Lazarus come out! Reflections from the Gender Diversity Leadership Conference

Ric Stott's paintings for the Conference
Conference participants
Conference participants

Reflections from our Gender Diversity and Leadership Conference, hosted by the Susanna Wesley Foundation and held at Southlands College, University of Roehampton from 18th-19th June 2015.

Reflector: Elena Greer

A man struggling with his own body as though with a burial shroud, determinedly wrestling against himself, a blur of limbs in an ordinary room beside a partially open door. This ‘wrestling, exposing and struggling with identity… this was the process of becoming’, explained Methodist minister Ric Stott standing in front of his painting entitled, ‘Lazarus Come Out!’.

Stott’s revelation of his identity as a gay man and Methodist minister occurred when he dared to open that door.  The vigorous painting is a reflection of the ensuing internal battles that he honestly and openly described to the delegates of the Susanna Wesley Foundation’s two-day conference on the theme(s) of gender diversity and leadership.  The theme of internal struggles was just as prevalent at the conference as external and structural challenges and the event was notable for the candour of those who added their personal histories to the academic and scholarly presentations.  These served as a compelling reminder that while the problems of ‘managing diversity’ can be addressed from an organisational perspective, the issue is rendered more complex by the social and cultural mores in to which we are socialised and exposed in all areas of life.

Kate Coleman’s opening address highlighted this complexity when she spoke about not only the challenges she faced from individuals and Church structures but also her own ingrained and gendered attitudes about the roles of men and women as a recent convert and young woman discovering her call to both the Church and leadership.  Her personal testimony highlighted the discrimination that she faced but also how these led to a deeper exploration of diversity within the Bible, theology and her faith, which ultimately allowed her, and, in time, others, to accept and embrace the unique qualities embodied in her, often controversial, identity.

Sharon Mavin’s entertaining and thought provoking contribution presented the view from the world of business, and complemented Kate’s talk by showing the ubiquity of gendered social conditioning in the way it affects our attitudes to others and ourselves.  Through the use of examples from social and print media and advertising Mavin lucidly illustrated her point that such media undoubtedly influence both perceptions about the role and relative status of women and practical issues such as the abiding pay gap.  The talk also introduced a key duality that was to permeate the conference, namely the notion of binary gendered qualities and leadership styles- a concept that was both utilised as a theoretical concept to aid interpretation of sex discrimination and challenged by delegates and speakers alike. Women, for example, often suffer if they are thought to have ‘masculine’ or ‘agentic’ leadership styles.

Tina Beattie’s sacramentally-based argument from a Roman Catholic perspective picked up this duality referring to the direct and forceful ‘masculine’ potestas and charismatic and indirect ‘feminine’ potentia but subsequently challenged this strict division by pointing out that the incarnate Christ embodied both the masculine and feminine experience through conception and birth and the violence of torture and death.  She also noted the dangers and flaws of theological and organisational models that represented either form to excess.  Through an exegesis of images of the Incarnation and Passion and the manner in which such imagery has responded to contemporary Church needs, Beattie ended by asserting that a modern, functional and relevant vision of the Incarnation through image and ministry should address immediate contemporary social and environmental concerns and thus render the matter of gender redundant.

Beattie’s assertion that the leadership of women in the form of their ordination to the priesthood and episcopate in the Church of England paralleled the decline of the ecclesiastical influence within the Establishment resonated with delegates and was reflected in Anthony Thorpe’s presentation of research into the position of women in leadership within education.  Questioning the meaning of ‘leadership’ within the education sphere, Thorpe noted that men tended to dominate positions that required traditional leadership outcomes such as financial investment management while women were charged with leadership in more minor (and cheaper) roles such as dealing with staff and pupils.  He noted that where government funding was key, such as in Academies, men far outweighed women in leadership positions.  Thorpe noted that many of the issues that women in education faced were similar to those faced by women in the Church and his scepticism about the nature of leadership in education reflected the nuanced discussion of the nature of Church leadership that weaved a discursive thread throughout the conference.

The contextualising of issues within the secular sphere was complemented by Anne-marie Greene’s exposition of the issues that underpinned the shift from equal opportunities legislation to ‘diversity management’ within the Human Resources field and the ideals, benefits and challenges of such an approach.  The particular relevance of this contribution to the Church context was that she stressed that the cultural change implied by a diversity management policy would only be effective if understood and embraced at the ‘coalface’.

Margaret Jones, Janice Price and Siôn Rhys Evans represented the view from within the Methodist Church, the Church of England and the Church in Wales respectively and their papers addressed historical and contemporary issues of diversity.  Jones’s presentation emphasised the shifting role of women within Methodism and stressed the importance of contemporary events and Church priorities to this ambiguity, lending the history of women’s involvement a serendipitous and non-rational narrative, one that had responded to contemporary needs and priorities rather than one that was structurally imposed.  Janice Price’s paper highlighted the limitations of official organisational changes noting that the situation in the Church of England, despite the ordination of women, remained unsatisfactory.  Indeed, the Church maintained, ‘an institutional ambivalence to women and their ministry’ represented by the passing of the Act of Synod.  Siôn Rhys Evans’ contribution suggested that in the Church in Wales necessary organisational and institutional change would facilitate a multi-gendered style of leadership that would require traits and qualities that had been described during the conference as culturally and socially feminine or masculine.  As Greene, noted, organisational changes could only be effective if accompanied by a cultural shift.

Anne-marie Greene’s second contribution to the conference showcased empirical research that she undertook on female ministers in the Methodist Church and the Church of England.  Complementing Hamish Leese’s presentation of statistical data relating to male and female representation in Methodist ministry and leadership which highlighted the bias towards men, Greene used Peyton and Gatrell’s theoretical framework of the ‘sacrificial embrace’ in order to interpret her subjects’ responses and understand their continuation within ministry despite both the discrimination they faced and the difficulties involved in managing work-life balance.  The research revealed that a lack of legal employment rights and gendered notions of the nature of senior leadership positions renders clergywomen limited in their ability to challenge unequal treatment and to develop as leaders. Simonetta Calderini’s talk on the subject of women as Imams highlighted a similar contradiction in Islam, namely that most Islamic legal traditions allowed women to lead prayer in theory, but that the practice and even the presence of female worshippers in the mosque was riddled with both logistical difficulties and cultural barriers.

Concluding discussion brought up a number of diverse thoughts and ideas including Luke Curran’s contribution that worldwide cultural attitudes needed to be examined in order to understand how we interpret historical and contemporary events.  Olufemi Cole-Nije also referred to the cultural benefits of returning to a pre-colonial African attitude in order to reverse patriarchal constraints, reminding delegates of the broader historical narrative within which the conversation was taking place.  Joanne Darling-Cox’s contribution returned to the issue of ethnicity and the fluidity of identity within different contexts

The papers highlighted the structural, cultural, social and personal elements of the challenges and possible solutions to problems of diversity, inclusivity and leadership and the abiding message was one of complexity, nuance and sensitivity.  The many strands, threads and themes that developed from the papers and in lively and informed discussion combined with the challenges of the unique religious context proved that the battle would not be easily fought or won but that like Lazarus in Stott’s painting, the effort would be vigorous and determined.