a domestic sphere? Is it a place where they feel threatened by women, especially if they are of an ideological persuasion that has spent a long time saying that a woman’s place is at home, not in church/in the boardroom/in politics etc? Now they are confined, for work and for worship, in a place they have demeaned and belittled. Of course, places for the marginalised and oppressed are exactly where Jesus is, whether lockdown is in place or not, and the places forgotten by empire and power are the places remembered by God. This is only one dimension to the “church or home” debate and it doesn’t automatically mean the answer is always “home;” (there are good reasons for arguing “church”) but it is a very important facet of the discussion that we must engage with, and we must interrogate the motivations of those who claim services filmed in the vicarage, or the rectory, or the manse, are somehow an oppression of faith or a removal of it to the private sphere. Are they actually offended by the moving of religious ritual to a female space?
Amongst all of this, I am reminded how, in the history of the church, it has often been women at the forefront of finding creative solutions when the usual avenues of faith expression haven’t been available. It is women who, excluded from religious leadership for centuries, found innovative ways to preach and teach (Catherine of Siena, Anne Askew, Phillis Wheatley to name three) and exercise their ministries. It is women, unable to preach in pulpits, who met in homes to discuss Scripture together, preached on the street and were arrested and tortured, and wrote letters and books full of incendiary ideas and radical thought to challenge the status quo. It is in their wake that we find ways to do church online, study the Bible over Zoom and reignite our prayer lives in the quiet of bedrooms and shared houses. It is women of Scripture who taught the first disciples how to be faithful in times that felt hopeless; staying by the cross and turning up at the tomb. It is their example we can call on now to give us the strength to stay faithful in times that might also feel hopeless.
There’s lots more to be said about how feminist theology might interpret the moment we find ourselves in, particularly about how care for the sick has also been traditionally a role for women and how we have been poor at celebrating that in the past. The most important thing is that in the midst of something which, despite media rhetoric, disproportionately impacts marginalised communities, we must engage robustly with theologies that amplify those voices; theologies of the LGBTQ+ community for example, of people of colour, feminist theologies and theologies of disability, so that dominant voices don’t govern the narrative of how to respond to a pandemic, but are forced to consider the experiences and knowledge of the oppressed.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…” Luke 1:52
Written by Jessica Dalton. Jessica is a member of SCM. She is also a doctoral student at the University of Roehampton, and a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church.